On the first night of Ramadan this month, a congregant of our mosque in Gurnee called me and said, with his voice cracking, “Imām, God did not answer my prayer.” His prayer was that we would be allowed to pray together as a community.
Going to the masjid (our name for a prayer room) up to five times a day has been the highlight of not only that one member’s spiritual life; it is the highlight of all Muslims’ lives. Similar prayer and worship practices among my Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain and other religious faith brethren are equally central to them.
While some people of faith are successfully adjusting to having their worship services online, for Muslims and many others, their hearts are attached to their physical places of worship.
What if someone told you that you’re not able to do your favorite activity — from business to politics to recreation to the arts — and then unsympathetically told you, “Adjust already!”? That’s what people of faith are being asked to do in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Separation is a painful sacrifice
We accept and promote it for the common good, especially the good of those on the front line of this epic battle. But it doesn’t mean it is any less painful for those of us who are being asked to “pray at home.”
Educators know that students learn in different ways. Teachers are trained to present their lessons in a variety of methods. Just as there are multiple learning styles, there are many religious practices. As an imām, I have witnessed the faith of people increase through many different methods. For some, their faith increases through private prayers, while for others their faith increases through community prayers. Many of us will grow through the sacrifice of our group prayers.
Hugs and handshakes are spiritual, too
For many of my congregants, nothing is more important than shaking their hands, looking them in the eye and hugging them during moments of joy and sadness. For some of my congregants, my words may mean little, but my hugs and handshakes are far more effective in healing them spiritually and communicating to them that I genuinely care.
A few days ago, I performed a marriage via Zoom. Afterward, the groom said, “Imām, thank you for providing this service. But it doesn't even feel like I'm married.”
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To raise the spirits of the Jewish, Muslim and Christian community, fellow colleagues Rabbi Ari Margolis, Pastor Alex Molozaiy and I decided to have an interfaith webinar on April 7. In the beginning of my speech, I shared a timely joke about a pastor, a rabbi and an imām who decided to travel to Jerusalem together but unfortunately got stranded on an island. Suddenly, they heard a voice say, “You each have one prayer that God will answer.”
The three clergy started to pray to God. The pastor said, "I've been stuck here for years. I miss my family, my wife and my life. I just want to go home and celebrate Easter with my family." POOF! The pastor gets his prayer answered and he is returned to his family.
Then, the rabbi says, "I've been stuck here for years as well. I miss my family, my wife and my life. I wish I could go home, too, and celebrate Passover with my family." POOF! The rabbi gets his prayer answered and he is returned to his family.
The imām starts crying uncontrollably and makes a heartfelt prayer, “Oh God almighty, I am all alone and lonely. I pray and I wish my two friends were still here.”
I’m not sure anyone laughed at my joke because everyone was on mute and I couldn’t comprehend the nonverbal cues. (I still think it was a great joke.)
We all will need to adjust this Ramadan, as Christians did over Holy Week and Easter and Jews did over Passover, but we also need to be empathetic and aware of the different ways that people practice their faith and what they are giving up in this time of worldwide crisis. We know that God is with us and will bless us for it.
Azfar Uddin is the imām and resident scholar at Islamic Foundation North in Libertyville, Illinois.