Editor's note: This is an updated version of a story that was first published on May 18, 2020.
Every day before dawn at around 4 a.m., I wake up suddenly as if awoken from within. A silent call beckons me to open my eyes. It’s an angel’s whisper.
You see, I don’t have an alarm clock and I have to wake up at that time to eat my early breakfast because at around 4:20 a.m., it will be time for morning prayer and I have to start my daily fast.
This is the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. It’s my 19th behind bars, but this one is very different from the ones before.
COVID-19 has ushered in a new everything and a first of everything. We human beings are adaptable creatures so we conform to the changes around us. But some alterations have been more difficult than others.
I remember my very first Ramadan behind bars. It was 2002, and I was imprisoned inside the Hudson County Correctional Facility in New Jersey. That Ramadan was a tough one. It had been a year since the Twin Towers fell on 9/11, and no one really wanted to give a crap about anything related to Muslims. Yet, even inside, I was able to find some pleasure in Ramadan because of three young Muslim brothers who made every bit of it a brotherly affair. It’s a memory I shall cherish for the rest of my days.
For me, one constant theme about Ramadan is family. Even though the holiday is a religious exercise, it also has a lot of social aspects. The camaraderie it engenders is a unique experience for Muslims. There is something special about people breaking bread together in general, but the idea of syncing our entire daily routine from before dawn until the sunset as a community is something every Muslim cherishes. By design, the entire ritual revolves around unity, communal harmony and empathy for struggling people around the world.
It’s no different in prison. Here at New Jersey State Prison (NJSP) in Trenton, there is a huge population of Muslims, and the congregation is well established and run by a New Jersey Department of Corrections imam with the help of older prisoners.
Before the pandemic, Ramadan was an easy affair. A sense of calm took over the whole prison. Even the guards and other prisoners noticed it. Everyone agreed that it was the most quiet and peaceful time in NJSP.
During the month of Ramadan, Muslim prisoners would normally gather in the South Compound Visit Hall around 5:30 p.m. and remain there until the breaking of the fast. The prison food service would provide dates, chips, and some fruit and juices for us to open our fast at sunset. A special work crew was assigned to work in the kitchen to prepare meals for the entire Muslim population.
Things changed completely, however, during the pandemic.
NJSP was placed under lockdown because of COVID-19 in mid-March of 2020. Gradually all movements and services were canceled. That Ramadan, for the first time in two decades, I fasted alone.
Muslim prisoner-volunteers were still preparing meals for us, but there was a pall on the whole festivity. Without the whole congregation opening their fasts together, the entire event seemed diminished. We ate our ready-made trays in our housing units alone. Religiously too, there was something missing when we could not perform religious rites together. Sitting in the cold cell, it felt almost surreal to have to experience this blessed month alone.
I tried to preserve a sense of community by helping to distribute the food to other Muslim brothers, but it wasn’t the same.
I still believe, however, in the mercy of The Almighty. Remembering God in solitude has its own serenity. Seclusion from gossip and the banter of everyday life provides a unique avenue for spiritual growth. The COVID-19 restrictions, with God’s grace, provided all of that and more.
We Muslims are a resilient bunch. Insha’ Allah (God Willing), we shall endure this with God’s benevolence. Things will get better. There is a bright day after a dark night.
There is a verse in the Quran which I read often. In my dreary days, and the bleakest of nights, repeating this verse fills me with hope and a promise of a better day: “Verily, along with every hardship is relief!” (The Noble Qur’an 94:5)
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.