Updated at 11:07 a.m. ET on 2020-04-27
Most years, the food bazaar at the Bendungan Hilir market in the Indonesian capital bustles with people at iftar, when Muslims break their daily fast during Ramadan – but it was deserted Friday, the first day of the holy month.
Government and religious leaders throughout the region have largely banned or tightly restricted mass gatherings for prayers and nightly fellowship due to COVID-19, in a month usually characterized by fasting by day, feasting by night and mosques packed with worshippers.
“This year there is no Ramadan food bazaar. We are not allowed to open,” a vendor who identified herself as Sumi told BenarNews in Jakarta, adding that authorities had notified her about the ban a week ago.
Jakarta is one of the hotspots for COVID-19 in Indonesia, which so far has recorded 689 deaths from the virus, the highest death toll in Southeast Asia. On Friday, the number of confirmed nationwide cases stood at more than 8,200.
Indonesia’s Ministry of Religious Affairs Ministry last week banned government institutions from hosting iftar gatherings, and its top clerical body urged Muslims to pray at home.
“Performing prayers at home won’t reduce the value of our devotion to God,” said Asrorun Ni’am Sholeh of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI). “Just staying at home to avoid spreading the virus or being exposed to the virus is considered a religious duty at a time like this.”
Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand marked the first full day of Ramadan on Friday after authorities observed the new moon. Bangladesh and India were to follow a day later.
Thailand extended a month-old ban on Friday prayers to the Ramadan rituals of tarawih, iftar and Quran recitation at mosques. A nationwide curfew was also in effect from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. Thailand had recorded 2,854 cases and 50 deaths as of Friday.
“I feel weird not being able to go to a mosque… But we, as a part of society, have to follow orders,” Tokiroh Hele-iso, a resident of Pattani province in the mostly Muslim Deep South region, told BenarNews. “I encourage all to fight and defeat COVID during Ramadan.”
Bangladesh limited the number of people participating in prayers at mosques to 12 and banned iftar meals. Health officials in the South Asian country announced 4,689 confirmed infections as of Friday, and 131 deaths.
“To maintain social distancing, no individual or institution can arrange an iftar party during the holy month of Ramadan,” the Ministry of Religious Affairs said in statement Friday.
Ahemmedul Haque, the imam of Godown Jame Mosque in northwestern town of Naogaon, said he was saddened by the ban.
“I do understand the reality of coronavirus, but as an imam cannot accept an empty mosque. During Ramadan, the Muslims who do not regularly attend prayer, come to the mosques to offer tarawih,” he told BenarNews. “Now, they are unlikely to say prayers at their houses.”
“Mosques become the center of Ramadan celebrations as people share food from the same pot, promoting brotherhood. People send huge quantities of the best quality foods for devotees, allowing the poor and destitute people to get enough food from the mosques,” he said.
In neighboring India, Muslim leaders in Kolkata instructed worshipers not to gather at mosques but to offer prayers from home. “At a mosque, not more than five people, including the imam, can offer prayers,” said Md. Yahiya, head of the Bengal Imams Association.
But conservative Aceh province on the western tip of Indonesia was an exception to the trend. Earlier this week, the Aceh Ulema Consultative Council gave a green light to tarawih prayers in mosques as long as worshippers followed health protocols including wearing masks and using their own prayer mats.
Muslims packed the Baiturrahman Grand Mosque in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh on Thursday evening. Only 8 coronavirus cases have been confirmed thus far in the province, the only one in Indonesia where sharia law is in force.
'I will remember this'
In Malaysia, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has hinted that the country’s lockdown could be continued through Eid al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan on May 23 – even as health officials say the restrictions in place since mid-March have helped reduce the rate of new infections.
Muhyiddin, who spent part of his day discussing how to speed up development of a vaccine on a World Health Organization tele-conference, had words of encouragement for fellow Malaysians beginning the fasting month.
“Just like when we fast, we must struggle and fight against our desires,” he said in a televised address. “It doesn’t matter that we cannot pray together at the mosque. Perhaps this is a God-given opportunity for us to pray with our families at home instead.”
Yusof Majni, 29, said he felt sad when he saw a photo of a tarawih prayer at the National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur on the eve of Ramadan.
“I saw a photo last night. Only four individuals performed tarawih at the mosque. Only then did I realize that this year is different. It feels different. I will remember this,” he said.
A doctor at Sungai Buloh Hospital in Selangor, Malaysia who asked not to be named said those on the front lines treating COVID-19 patients would likely not be fasting.
“What’s important is we stick to the program and beat this virus so we can all have our lives back,” she said.
Malaysia has recorded 5,691 COVID-19 cases and 96 deaths; Globally, more than 2.7 million people have been infected and more than 195,000 have died, according to data compiled by disease experts at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.
Ronna Nirmala in Jakarta, Mariyam Ahmad in Pattani, Thailand, Kamran Reza Chowdhury in Dhaka, Paritosh Kanti Paul in Kolkata, India, and Hadi Azmi in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.
CORRECTION: An earlier version wrongly stated that, as of Friday, Indonesia had the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Southeast Asia.