By PETER SMITH / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
More than three decades ago, Khalid Khilji helped found the Muslim Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh. He’s prayed there regularly ever since until the coronavirus pandemic erupted last year.
It was the first time he couldn’t go to the Monroeville mosque for in-person worship during Islam’s sacred month of Ramadan. Even after the mosque opened to limited attendance later in the year, he avoided in-person gatherings out of an abundance of caution.
“Once I got vaccinated, both shots, I am here again,” Mr. Khilji said Friday at the center after Jummah prayers, the main service of the week. He’s looking forward to taking part in nightly Ramadan prayers and study sessions.
“It is a privilege,” he said. “You are alive to go through it again and obey the good Lord.”
The Monroeville center and other Pittsburgh-area mosques are returning in part to a more typical observance of Ramadan, which is scheduled to begin Monday night. Last year, the month began while much of the nation was still in shutdown mode, including most houses of worship. So most Muslims prayed and had evening meals at home while tuning in to lectures and other activities via videoconferencing or similar technology.
But traditionally, many Muslims head to mosques during Ramadan for a communal iftar, or meal breaking their fast after sundown, and for Taraweeh prayers, held in the evenings during Ramadan.
This year, several area mosques plan in-person prayers, though with precautions such as requiring masks, limiting attendance and keeping physical distance between worshipers in prayer rows. At the Monroeville mosque, worshipers can go to a large overflow room once the prayer room reaches its limit, and organizers even hope to provide a space outdoors as needed during good weather.
Gathering for Ramadan worship brings a “sense of community and belonging together,” said Muhammad Rasheed, president of the center.
In-person communal iftars are not being held, though some mosques are providing food for participants to take home.
Among other changes, the Muslim Community Center is asking participants to bring their own prayer rugs, and rather than having a central and often crowded place for people to place their shoes (which are removed before entering the prayer room), each person keeps the shoes with them in bags.
During Ramadan, Muslims abstain from food and water during daylight hours. For many, it’s also a time for focused prayer and study of the Quran, or sacred text.
“Fasting is ultimately about the fundamental orientation of the human heart toward the divine,” said Shaykh Abdul Aziz Suraqah, imam at the Muslim Community Center, in his Friday sermon. “Fasting heightens our sense of neediness. It heightens our sense of poverty, because we realize in fasting, … Allah is free of our needs, and we are needy.”
The Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, in Oakland, plans to resume its nightly Ramadan prayers, but also with physical distancing and other measures.
“This is a first step to a regular Ramadan,” Imam Chris Caras said via email. “Lessons will be given in person while simultaneously broadcast via Zoom.”
He said people “have adapted fairly well” to the changes brought on by the pandemic. They are “eager to resume in-person gatherings” but are flexible. “I believe Zoom is here to stay post-pandemic due to the convenience.”
Trying to organize communal iftar meals “is too hard to manage,” Imam Caras said. “We will serve to-go fast-breaking meals for people to pick up before sunset.”
Shaykh Suraqah said Friday that for imams, the past year has been the busiest in memory, with additional time spent in pastoral care for members with medical and other needs, holding numerous meetings online and counseling people who used the prolonged periods of isolation for spiritual exploration.
“When people are more limited, they go inward, and they have more spiritual questions,” he said. “You can only watch so much TV. You have to address those existential issues.”
Source – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette