Though it's typically a community affair, my family and I quietly welcomed Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, alone in our living room as the sun set on April 23. Instead of hearing an imam make the call to prayer, ushering in 30 days of heightened spiritual reflection, we listened as the call came in through a prayer app on our phones.
So began our journey of avoiding all food and drink, including water, during the daytime, and focusing on boosting our relationship with God through prayer and reflection.
Ramadan is different this year.
Shelter-in-place means worshipping at the mosque is out. So is inviting friends over for "iftar," the meal that breaks the dawn-to-dusk fast. A holiday meant to bring the community together is being observed apart.
But not alone. Throughout Ramadan, Muslim religious leaders have used Instagram Live and Facebook to deliver lectures and conduct Q&As. Community centers, as well as friends, host virtual iftars on Zoom, where people share their experiences and offer religious reflections as they break the fast. Fundraisers for mosques and charities, which usually take place during the nightly communal prayers, have gone completely digital.
As the COVID-19 pandemic upends life, technology has kept communities of faith connected. Christians celebrated Easter by attending virtual services on Zoom and Facebook Live. Jews around the world attended virtual seders for Passover. Muslims have adopted the same technologies to celebrate Ramadan, which ends May 23.
Even before the novel coronavirus, technology was becoming entwined with the lives of the faithful. A YouGov poll conducted in January in the Middle East and North Africa found that 45% of respondents expected the use of social media apps would rise during Ramadan. Less than a quarter expected it to fall.
New circumstances have allowed Mariam Khan, a UCLA medical student who's currently with family in San Jose, California, to reframe her relationship with God. She's watched Islamic lectures on YouTube, as well as read the Quran, the Muslim holy text, to focus on internal spiritual reflection.
"So much of my spiritual practices during Ramadan revolve around going to the local mosque and praying the night prayers," Khan said. "I've always felt closest to God in community, but this has been a complete reevaluation of finding different means to get close to God."
Since the lockdown started, religious institutions like the Islamic Center at NYU have also offered virtual alternatives to the nonreligious activities members rely on, such as fitness and mental wellness programs and story-time for kids.
Suhaib Webb, a researcher at the ICNYU and assistant adjunct professor at New York University, has long been an avid user of social media in his religious work, earning the nickname "The Snapchat Imam." For the last few years, he's largely relied on Instagram to share religious knowledge and to partake in Q&As with followers through Stories or Instagram Live. Webb also uses Zoom to teach virtually, and has even officiated a wedding over the video platform. With in-person gatherings out of the question for the foreseeable future, Webb said this is social media's chance to step up and truly foster stronger community.
"One of their dreams was to see how to create deeper connections," Webb said, referring to the early creators of social media. "Now I think that's where we are."
As Ramadan approached this year, I was apprehensive about being able to complete all the rituals on my own. I worried I wouldn't be motivated to conduct the nightly prayers, which are optional but strongly encouraged, at home, or read the Quran and listen to lectures in my spare time. These were all practices I'd been motivated to do in previous years with a little nudge from friends and community members.
On the first night of Ramadan, a few of my friends and I hopped on a WhatsApp video-call at midnight (sleep schedules tend to be thrown off during Ramadan) and talked about our goals. We all wanted to read more of the Quran and pray more, and we've been motivating each other and sharing our victories through group chats.
I've discovered a surprising level of inner peace, motivation and focus this Ramadan. Virtual lectures are just as moving as in-person ones. A message isn't diluted just because it's shared via YouTube. I'm inspired by Instagram and Facebook posts from friends and religious leaders about finding faith and strength in uncertain times, which underscore that we're all in this together.
So many distractions have been removed. Not having to commute or work in an office saves me energy and time, which I can instead put toward worship. I'm able to sleep a little more, which is everything when you're going 16 hours without food. I've been inspired to read more and learn more about my faith, and the extra prayers have been surprisingly easy to stick to. I've realized I don't need to depend on the presence of others to accomplish my religious goals, which has been inspiring. I feel more independent.
