ALIQUIPPA, Pa. — As the sun made its slow, late-spring descent toward the horizon, members of the Ashfaq family, across three generations, were winding down another day of fasting at their Center Township home in Beaver County.
Antoinette Ashfaq sat with her children in the living room — she reading the Quran, they reading religious books for young people. Her mother-in-law, Absar Ashfaq, worked quietly in the kitchen over sizzling frying pans, and the other family members joined her at different times.
The Muslim family has been observing Ramadan almost entirely at home during this, the most unusual observance of the Islamic holy month in recent memory — one that has seen mosques closed to public gatherings along with churches, synagogues and temples due to the pandemic.
Even under normal circumstances, the Ashfaq family members conduct many observances of Ramadan at home. They would typically go a couple of times a week to the Attawheed Islamic Center in Carnegie. But since the mosque is a half-hour or so from their home, they would spend most nights of a typical Ramadan at home.
This year, they’re spending all of them at home.
“The rituals are the same, except that we’re doing it with the immediate family, rather than with the community,” said Dr. Sarmad Ashfaq, a physician and Antoinette’s husband.
As familiar as the rituals are, the family has noticed the difference this year, and there are pluses as well as minuses.
The children — daughters Emaan, 13, and Noor, 11, and sons Hamza, 8, and Hasan, 5 — are “missing being with their friends” for mosque activities, Antoinette Ashfaq said. Fasting can be more of a challenge with fewer activities to focus on.
On the other hand, “I’ve had more time for devotions because I’m not running around doing things,” Antoinette Ashfaq said. “It’s a little more peaceful for me.”
Normally in the spring, she would be driving children to soccer and other activities. But with such programs all canceled, “I’ve being able to focus more on the month,” she said.
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, the time in which Muslims believe the Quran, their sacred book, was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. Muslims traditionally observe the month by abstaining from food and water from dawn to sunset.
Often a fast-breaking meal is held communally. At Attawheed, for example, typically a catered meal is held in a downstairs activity area in the evenings, followed by prayer and readings from the Quran.
“People tend to focus on the fasting part of it, but it’s so much more,” Antoinette Ashfaq said. “It’s a time of reflection — have I been the kind of person I want to be? It is also a time of doing charity.”
One of the purposes of fasting is to develop empathy for those who have no choice but to go without food.
And that extends to observing Ramadan during a time of pandemic.
“It makes you think about other people that are less fortunate than us and reach out for them,” Sarmad Ashfaq said.
As a medical hospitalist at a local hospital, he said he benefits from the fast because it helps him deepen his concern for those affected by the coronavirus.
One might think the long days of fasting would make it harder to do stressful work.
“When I’m fasting, I actually feel more energetic,” Dr. Ashfaq said.
On a recent evening, with the sun still out, the children took a break after their reading to go outside and play, blowing dandelion seeds and making chalk drawings of hearts and flowers in the driveway. The children took turns in the kitchen, as well.
When sunset arrived, the family gathered at the table to break their fast with dates, a traditional fast-breaking food, and appetizers of pakora, or fried vegetables, and celery juice. Then they went into a separate room for “maghrib,” or sunset prayer, the fourth of five daily prayer times.
They gathered at their prayer rugs, which were pointed toward a corner of the room and, ultimately, toward the sacred city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Hamza recited the “adhan,” or call to prayer. Dr. Ashfaq then led in the prayers, which were accompanied by standing, kneeling and other postures.
The family then returned to the table for their full meal, which included kebobs, tandoori chicken and fried rice.
Later that night, they returned to the living room for “taraweeh,” a special prayer during Ramadan, which includes recitation from a section of the Quran.
Antoinette Ashfaq, who is a convert to Islam, has been learning the language of the Quran.
“I’ve set my goal to read it in Arabic and then in English,” she said. She’s also listening to recorded teachings about the text as she strives to the goal many Muslims have: to read through the entire Quran in the month of Ramadan.
“Maybe this year I will actually attain that goal,” she said.