SALT LAKE CITY — Each year, hundreds of mosques host interfaith meals during the holy month of Ramadan. That tradition lives on this year — with a notable twist.

Muslims and non-Muslims are still meeting up to discuss fasting, prayer and their unique religious traditions. But they’ve traded shared tables for Zoom calls because of COVID-19.

“While people are doing virtual things to make sure families or co-workers are connected, we wanted to use technology to ensure different faith groups are connected, too,” said Harris Zafar, national spokesman for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA.

The transition to online events has involved plenty of technical glitches, including spotty Wi-Fi connections and strange background noise. But participants said they’re still grateful for the chance to form new interfaith friendships while stuck at home.

“To talk about unity while we’re divided electronically is a little strange, but I thought it worked very well,” said the Rev. David Knapp, who leads St. James Lutheran Church in Portland, Oregon, and spoke during a virtual interfaith gathering on May 9.

Outreach during Ramadan

The Muslims behind recent virtual gatherings acknowledge they could have taken this year off from interfaith events.

During the month of Ramadan, healthy, adult Muslims are required to fast from sunrise to sunset and regularly pray. There’s no rule saying they also need to invite a few dozen strangers to talk about their faith.

However, social gatherings have always played a key role in Ramadan, which ends this year around May 23. Muslims often invite their neighbors over for iftar, the meal that ends their daily fast, or eat with fellow members of their mosque.

“If this month is just about being hungry and thirsty then, according to the Prophet Muhammad, you’ve lost the benefits. There’s has to be a deeper meaning, like making you feel more connected to others,” Zafar said.

Because Muslims are already breaking their fast in large groups, it’s pretty easy to draw up a few more chairs, he added. Mosques regularly invite non-Muslims to take part in iftars and get a literal taste of Ramadan traditions.

“They invite Christian or Jewish congregations to come and ask one of their leaders to say a few words before the meal,” Zafar said.

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Muslims often also extend invites to elected officials, who may not know many members of the Islamic faith, said Luna Banuri, executive director of the Utah Muslim Civic League.

Last year, she helped organize an iftar with two Utah mayors, and had hoped to make it an annual event.

“The mayors were on board and our community was excited, but then COVID-19 hit,” she said.

The pandemic threatened to derail Banuri’s efforts, as well as hundreds of other interfaith Ramadan events. To save them, many mosques and Muslim organizations turned their attention to virtual meeting services like Zoom.

“I knew we wouldn’t get a chance to smell food with and sit across from and break bread with one another over good conversation, but at least we could bring people together,” Zafar said.

Moving online

This year’s virtual interfaith iftars have generally followed the same format as past in-person events. Hosts invite people from a variety of religious backgrounds to take part and then pick a few community leaders to say a few words.

At a May 9 event led by the Connecticut chapter of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Christian, Jewish and Sikh speakers took turns addressing the power of prayer. Then, four political officials shared words of encouragement and applauded participants for finding a way to build community without violating social distancing rules.

“I thank you for reminding us about the importance of never being isolated. We may be physically separated but we should not be emotionally and spiritually separated from one another,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, in his brief remarks.

During its recent virtual gatherings, the California-based Islamic Networks Groups used Zoom meeting tools to separate participants into small discussion groups. The events enabled deep personal connections even though they took place online, said Maha Elgenaidi, the organization’s executive director.

Virtual gatherings are “a great opportunity for people to connect with and learn a lot about each other,” she said.

On May 7, 2020, the Islamic Networks Group hosted an interfaith discussion online about how to maintain spirituality while social distancing. A recording of the event is available on YouTube. | YouTube screenshot

Like in-person events, they also give people a chance to deepen their understanding of Islam.

“Ramadan makes us realize how other people are suffering,” Imam Salman Tariq told the more than 70 participants in the Connecticut event. He and other Muslim speakers explained their Ramadan rituals and their community’s efforts to help people in need.

In some ways, online events actually improve upon in-person traditions, said Banuri, who has taken part in several virtual discussions over the past few weeks.

Online, participants have a chance to see and maybe even interact with everyone who is taking part. At in-person gatherings, it’s common to only chat with people nearby.

“You’re speaking with the people at your table rather than to the whole group,” Banuri said.

Virtual interfaith iftars offer a glimpse at people’s daily lives, the Rev. Knapp said. You can see little pieces of their home through your computer screens.

“You get the real person, as in you can see kids or animals walk through their video feed,” he said.

Despite those potential distractions, it can be easier to focus on what’s being said online than speeches offered at in-person events, Banuri said. Online, there aren’t any food smells to take up some of your attention.

“Everybody talked about missing the food this year and how much we love each other’s food. But not having that distraction also helped in many ways,” said Banuri, whose organization hosted a virtual interfaith iftar May 15 with the Salt Lake City Public Library.

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Elgenaidi said she’s left each of her organization’s virtual gatherings feeling inspired and refreshed.

“I wrote a note to my staff after (one of the calls) about what a fantastic and heartwarming experience it had been. People of all backgrounds (came) together without an agenda other than to be with each other,” she said.

This year’s online events feel extra special since, in the early days of the pandemic, many Muslims assumed they’d have to spend most of Ramadan isolated at home, Banuri said.

“Ramadan is one of the most social times of the year for us,” she said. “Taking that away would have been like stabbing at the heart of the community.”

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