Mahbuba Akter sits in the University of Arkansas' spiritual room inside the Multicultural Center for students. Akter, a management doctoral student from Bangladesh, has not been inside the mosque since the pandemic began, and only enjoys short exchanges with friends when picking up her iftar boxes outside, she said.

Although the Islamic Center of Northwest Arkansas continues to host prayer services during Ramadan with COVID-19 precautions in place, some Muslim students are longing for the feeling of community present prior to the pandemic.

Approximately 50 congregants are allowed inside the Fayetteville mosque at a time, with each required to maintain six-feet of social distancing, wear a mask and bring their own prayer mat, said Bilal Ziada, a UA graduate and Islamic Center board member. This year, Ramadan is April 12 through May 12

Muslims observe Ramadan, the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, through prayer and fasting from sunrise to sunset. Those who observe Ramadan eat two meals each day — the suhoor, an early morning snack, and the iftar, a nightly feast. Only Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan, is celebrated; Ramadan itself is a time of reflection, Ziada said.

“Basically, you’re starving your physical self, but feeding yourself spiritually,” Ziada said.

For Mohamed Shameer Abdeen, a physics doctoral student from Sri Lanka and vice president of Islamic Center, the time demands of college never interfered with Ramadan. But last March, pandemic-related health concerns caused mosque leaders to cancel community prayer, resuming it in the middle of Ramadan with a maximum occupancy reduced to 10 from 350. Center officials also chose to only allow congregants to collect the iftar — a meal typically served and shared inside — outside the mosque, a practice that continues to this day, Abdeen said.

Volunteers from the NWA Muslim community, including the Muslim Students Association, continue to cook and distribute the iftar via to-go boxes during this year’s Ramadan. A Whatsapp group chat allows Muslims to reserve meals in advance, and drive by the Islamic Center to receive them. Many students rely on the meals, and sometimes request extra for their suhoor.

“The main idea of providing food is to help the students,” Abdeen said. “You know, students coming from different parts of the globe, sometimes they are alone in their dorms. It’s hard to pick out a meal at night, so sometimes they just take two packs — one to break fast (iftar) and one for the suhoor meal.”

In the past, Muslim international students from all over the world not only gathered in prayer and shared diverse cuisine at the center, but also viewed Ramadan as a means of socializing.

Mahbuba Akter, a management doctoral student from Bangladesh, has not been inside the mosque since the pandemic began, and only enjoys short exchanges with friends when picking up her iftar boxes outside, she said.

“I feel pretty lonely when I think about it, because when I first came in Fayetteville, we went to the mosque almost every day, having our communal dinner, seeing each other and seeing people from different countries together, like from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Indonesia,” Akter said.

The Islamic Center only allowed 10 congregants inside last Ramadan, after it temporarily closed in March 2020 on the advice of medical professionals belonging to the mosque. Volunteers distributed meals from inside the mosque at the beginning of last Ramadan, but Abdeen and other Islamic Center members implemented drive-by pick ups by mid-Ramadan that year, Ziada said.

The philanthropic efforts of the Islamic Center during the pandemic reaches beyond members of the Muslim community.

Past assistance efforts from the Islamic Center included a relief fund established in April 2020, which provided $50 Walmart gift cards to any family in need and the introduction of a little free pantry in December 2020, to which community members could donate non-perishables for anyone to pick up. Recently, the mosque hosted a free health clinic on March 27, where Muslim physicians administered flu shots, read blood sugar levels, and provided other healthcare services to the community, Abdeen said.

Ziada said that while he has gotten used to the obstacles the pandemic has placed on observing Ramadan, he is holding out hope that next year will allow for larger gatherings.

“As sad as it is to say, I’ve kind of gotten used to the status quo, or trying to do the best with the way things are now,” Ziada said. “And hopefully we see the light at the end of the tunnel. It seems like things are getting better.”

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