NEW DELHI: With mosques closed, no 'iftar' gatherings and no getting together with friends and extended family for that pre-dawn 'sehri' meal either, Muslims are set to observe a Ramzan different from anything they've seen before.
The holiest month in Islam, when devout Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, will tentatively begin on April 24 in India, depending on the sighting of the moon.
The first day of Ramzan will dawn under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic.
With the lockdown in place till at least May 3, this will be a Ramzan without the usual gatherings at prayer time and during meals -- quiet days of spending time with immediate family, solitude and some introspection perhaps.
Union Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi has directed more than 30 state waqf boards to ensure strict implementation of the lockdown and social distancing norms during the month.
"Even our ancestors have not seen such a Ramzaan in their lifetime. This will certainly be the first of its kind," said Mohammad Nawed, who owns an eatery close to the Jama Masjid in Delhi's walled city.
It will be a sombre time with everything restricted strictly within the confines of people's homes, he said.
"We would ideally exchange food and gifts, and the rich and poor would break their fasts and eat together. None of that will happen this year," Nawed told PTI as silence settled over the usually bustling streets of Old Delhi.
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In normal times, the streets outside Jama Masjid would be lit, the smells of haleem, biryani and kebabs wafting through the air and thousands of people thronging the area to shop, eat or simply watch the crowds go by.
But this year is different.
"Our shop has been closed since March 22. During Ramzan, the roads would be full of people, locals as well as foreigners. Besides our usual menu that is available round the year, we would serve 'pakodas' and our special 'keeme ke goli' every day for 'iftar' during the entire month," Nawed said.
Mohammed Akram, who works at the Changezi Chicken restaurant in Churiwalan in Old Delhi, said the area is crowded throughout the year but the numbers swell during Ramzan.
The shops are open through the night, right till dawn, when people would gather for the 'sehri' meal.
"I have never seen such a quiet Ramzan," he said.
"The 'imam' has announced that no one should go to the mosque and we will be no less blessed if we offer 'namaz' at our homes," Akram told PTI.
Several people have already planned out their month, how to do something different in keeping with the extraordinary times and help the poor affected by the pandemic.
Zahra Begum, who would generally feed the poor outside the Jama Masjid, has sent dry rations to NGOs to be distributed.
"The pandemic made me realise about the uncertainty that surrounds our lives," she said.
Samina Alam in Aligarh said this is her first Ramzan after marriage and it would normally have been a grand affair.
"I have decided to donate the money I would have spent on clothes and festivities, I have kept that money aside and will donate to stranded migrant workers," Alam said.
Irtiza Quraishi, founder of Delhi-based NGO Marham, has called for volunteers to help 20 needy families.
"We are looking for volunteers who are willing to work for the first 20 days of Ramzan from 8 pm to 11pm, have a car, live in an area of Delhi which not under red zone and ready to drive every evening within Delhi in a team of two and deliver 10-20 kits at different locations," he said.
Writer and critic Rakshanda Jalil appealed to all Muslims to use the special month to reflect, count their blessings, shore up their inner reserves of strength and to give as much as possible "both money and materials" to the needy.
"In my family, Ramzan has always been a time for introspection. We will fast, pray, read from the Quran and count our blessings. We normally don't go out for Tarawi (special night prayers) so for us as a family there will be no major difference this year," she told PTI.
"But yes this will be the first time the 'iftari' that would normally be cooked at my mothers home and sent to the neighbourhood mosque won't be sent this year. Nor will friends drop in for 'iftar' at our home. That will be a major departure from tradition," she added.
Tahir Mahmood, scholar and former chairperson of the National Minorities Commission, advised other Muslims to supply food to the poor in neighbourhood by suitable means without risking infection.
"As this year it falls under the shadow of corona pandemic, Muslims must remember that the only thing 'farz' (obligatory) under religion is fasting which needs no stepping out of homes. Saying daily prayers in mosques and Tarawi are only recommended, not mandatory," he said.
Muslims must remain content this year with fasting and 'iftar' inside their homes and avoid all outdoor activities. Collective 'iftars' are just a tradition which may this year be substituted with supplying food to the poor in neighbourhood by suitable means without risking infection. All this is necessary for people to keep themselves healthy enough to celebrate Eid a month later, he added.
Qari Niyaz Ahmed Qadri, a cleric from the Darul Uloom Hanfia in Colaba in Mumbai, said never in his life has he witnessed something like this.
"I was talking to my elders who are in their 60s and 70s asking them how different this Ramzan will be for them...and they said they have never seen a Ramzan when mosques are closed and people are told to pray from home, " he said.
Abdul Majid, a reputed neurosurgeon in Aurangabad, said Muslims should use the opportunity offered by the lockdown to observe a "model Ramzan" based on the true principles of austerity and piety.