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Mohammad Al-Heeti fills bags of food to be distributed to local Muslims during Ramadan on Wednesday, April 22, 2020, at his business, World Harvest in Urbana. The month of fasting, prayer, reflection and community began at dawn Thursday.

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URBANA — Mohammad Al-Heeti spent parts of Wednesday and Thursday at his Urbana business filling 50 bags with food to be distributed to Muslims locally for Ramadan.

Normally, the owner of World Harvest and Strawberry Fields would be preparing large amounts of food to serve at dusk to those who would gather in each other’s homes or at the mosque for prayer and dinner after sundown.

But the coronavirus pandemic has changed the way faithful Muslims will practice and worship during their special month of fasting, prayer, reflection and community.

“It’s going to be different. We’ve never experienced it like this before,” said Waleed Jassim, president of the Central Illinois Mosque and Islamic Center at 106 S. Lincoln Ave., U.

Ramadan began at dawn today and continues through May 24.

The ninth month of the Islamic calendar is characterized by acts of sacrifice and charity for Muslims that they believe will net them spiritual rewards.

Most notable to outsiders may be the practice of fasting between dawn and dusk each of the 29 days. That means no food or water at all for most healthy adult Muslims.

“During the day, you cannot eat anything,” Jassim said. “It teaches a person to be patient and appreciate food. A piece of crumb in a child’s hand looks so delicious. You appreciate the blessings we have on a daily basis.”

Praying throughout the day is part of the regimen, but after dusk, Muslims eat together, then gather at the mosque for more prayers.

It’s the community part of their faith equation that will be missing this year.

Following directives from local and state public health officials, Muslims — like Jews and Christians did earlier this month for Passover and Easter — have closed their place of worship to help prevent the spread of the highly contagious and potentially deadly virus.

Jassim said the last gathering at the mosque took place around March 13.

Weekly services are on Friday afternoons. As far as he knows, no members of the congregation have been infected by the coronavirus.

“The closure of the (mosque) in Ramadan, at a time when we need it most, should not stop us from taking advantage of the numerous blessings of Ramadan, including Taraweeh prayers, which can be performed at home,” Imam Ousmane Sawadogo said in a letter to members.

While Jassim said many members had difficulty accepting that, Sawadogo put it in a way to help their understanding that is based in Islamic teaching.

“He stressed the idea that if we take a chance on one life (by gathering), it’s worse than anything. We have to follow the safety rules and regulations to make sure nobody gets hurt,” Jassim said.

Al-Heeti called the virus a “test” that falls in line with what Ramadan is all about.

“Ramadan is actually a test ... to make us behave in a different way. We are fasting the whole day. You have to arrange your food behavior,” he said. “This is a new test, how to do it in a different way.”

“The more difficult part is that we are not all the same. We come from more than 40 different countries,” he said of Muslims. “To tell them, ‘No, you can’t come to the mosque’ — for the majority of people, it’s difficult, but they have accepted it. The Imam explained it very well.”

Jassim said instead of dinners in homes or at the mosque, members are being encouraged to patronize local restaurants run by Muslims familiar with dietary guidelines.

In a normal year, he said, many Muslims might donate $1,000 to have a meal catered for several. Acts of charity are a hallmark of Ramadan.

This year, they are asking their members to patronize local restaurants by ordering several meals to be distributed to those who are fasting as a substitute for the large gatherings where they would eat together. Mosque members are available to help with the distribution.

“That helps the restaurant owners also,” he said.

All Muslims, no matter their means, are expected to give something to help those less fortunate, Jassim said.

Al-Heeti, who said acts of charity are a personal practice “between us and God,” received $5,000 anonymously to fill 50 bags with $100 worth of groceries each to be distributed within the Muslim community.

“We look after people who need support. We have a sense where to find these people,” he said. “A lot of people don’t show they are in need. It’s part of their dignity.”

Reporter

Mary Schenk is a reporter covering police, courts and breaking news at The News-Gazette. Her email is mschenk@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@schenk).