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The Impact of COVID-19 on American Muslims

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It may be an idiosyncratic Ramdan for many of us. The experience will be riddled with a spectrum of emotions. Yet it will remind us that such an infinitesimal entity can immobilize the mighty human race.

Truly to God we belong and truly to Him we return.

In the last few months, this solemn Quranic truth has been emphatically manifested in our daily realities. It seems that the coronavirus pandemic has prompted a veritable pause in our lives, and a dystopian stillness has shrouded the atmosphere – it is only disturbed by the virus’s subtle and colossal impacts upon our communities.

The American Muslim community, in particular, has felt the discordant reverberations of this microscopic illness – including working-class disparities, communal fragmentation due to mosques shutting down, and the readjusting of sacred funeral rites. Perhaps the most formidable truth to contend with is the separation from communal comfort. In times of grief and heartache, our innate human nature seeks companionship. So, in addition to financial apprehension and the emotional upheaval of loss, there is a profound social disconnect.

However, despite the physical barriers of social distancing, American Muslims have not allowed themselves to remain in a state of stagnant forlornness. Rather, amidst obstreperous despair, rumors incited from panic, and the general ambiguity of the future, the Islamic values of fard kifayah or communal responsibility have been a curative and invigorating force.

Loss, grief, death – this is an inevitable reality with or without a global pandemic to grapple with. The novel coronavirus can be summed up in several divergent reflections. For Muslims, it is a reminder of our fate as humans. It is a reminder that this existence is dubious and transient. We live our lives in anticipation of the hereafter, cognizant that this life is not all there is. When it comes to the burial of our kin, we find respite in our somber funeral rites that allow our loves one last moment of dignity and mercy in this world. However, necessary restrictions set by healthcare officials have provoked our collective hearts.

Due to the contagious nature of the illness, families can not offer their loved ones familial peace on their deathbeds. Although funeral homes and cemeteries have been designated as essential services in New York, the government has still emphasized the consequence of avoiding in-person gatherings. Thus, limitations are set on the deceased’s Janazah prayer. In normal circumstances, many people are encouraged to attend a janazah so that the deceased may receive interminable prayers for a peaceful hereafter. Now, the fewer attendees the better.

To be unable to sit by your loved one’s deathbed, and to see the funeral services bereft of prayers is an unprecedented bereavement in its own right. Regardless of their lamentation and woe, financial troubles do not stand in quiet reverence to allow mourning. About 3% of New York City’s population is Muslim and they make up a significant number of public-facing employees such as uber or taxi drivers, restaurant workers, or construction workers. About 10% of healthcare workers in America are Muslim. In addition to facing incredible risks, for many immigrant families, telework is a luxury they can not afford. As a consequence, the financial burden is magnified in the wake of a loved one’s death. An Islamic funeral service in New York usually costs around $2,000. However, recently, some communities have reported being charged $10,000.

Until recently, a rumor inflamed from the hysteria cleaved through the community. Morgues and hospitals have been inundated with an exponentially rising number of coronavirus cases and deaths. As a result, burials and storage of bodies have been a precarious issue. Rumors of mass burials on New York City’s Hart’s Island took life. Understandably, New York Muslims reacted with trepidation.

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After much speculation and anxiety, the umbrella organization, Majlis Ash-Shura, the Islamic Leadership Council of New York, and The Janazah Project of New York issued a joint statement to assuage the community. The statement claimed that after further clarifications from several sources, including city officials, unclaimed bodies will be sent to Hart’s Island ONLY after families have been given sufficient time to claim them. It also read, “During these difficult times, it’s important for our community to remain calm and united to gather all of its resources and energy to protect our people and have a positive impact on society at large.”

So just as the statement reads, despite the tumult, disease, and death, per Islamic tenets, there are clear signs of the Muslim community finding reprieve in one another. From fundraisers to a myriad of resources, social distancing has been unable to shatter the bonds of this Ummah. Imam Khalid Latif of NYU in partnership with Penny Appeal USA, I.M.A.M. – The Imam Mahdi Association of Marjaeya, and The Zakat Fund of NYC have started the NYC Covid-19 Ramadan Emergency Support launch good.

The campaign objective is, “to provide monetary relief to individuals and families who are struggling to cover basic living costs at this time.” Remarkably, they have raised $294,066. The Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has launched a Covid-19 information portal which includes resources of spiritual well-being and COVID-19 facts to navigate a world of information overload. Majlis As-Shura has compiled an extensive list of COVID-19 resources from support services to housing issues.

It is apparent that with a global pandemic of this magnitude various issues would arise. Communities and families of all kinds would face a plethora of challenges, unique to their circumstances. Combating an unprecedented situation is not an individual feat – it is a communal obligation. As we have entered Ramadan, we simultaneously feel the loss of community members and the sweet relief of this holy month. For many of us, the collective sentiments evoked from Taraweeh and iftar gatherings are the hallmarks of Ramadan.

Here in New York and across America, Muslims have found sublime manners of unifying. It may be an idiosyncratic Ramdan for many of us. The experience will be riddled with a spectrum of emotions. Yet it will remind us that such an infinitesimal entity can immobilize the mighty human race. It has effectively brought entire nations in desperate prostration to their creator. It has reconciled communities. It has clothed our perspectives in profound empathy.

Truly to God we belong and truly to Him we return.

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