Observing Ramadan during COVID-19
IEU journalist Emily Campbell spoke to two members, Christine Harman, Principal of the Australian International Islamic College (AIIC) Durack campus and Rami Ahmed, a teacher and union staff representative who also works at AIIC, to discuss how the coronavirus outbreak has impacted the observance of Ramadan for the school community this year.
Significance of Ramadan
As a Muslim member of AIIC staff, Rami said Ramadan is an extremely important month in the Islamic calendar, one of spiritual reflection, self-improvement and heightened devotion and worship.
“Ramadan involves abstaining from eating and drinking between sunrise and sunset and Muslims are encouraged to pray and read the Quran” Rami said.
“It is important to Muslims because we believe it teaches us self-discipline, self-control, sacrifice and empathy for those less fortunate, thus encouraging actions of generosity and compulsory charity,” Rami said.
Ramadan this year commenced on Thursday 23 April 2020 and will conclude on Saturday 23 May 2020.
During the holy month, Muslims typically eat a pre-dawn meal, suhoor, and come together at sunset to break their fast with iftar, the evening meal.
Christine, who does not identify as Muslim, said this was her first-time sharing Ramadan with her students, as their new school Principal.
“We have used this as an opportunity for the students to “teach” me about how they observe Ramadan so the students are busy sending me photos, videos and have even invited me to virtual Iftar through video conferencing in the evening,” Christine said.
“Being my first year at AIIC, experiencing Ramadan this way has been truly unique, not just for me, but for all staff.
“It has been incredible to see our staff, many of whom do not identify as Muslim, eagerly embracing what Ramadan entails.
“We have had such wonderful support and humble leadership from our Imams (religious leaders) who have held question and answers sessions which are not only informative, but rather light-hearted!” Christine said.
Adjustments to school and prayer
Given how physically and mentally taxing fasting can be, coupled with the disruption to routine from the COVID-19 pandemic, AIIC has reduced the length of their school days during Ramadan.
Rami said schoolwork hours have been reduced, so staff and students can spend more time with their families, a practical change Christine implemented to support her staff.
“Students still have a morning tea and a shortened lunch break, when non-Muslim teachers also have the opportunity to get a bit to eat,” Rami said.
“For those students who are fasting, they read the Quran and engage in extra prayer.”
Given the social distancing and remote learning requirements during COVID-19, it has not been possible for AIIC students and staff to attend their regular prayers at a Mosque, which they would normally do during Ramadan.
However, the college has been able to creatively accommodate lunchtime prayers whilst being mindful of the restrictions.
“Being a faith-based school, prayer is important so at the same time as we were removing group prayer, we developed new systems so staff and students could safely observe their faith,” said Christine.
“On Fridays when we would normally all come together for Jumah prayer, instead, we bring our senior students out onto the verandas and balconies, where they spread out, use individual prayer mats and pray, led by an Imam who is using a portable PA system.
“It has been an incredibly humbling experience to be able to facilitate prayer, but in a safe, socially distanced way,” she said.
The AIIC community has always come together to celebrate Ramadan, but to also assist the wider public through acts of charity.
“The school has always celebrated in our classrooms and with community iftars, feeding more than 1000 people from not just the school, but from the wider community, regardless of faith,” Christine said.
“This year, things are different and there is an unmistakeable solemness to our observances of Ramadan.
“That being said, there is an undeniable tenacity and solidarity that despite remaining separated, the Muslim community are committed to charity, hospitality and loving each other.”
Rather than cancelling such an important part of Ramadan, the school reinvented their community iftar as a contactless, drive-through community iftar, which has proven a success.
“We cook and package close to 2000 meals and have our community drive through our school car park, where we hand them meals for their family,” Christine said.
Christine says she was impressed by AIIC staff, many of whom are not Muslims, eagerly embracing what Ramadan entails – some of whom have joined their Muslim colleagues in fasting.
“Fasting in solidarity with my school community has been incredibly challenging, but an enlightening experience,” said Christine.
“I have come to understand that fasting is so much more than abstaining; rather, it is a redefining of gratification, of coming together over something other than food; it is about feeding others, literally and figuratively when you yourself are doing without.”
Like any school, Rami says it has been challenging to provide students with a sense of normality during the pandemic, and implementing curriculum to give students a fun, rich learning experience remotely has not been easy.
“I believe students at AIIC have adapted very well to learning online, although for some not having one-on-one support has been difficult,” Rami said.
“Lack of social interaction with other students has been difficult for some students, although our college provides a laptop for every student, which has made reading out to students easier.”
Families of many students are from culturally diverse backgrounds and speak a language other than English at home, so regular letters, social media videos and other communications with parents are translated into the most common native languages.
“We put a lot of effort into communication - in doing this, it allays the fear associated with COVID-19 because staff and parents know I will always be upfront with them,” Christine said.
“All our decisions are based on best practice and on the advice of medical experts and I am choosing to manage this crisis how I manage most things in my life, with honesty, integrity, transparency and supreme vulnerability.
“It’s imperative that we as leaders show our vulnerability and therein demonstrate to our people that we don’t always have the answers, and that it’s ok for them to be uncertain at times too.”
The collective counts
Rami highlighted the importance of IEUA-QNT membership during these unprecedented times.
“I think being a member of our union has given me a greater sense of assurance, knowing support is there for my colleagues and I, should it be needed,” Rami said.
“It has given me a greater understanding of my rights and expectations as an employee.”
On reflection, Christine says the experience of leading a school and experiencing Ramadan during a global pandemic has been a tremendous experience in humanity.
“Our staff have pulled together and the students are just a delight,” Christine said.
“Faith is not a divisive factor, faith is what brings people together and it is an absolute honour to give voice to the complex, multi-ethnic and deeply rich culture that abounds here at AIIC, unified in faith,” she said.