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St. Louis Muslims Find New Ways To Celebrate Ramadan During Pandemic

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Amaly Yossef
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Amaly Yossef of Ballwin made a concerted effort this year to teach her 3-year-old son, Kareem (at left), and 1-year-old daughter, Ahlam, about Ramadan.

Basiyr Rodney appreciates the sense of normalcy that’s returned to his mosque this Ramadan. Last year, the pandemic forced mosques to close their doors, but as vaccines become widely available, people are more comfortable meeting in person at their places of worship.

“It's a little bit more normal than it was, from the standpoint that at least people are gathering in really small groups,” Rodney said. He’s the director of the Baitul Hafeez mosque in north St. Louis.

Many Muslim leaders are reassuring people that it’s permissible to get the vaccine during Ramadan, even if it means forgoing the traditional fast in which people don’t eat or drink from sunrise to sunset.

St. Louis Muslims Find New Ways To Celebrate Ramadan During Pandemic
Hear four St. Louis Muslims share their Ramadan experience in 2021.

“In this particular case, it's a health issue where you know you're going to take what is a drug that might impact your body in a certain way. So you need your fluids, you need your food. So as a result of that, you give up [fasting] that day on that basis,” Rodney explained.

Goals of Ramadan

The holy month of Ramadan began in April, and for the past three weeks, many Muslims have increased their religious observance, charity work and self-reflection. In addition to fasting, people refrain from impure thoughts, smoking, cursing, gossiping or fighting.

Rodney said there are multiple ways to participate in the holy month regardless of one’s ability to fast. Oftentimes, Muslims set goals: Some aim to read the entire Quran during the month, while many increase their volunteer work or become more patient.

“They're kind of hallmarks of the kind of progress you're trying to make in your own spiritual life,” he said.

While the month is devoted to self-discipline and self-improvement, a strong community that partakes in the religious obligations boosts morale to get through the trials that come from fasting. People often host large gatherings in homes or mosques for iftar, the meal that breaks the fast at sunset. Afterward, groups gather at the mosque for taraweeh, special, long prayers specifically done during the holy month.

As the pandemic raged last year, in addition to Islamic centers closing their doors, people limited their contact with friends and family. It created an atmosphere that’s the antithesis of what is usually a communal time.

A St. Louis tradition

This year, the pandemic still presents challenges for a return to normalcy, but Muslims in St. Louis are making concerted efforts to keep their traditions alive. For example, congregations in St. Louis usually hold free potluck iftars. But this year, many mosques aren’t hosting dinners to prevent large gatherings.

That’s not stopping Umar Lee from finding a sense of community during Ramadan. He’s a member of Thursday Night Class, a support group for Muslim converts.

In lieu of large gatherings, Lee’s group meets every evening at the West Florissant Masjid in Jennings to break the fast. They gather in the parking lot and spread their dinners on the hood of their cars.

Lee said iftars in Islamic centers are unique to St. Louis. Muslims in bigger cities, such as Washington, D.C., and Dallas, tend to go to restaurants instead.

“They have all these blinged-out buffets; $20, $25 all-you-can-eat [meals]. It's like a real corporate climate,” he said. “In St. Louis, we have a tradition of iftar at the [mosques] every night — for free. That's a St. Louis Muslim tradition, at the big mosque and at the small one.”

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Al-Hajj Pianska Kincey
Members of Thursday Night Class, a support group for Muslim converts, receive free gourmet meals every night during Ramadan courtesy of chef Ben Poremba of Elaia and Olio Mediterranean restaurants.

He stressed that the free iftars at mosques are especially important for people who are poor, don’t belong to a Muslim community or who are away from family during Ramadan. Lee’s friend, chef Ben Poremba of Elaia and Olio Mediterranean restaurants, caters the meals each night for free and provides extra meals for others in need.

The group’s taste buds get to travel the world: The gourmet meals include shawarma, couscous, lamb and more.

“One of the interesting things about Islam in America and the Muslim community ... is that the community is so international and so diverse that a guy like me from north St. Louis County … [became] accustomed to eating mansaf (lamb cooked in yogurt), different Palestinian dishes and different Pakistani and Bangladeshi dishes,” he explained. “It's kind of opened our palate up to all these different dishes and tastes.”

Other aspects of Ramadan

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Amaly Yossef
(L-R) Kareem and Ahlam with their mom, Amaly Yossef.

Practicing Islam in a non-Muslim majority country presents challenges. But Amaly Yossef of Ballwin said she’s seen companies and organizations make a more concerted effort to recognize Ramadan in recent years. For example, her go-to spot for Ramadan decor was Party City, which now carries Ramadan-themed string lights, banners, lanterns and more.

Yossef is a mom of two toddlers and decided to step up the Ramadan decor in her home. The standout piece is a huge, crescent-shaped faux fir tree adorned with lights and ornaments. Her 3-year-old son, Kareem, picked out some of the ornaments: a dinosaur, camel, donut and llama.

Even though her kids are young, Yossef said the extra festivities around the house make them much more aware of what's going on.

“We’re teaching [Kareem] what fasting looks like, what we do in Ramadan, the importance of charity, zakat. And so he's excited: understanding that we get presents, and we spend time with family. And so really just reading lots of books, watching lots of videos, incorporating the decor for them,” she said.

Zakat is the Arabic word for the alms Muslims are required to give during Ramadan if they have the financial means.

Shayba Muhammad is a metalsmith and the owner of Mahnal, a brand of brass jewelry designed to inspire intentional living. She’s donating her profits this month to Fit & Food Connection, a nonprofit in St. Louis that helps people access healthy food, fitness classes and wellness education.

“One of the things that I find really beautiful about Ramadan is we have the opportunity to just remember our brothers and sisters who don't have access to food on a regular basis,” she said.

Muhammad added that while fasting gets a lot of attention during Ramadan, the concept of it goes beyond the physical restraints.

“It has a connection to everything else that we do in our lives. So just watching myself become sharpened in my discipline … in other areas that aren't connected to my diet or aren't connected to what you would think about when it comes to Ramadan,” she said. “It just sharpens you in so many other ways, and it just enriches life in so many other ways.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Lara is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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