On the 16th day of Ramadan, Kirin Dossani woke at 4 a.m. Her husband, Omer, and three sons were still deep in slumber. She performed wudu, a ritual cleansing, and spread out her prayer mat by the large windows in her bedroom. Birdsong rang out from the dark sky. Dossani felt a wave of peace wash over her.
"If you wake up predawn and spend the last third of the night in prayer, it’s a really calm moment where you’re by yourself and it’s just between you and God," she said. "They say that whatever you ask for, you are granted."
On that morning, as she’s done every day since the coronavirus pandemic hit and with greater fervency since Ramadan began April 23, Dossani prayed, "Please end this, find a cure, make it disappear."
Then she went into the kitchen of her Westlake home to prepare the predawn suhoor meal — omelets, cereal and fruit — before the day’s fast began.
The daily discipline of Ramadan — increasing prayer, donating to charity and abstaining from food and water during daylight hours — didn’t change for the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims.
But the pandemic brought to a halt one of the most cherished aspects of the sacred Islamic month — gathering as a community. Gone were the community iftars and congregational prayers. No weekend potlucks with friends. And as the month wore on, it became clear Muslims would also miss out on Eid al-Fitr celebration, which begins Sunday, marking the end of Ramadan. Normally, Muslims gather en masse to pray, share meals, distribute gifts and make charitable offerings.
In isolation, many Muslims tried to deepen their spiritual practice and create a new Ramadan rhythm.
Bringing the mosque home
In April, as the holy days approached, Kirin and Omer thought about how to prepare for an unprecedented observance with their sons: Haroon, 20, Faizaan, 16, and Ehsan, who turned 10 on May 18. A deeply religious family, they always attended optional Taraweeh prayers on evenings during Ramadan at the mosque — usually the North Austin Muslim Community Center on North Lamar Boulevard.
Normally, worshippers squeeze in shoulder to shoulder to make their nightly supplications. The air is electric with spiritual energy as the imam recites a section of the Quran, which typically takes an hour.
Imam Islam Mossaad, who leads the North Austin mosque, said Taraweeh challenges Muslims to push themselves. Exhausted from fasting all day, they draw strength from each other to keep going.
He compares it to running a marathon. It’s far easier to persevere in a group than on one’s own.
Of all the Ramadan traditions, Kirin missed Taraweeh most.
With local mosques shuttered, her family had to improvise. Omer downloaded the entire Quran and hooked his computer to a TV monitor so the family could see the section they were reciting each night. The boys carved up a cardboard box in the shape of a mosque, covered it with festive wrapping paper and strung up paper stars and moons.
As the days wore on, Kirin noticed she felt more calm and rested than during past Ramadans. After suhoor, the family was able to go back to sleep for a couple of hours without worrying about getting up in time to dress and race out the door to school and work.
Omer kept up with his job as a recruiter for Soal Technologies from his home office. The boys were occupied with school: Haroon, a University of Texas student, spent hours watching organic chemistry and computer science lectures on Zoom; Faizan, a junior at Westlake High School, did homework and prepared for Advanced Placement exams.
Ehsan, a Bridge Point Elementary School third grader, completed his assignments early in the day and played video games in the afternoon. He opted to try fasting every other day of Ramadan. He said he didn’t find it difficult, though Haroon joked that his little brother doesn’t seem to register hunger when he’s playing Fortnite.
Slowing down, staying connected
Kirin, who recently had begun substitute teaching at Eanes school district campuses, now had more time on her hands. She listened to lectures on angels by an Islamic scholar — sometimes coaxing the boys to join her — and brought groceries to an elderly couple in the neighborhood who were afraid to leave their house.
In the evenings before sunset, Faizaan and Ehsan would play soccer and football in the backyard. The boys would help prepare the iftar meal and set the table.
They didn’t have anywhere to be. The evening rush — breaking the fast and then dashing to the mosque — was replaced with slower-paced home rituals. They took their time eating in the dining room with long, green views of the Texas Hill Country.
Kirin still longed to see her friends. She missed sharing food on weekends with other families. Then she realized that while they couldn’t visit, they could still cook for one another. One day, Kirin made a big pot of haleem, a mixture of lentils, barley, wheat and meat, and distributed it to friends and neighbors.
The message: "We can’t have y’all over, but we’re thinking of you."
In turn, the Dossanis received several plates of biryani, along with kebabs, shredded beef, sweets, pakoras and loquat. She noticed they were exchanging more food this year than during past Ramadans.
Mossaad also noticed Muslims making a greater effort to help others. People who attend his mosque started a grocery distribution site, handing out food to people in need. Within weeks, they were serving about 350 families.
"This wasn’t happening" before the COVID-19 pandemic, he said. "It was triggered by feelings of camaraderie and brotherhood and sisterhood."
A sense of hope
During the final 10 days of Ramadan — considered the most sacred — Muslims increase their prayers and devotion. Mossaad typically spends the last days in seclusion at the mosque, sometimes praying all through the night, a tradition started by the Prophet Muhammad.
The idea, Mossaad said, is to go inward and then reemerge with the "joyous message you gain spiritually."
In a way, the lockdown has given all Muslims that opportunity, he said. "When we come out, we’ll be even more refreshed."
As Ramadan wound down, Kirin intensified her spiritual practice and began to think about how to celebrate Eid. Her mother had made a trip to Pakistan earlier in the year and bought new clothes — an Eid tradition — for the entire family. With local celebrations canceled, the Dossanis had nowhere to go. But Kirin decided her family would celebrate despite the circumstances, dressing in their new finery and feasting on halwa poori, a dish with fried bread, chickpeas and beef.
Instead of crowding into an events center with thousands of other Muslims to pray and hear a sermon, the Dossanis would be at home, watching Mossaad and another imam deliver the Eid message via Zoom. It’s not the same, she said. But she still feels the promise of hope she received during those quiet, predawn mornings alone with God.
"You know when you talk to someone, you feel relieved, that it’s going to be OK?" she said. "My belief is whatever God does, there’s something beneficial that comes out of it — even if you can’t understand it at that time."