The month of fasting or sawm begins for 1.8 billion Muslims around the world and more than 2 million faithful in Spain. At an exceptional time of health emergency, the Islamic community in our country is committed to a balance between religious freedom and COVID-19 restrictions.
It will not be an easy month for Muslims. After overcoming Ramadan last year in full confinement, this 2021 restrictions will continue to alter a celebration whose main essence is sharing. Beyond not eating, drinking, smoking or having sex during the daytime fast, Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam whose aim is to purify the spirit.
In what will be its second Ramadan in times of pandemic, the Muslim community calls for responsibility and good deeds. The main problem is that both the first prayer of the day and the last prayer coincide in some communities with the night curfew. This incompatibility opens up a range of doubts in the Muslim community.
Last year we were in the midst of house confinement and places of worship were completely closed. In 2020, the Muslim community in our country fervently requested the faithful to respect - without exception - the confinement decreed by the government. These were reasons of force majeure. But now, from the Spanish Federation of Islamic Religious Entities (Feeri), they understand that the situation has changed.
The Spanish Federation of Islamic Religious Entities, in contact these days with the governments of the autonomous communities, has unsuccessfully asked them to relax the curfew during their holy month. In a communiqué they ask for "understanding, collaboration and sensitivity - above all - in these difficult times".
Feeri alleges that the night curfew schedules in some communities are not compatible with the first prayer (Fasr) at dawn or the last prayers of the day. Another obstacle to Ramadan is mobility restrictions. It is true that the Sharia does not require that prayers be collective, but it does suggest that on Fridays - and especially during Ramadan - they pray in a mosque and listen to the imam's sermon as a group. Hence Feeri's request that, for religious reasons, travel to coincide with prayer should be permitted.
The Spanish Federation of Islamic Entities supports their arguments in the exercise of freedom of religion and worship, a right guaranteed by the Spanish Constitution, the United Nations and the rest of European institutions. And they also ask in a statement that "the administrations should provide all the necessary means so that the Muslim community can observe Ramadan 2021 in the best conditions". In short, they want "the same exemptions as those who work at night, whose travel does not have to affect public safety or endanger others".
The Watani Association - which brings together the Muslim community of Lleida - formally requested the city council to allow them to skip the curfew during the 30 days of fasting: "Tarawih is the most important prayer of the day and can be extended until after midnight", recalls Mourat El Boudouhi, spokesperson for the association. There are four mosques in Lleida, which offer shelter to some 5,000 inhabitants who profess the Muslim religion. They propose a kind of safe conduct for prayer.
When asked about this issue, the president of the Ibn Battuta Foundation opted for coherence and moderation. Mohamed Chaib calls for responsibility and prudence among Muslims in Spain because we are in an exceptional moment that requires exceptional solutions. He acknowledges that we would all like to "do things as they were before the pandemic, but we must face the moment we are in with responsibility". He does not believe that the curfew should be relaxed only for Muslims, but that the communities and the Spanish government should protect religious freedom in general and offer this possibility to all religions without taking unnecessary risks. It is a question of rising to the occasion.
The time to break the fast is called iftar. The tables are filled with dates and water, just as the Prophet Mohammed is believed to have done. Then they pray and dine. For this reason, the president of the Ibn Battuta Foundation encourages the faithful to perform the last prayers of the day in the privacy of their homes, with their closest loved ones, to avoid contagion. "We all know that the breaking of the fast is done in the family, and that is why we recommend that it is shared this year only with those living together and not with other family members or friends," Chaib adds.
Temples in Spain will be open during the day with capacity restrictions. Many Muslims are coming these days to ask about Ramadan at the famous mosque on the M30 (Madrid). One of them is Samira, a Moroccan mother of 7 children and 10 grandchildren, who arrives with many questions and leaves with few answers. Without letting go of the Koran, Samira explains that she and her family are well aware that they must not let their guard down. Out of "prudence and responsibility" she will abide by the rules and asks other Muslims to do the same. "We will do it cautiously, but without renouncing our faith", because "health comes before everything else, and we are not going to risk our lives when the vaccine is just around the corner", says Samira.
The Islamic Commission of Spain, who are the interlocutors with the government, joins this call for responsibility. With the accumulated incidence of fasting on the rise, on their website they remind us that "fasting is a personal, individual and intimate religious duty", and that if any of the faithful are unable to comply with it for health reasons beyond the stipulated exceptions (such as pregnant women, for example), it is advisable to consult a doctor and end the fast if necessary. Furthermore, the Islamic Commission of Spain reminds worshippers that it is very important to avoid crowds and mass gatherings, and to reduce the time spent in mosques as much as possible.
In Ceuta, the epidemiological situation worsens every day. Faced with an increase in contagions, with an accumulated incidence of almost 500 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, the 33 mosques in Ceuta have agreed to close down at the end of the last prayer. The Union of Islamic Communities of Spain in Ceuta (UCIDE) and the Islamic Commission of Spain had requested the extension of the night curfew between 23.30h and 00.00h to allow time for the last prayers of the day (Tarawih and Isha). They will finally be able to accommodate the Maghrib prayer before sunset and the breaking of the fast at 9pm, but not the rest. So, as they will not open their doors until 06:00 the following day, the Islamic community advises worshippers to perform the last prayers voluntarily with their families at home. They understand the seriousness of the health situation and in this case, they say, health takes precedence over religious freedom, which they will continue to exercise at home.
Despite this, Ramadan has begun with protests in Ceuta. A caravan of vehicles and around a hundred people have travelled through the streets of the autonomous city to demand the repeal of the decree that has brought forward the curfew by 60 minutes until 25 April, that is, until 22:00.
In Melilla, the infection figures are not good either. This week, with more than 500 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, the government of the autonomous city announced the closure of bars and gyms. Despite this, the Islamic Commission of Melilla also tried to delay the curfew, arguing that the delay in the start of the curfew would be more than compensated for by the absence of social life during the day due to the fast. A request which, once again, was denied by the government of the autonomous city for strictly health reasons.
There are still many doubts about vaccination. Back on the esplanade in front of the M30 mosque, Said tells us that he has been called in for a jab next week with AstraZeneca. Despite fears and misgivings about the Oxford antidote, Said feels privileged and did not hesitate to confirm his appointment immediately. "It is a gift from Allah," confesses the 67-year-old Moroccan.
The imam of Ceuta insists that "there is no excuse for not getting vaccinated, not even during the month of Ramadan". Ahmed Laziz clarifies that there is no incompatibility between being vaccinated against COVID-19 and respecting the fast during the holy month. "It is not nourishment, it is healing. It is an obligation to save life before saving religion," Laziz explains. Conclusion: the SARS-CoV2 vaccine does not understand religions and does not break the fast, even if the doubt is in the air and the debate in the street.