Every day before dawn around 4am I wake up suddenly as if awoken from within. A silent call beckons me to open my eyes, an angel’s whisper!

You see, I don’t have an alarm clock and I have to wake up around 4am to eat my early breakfast, because around 4:20am the Morning Prayer time comes in and I have to start my daily fast.

Oh, I forgot to mention, it’s the holy month of Ramadan. My 19th behind bars, yet it seems, there is something really different about it this time around.

COVID-10 has ushered in a ‘new’ everything, and a ‘first’ of everything as well. We human beings are an adaptable bunch so we conform to the changes around us. But, some alterations are more irksome than the others.

I remember one constant theme about Ramadan, family. Although a religious exercise but it also has a lot of social aspects as well. The camaraderie it engenders is in itself a unique experience for Muslims. I think there is something about people breaking bread together in general, but the idea of syncing our entire daily routine from before dawn till the sunset as a community is something every Muslim feels special about. The entire ritual, by design, is geared towards unity, communal harmony, and a sense of calm, accomplishment, and apathy among other positive sentiments.

Usually during Ramadan, Muslims wake up before dawn to take an early breakfast, called the “Suhur”, and then we fast all day without any food and water. At sunset, the fast is broken, and this breaking of the fast is called “Iftaar”.

I remember my very first Ramadan behind bars; it was 2002, at Hudson County Correctional Facility. It was very tough. I guess a year removed form 9-11, no one really gave a crap about anything Muslim. Yet, it was made pleasant enough by the three young Muslim brothers who made it every bit a brotherly affair, a memory I shall cherish for the rest of my days.

Subsequently and prior to COVID-19 pandemic, Ramadan was an easy affair in New Jersey State Prison (NJSP) in Trenton. There is a huge population of Muslims inhere and the congregation is well established and run by a NJDOC Imam with the help of older prisoners. A special work crew is assigned for the kitchen detail for the Muslim prisoners who prepare the meals for the entire Muslim population in NJSP.

During the month of Ramadan Muslim prisoners would be gathered in the South Compound Visit Hall around 5:30pm and we remained there till the opening of the fast. The prison food service provides dates, chips, and some fruit and juices for us to open our fast at sunset.

The arrival of Ramadan in NJSP is a major occurrence. There is a sense of calm that takes over the whole prison. Even the guards and other prisoners notice it. Everyone agrees that it is the most quiet and peaceful time in NJSP. One of our older brothers always refer to a famous saying of Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) and never fails to remind us that, “it is quiet cause Allah (God) locks up all the devils during Ramadan!”

“You do know that this is a prison bro,” I would reply with sarcasm. To which he almost always answes, “I ain’t no devil!”

Anyhow, during the 2 to 3 hours we stay in the visit hall there are Islaamic classes conducted by volunteers. Sometimes religious lectures are played via a CD. At other times prisoners help each other with studies or just rest. The key is the gathering itself, as Ramadan is indeed a social event. Imagine two hundred men together as brothers and in harmony. Just by peeking in the large hall, may be, perhaps, for a moment at least, you wouldn’t know if it was a prison.

After the Iftaar and Congregational sunset prayer, we would all go to the prison mess-hall to get meals for the day and breakfast for the following Suhur. Being together for the few hours meant the world to us as it, in a small way, mimicked the familial traditions of Ramadan outside.

On or about March 12, 2020, NJSP was placed under lockdown due to COVID -19 crisis. Gradually all movements and services were cancelled. For the first time i two decades I fasted alone. Muslim prisoner volunteers, even under these conditions are preparing meals for their fellow brothers in faith and we are getting our readymade trays on our housing units.

Yet, there is a pall on the whole festivity. Without the congregation, the entire event seems almost diminished. Religiously too, there are more blessings to perform religious rites together. So, sitting in the cold cell it seems almost surreal to have to experience this blessed month.

Speaking to my family members outside, it seems they too are feeling the isolation. I don’t know but it feels like the entire Muslim world is in collective shock.

But, I do believe in the Mercy of The Almighty. Remembering God in solitude has its own serenity. Seclusion from gossip and banter of the everyday life provides a unique avenue for spiritual growth. Self reflection is an immensely humbling and gratifying feeling but requires tranquility. The COVID-19 restrictions, with God’s Grace, provided call of that and more.

I have said this before in my previous writings, we Muslims are a resilient bunch! Insha’ Allah (God Willing), we shall endure this with God’s Benevolence as well. Things will get better. There is a bright day after a dark night.

I will leave you with as much: there is averse in the Qur’an 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)

-By Tariq MaQbool

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