Still, I'm grateful not to be totally alone. In addition to keeping in touch with friends through social media, I'm lucky to be with family right now. I've also been tuning in to talks by religious leaders across the country, which is possible because they're all online. I've even dropped in on a few Zoom iftars and made some new friends.
The internet can't replace everything, of course. There's something to be said for being in the physical presence of others at my local mosque, and I miss the beautiful, flowing recitation of the Quran by our imam. I miss going to other people's homes and inviting them to mine.
Ayman Suhrawardy from Windsor, Canada, struggles with not being able to go to the mosque located five minutes from his house, which he'd frequently attend for prayers and events.
"Physically being there," he said, creates "a different mindset" that technology can't replace. "Seeing people around you encourages you to be more active."
Loubna Moujahid, who's home with her three kids in London, feels the same way but is thankful she's able to stay connected to friends and relatives through WhatsApp. She said the separation has helped strengthen one of the key components of Ramadan.
"I'm more patient," Moujahid said. "It was very hard in the beginning, but we got used to it."
Muslims aren't alone in adjusting to the new reality. Amanda Jacobsmeyer has been running her Harlem-based church's Zoom meetings every Sunday since mid-March. She invited me to join one of the weekly sermons last month.
Each week, dozens of people log on at 11 a.m., some still wrapped in blankets and hugging coffee mugs, others propped up at their kitchen tables in button-down shirts and ties. After delivering an opening prayer and offering thanks for having "technology that brings us together," Bishop Walter Rane led a sermon about the benefits of slowing down and growing from the current situation.
"There isn't anything about this experience I would have asked for, but I feel I will be better for it," he said. "Adversity is frequently a call to do something great with our lives ... I do believe this experience will be for our good."
Jacobsmeyer said that even though these virtual sermons feel different, they restore a small sense of much-needed normalcy. "It's helped us stay connected as a community," she said.
Other institutions, like Northview Church in Indiana, have been holding weekend services online. Maddie Hall, communications director at Northview, said virtual attendance has been the same as or higher than in-person turnout.
"When there's a crisis, people are more prone to turn to faith and what can give them hope and joy and sustain them through this time," Hall said. "Since they're able to watch anywhere at any time, they're tuning in more regularly."
The biggest challenge, she said, is that people miss seeing each other in real life, and many experience screen fatigue, especially if they've been on Zoom calls all day for work. Still, they're willing to invest time and effort into staying connected with their community any way they can.
Though Jewish law rules out the use of technology on Passover (with some rabbis instead recommending pre-seder gatherings over Zoom), others opted to use tech to connect with relatives. Katie Jacobs and her family in Chicago hosted a virtual Passover seder over Zoom last month after plans to go to her grandparents' house were scrapped. Her dad assigned passages of the Haggadah to different people to read, and her mom shared a virtual copy on screen. Around two dozen people attended, and everyone chatted and ate dinner together afterward.
Mordechai Lightstone, a New York-based rabbi and founder of Tech Tribe, a community for Jews in tech and digital media, said the coronavirus has created an opportunity to focus on internal practices and prayers rather than weekly services, which Jewish law mandates must be done in person. Community members have also ramped up efforts to reach out to one another by delivering meals and providing medical care during this crisis.
"People are pushing forward to make sure everyone is safe," Lightstone said, "and that we can all help each other not just in the Jewish community, but as a global community."
That sense of togetherness both within religious communities and beyond may be one of the greatest outcomes of this pandemic. Ramadan is a time to put personal desires aside and focus on the needs of others. The global health crisis has brought that clearly into focus; those of us who have food and shelter have the opportunity to help those who don't. This Ramadan has pushed us to be more reflective and grateful for what we have, and to reevaluate what really matters.
In the absence of in-person gatherings, I haven't once felt alone or truly separated from loved ones. How could I, when we've all been calling and texting to wish each other a blessed month? As Webb put it, "This may be a moment for us to come together and heal through these kinds of deeper connections."
In all those moments of quiet, of praying at home and breaking my fast with immediate family, I've discovered a sense of peace that I don't think I would have found under ordinary circumstances. With life on pause, there's little to distract you from the blessings that have always been in front of you.
Originally published May 19, 5 a.m. PT.