SALT LAKE CITY — One of Imam Yasir Butt’s favorite memories of observing Ramadan in years past involved a community coming together.

During Ramadan, a monthlong period that begins Friday in which Muslims fast and abstain from impurities of body and mind and serve others, mosques will often hold an “iftar” to break the daily fast.

One year the Muslim leader’s mosque held a “community iftar” the first weekend of Ramadan. They invited religious leaders from various faiths and denominations, along with local authorities and representatives.

“That was a beautiful memory because it speaks volumes about how America is different than any other country, where all faiths and cultures and people can break bread together and be part of a great nation,” Imam Butt said.

Imam Yasir Butt, of the Masjid Al-Noor Mosque and the Islamic Society of Greater Salt Lake, center, stands between Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and Pamela Atkinson, renowned Utah philanthropist in Utah, at a faith leader luncheon at the Governor’s Mansion on Oct. 29, 2019. | Ashlee Buchholz

Unfortunately, due to the spread of COVID-19 pandemic, community iftars and other traditional events during Ramadan will be different this year.

As Muslims observe Ramadan from April 24 to May 23, activities associated with the holy month will involve connecting via technology to follow social distancing restrictions, said Imam Butt, of the Masjid Al-Noor Mosque and the Islamic Society of Greater Salt Lake.

“The bottom line is the safety of our congregation against this pandemic and our fight as a nation against this pandemic is utmost. We should take the instructions seriously and follow the directives from county, state and federal officials in terms of staying home, staying safe,” Imam Butt said. “Then capitalize on our time at home to get closer to our creator by devoting and dedicating our time, not in trivial pursuits, but in spiritual pursuits that have tremendous gains and rewards.”

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The Deseret News spoke with Imam Butt to get his thoughts on observing Ramadan during the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Deseret News: For readers who may not know what Ramadan is, how would you describe it?

Imam Yasir Butt: Ramadan is like Jesus’s journey in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights where he was tempted by Satan. He fought that off and reclaimed his humanity.

So for us it’s abstention from food, water and intimate relationships with our spouses from sunrise till sunset. That is a practice which is one of the pillars of Islam that allows for us to have the growth and the strength of the Spirit regained and not give in to the desires of the flesh. 

DN: What adjustments has your faith community made in response to the pandemic and will it change how you observe Ramadan?

YB: The Muslim community is not any different from any other religious body. We are taking all the precautions that the state government and federal authorities have instructed us in terms of social distancing. Our prayer halls are closed for congregational activity. We take that very seriously.

“Have faith and this too shall pass, no problem. It’s just a matter of time. All of us are in this together and eventually it will pass. It’s a wake up call for all of us and we’ll learn a lot from this.” — Imam Yasir Butt

In our faith tradition, the practice of Ramadan initially started very, very privately in the homes of the believers. So we have a very dynamic tradition that allows us to adjust our practice based on whatever the environment or the situation surrounding us is. So we will be celebrating the month in our homes. Most of our prayers and sermons are now virtual, either on YouTube or Zoom or social networking platforms. We’re inspiring each other. The imams are conducting religious services online because of social distancing and the recommendations and the mandates by local and federal government.

So it will be no different. We will not be able to do a community iftar, which is breaking fast like we used to do before, but I mean we will be celebrating the month exactly like we did before. We will be at home doing all the activities that we were doing at our houses of worship but with our families and on virtual settings.

DN: What do you feel is the biggest challenge of observing Ramadan?

YB: We took it for granted, like everybody else, that gathering for religious services every night was something that’s going to be a norm for the rest of our life. So that’s the biggest challenge — to help people overcome that issue that even in social distancing, we can still practice our faith fully and not feel sad about not having the opportunity to go and mingle with the community.

DN: What is it like to go through Ramadan from a spiritual perspective? What have you gained from it in the past and how might it be different this time?

YB: Ramadan is a spiritual exercise and an obligation from our faith. It teaches us how to not depend on the physical body as much as we are used to in normal days by fulfilling any desire that we have that is carnal or driven by the flesh. So in Ramadan what we have gained is spiritual strength to counter any concern, any anxiety, any trepidation regarding physical dependency on food, water, intimacy, etc. So spiritually a person becomes very close to God in terms of his spiritual practice and his ascension from the desires of the flesh. So in a very unique kind of way, it gives you a lot of strength spiritually to deal with the challenges and the situation that person may be facing in his daily life.

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DN: So this year’s Ramadan is very timely with all that the world is facing?

YB: Yes, it’s a timely thing for us to help us to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic fallout. It also helps us be kind and more aware of the people who don’t have food on their table, don’t have shelter, don’t have jobs, to sort of empathize with them and try to do as much good as we can. Even if we don’t have the physical ability, we can still help our community with the other projects that are grocery shopping for the elders or lending money to each other that are out of a job and so forth.

DN: Do you have any advice or words of wisdom for other Muslims as they prepare for Ramadan?

YB: Have faith and this too shall pass, no problem. It’s just a matter of time. All of us are in this together and eventually it will pass. It’s a wake up call for all of us and we’ll learn a lot from this.

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