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For California Muslims: A Ramadan approaching normal

Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California could not enforce restrictions on at-home indoor religious gatherings. The 5-4 ruling, coming on the eve of Ramadan, has been a boon to California Muslims.

In this Feb. 3, 2017, file photo, people pray as part of a nationwide day of unity at the Islamic Center of Southern California, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

LOS ANGELES (RNS) — As California begins to chart a path toward a post-COVID-19 future, many Muslims in the Golden State are enjoying a Ramadan closer to normal. For one group of California Muslims, the month of Ramadan of course means worship, prayer and fasting, but this year it also means resuming their annual friendly game of American football in the Santa Clarita Valley.

 “A group of us will be gathering for ‘Laylatul football’ or night of football, an annual flag football game that starts just before iftar and breaks for the meal and prayer. We continue to play for another hour or so and then pray,” says Jihad Turk, the president of Bayan College, an Islamic graduate school based in Orange County, California.

The mix of faith and football is a novel pairing, and Muslims drive from across Southern California to participate. Due to the pandemic, last year’s game was canceled for the first time since its inauguration 15 years ago. The group is looking forward to getting back together this year.

California now has the lowest COVID-19 transmission rate in the continental United States. A relatively warm spring and some of the highest vaccine uptake rates in the country have boosted this achievement. This, coupled with an important U.S. Supreme Court ruling on religious freedoms, has allowed California’s Muslims to experience a far different Ramadan from that in other parts of the world. In Morocco, authorities have imposed a Ramadan curfew. In Germany, a mosque has instituted mandatory COVID-19 tests before jumah, the Friday congregational prayers.

Last year, California authorities banned indoor religious gatherings at home involving three households or more in an effort to combat COVID-19. The measure’s opponents found the policy hypocritical given the lack of such restrictions on other forms of gathering. Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that California could not enforce such restrictions on at-home indoor religious gatherings. The decision, coming on the eve of Ramadan, has been a boon to California Muslims, who see it as one of the reasons this Ramadan can be more like those in the past.

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Jihad Turk. Photo via Bayan College

Jihad Turk. Photo via Bayan College

Turk said he has been invited to home iftars in light of the ruling. However, he cites the rise in vaccinations as another reason California Muslims are comfortable with such gatherings for the first time in over a year. “I am fully vaccinated and suspect the hosts are as well as the other guests,” Turk said.

Iftar, or the breaking of the fast, is the meal Muslims enjoy each evening after sunset during Ramadan. Mohamud Mahmoud, a business analyst, said he is taking advantage of the ruling to attend more iftar dinners with large crowds this Ramadan. Last year, he said iftars were small family affairs, but this year members of his extended family are also taking part in Ramadan celebrations.

“We didn’t hold any congregational tarawih prayers last year, but this year the same expanded family group is holding tarawih prayer from home rather than going to the mosque — I still haven’t been to the mosque, besides jumah prayer, since the pandemic started,” Mahmoud said.

During Ramadan, many Muslims pray, usually communally, an extended prayer known as tarawih after the evening prayer, which can last over an hour. The term “tarawih” is derived from the Arabic term for relaxation. The elective tarawih prayer is usually performed congregationally, but some Muslims embraced the extended prayer practice at home or alone during Ramadan last year.

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While many Muslims continue to take advantage of California’s seeming success against the virus, others seem less sure.

 “I wasn’t even aware of the loosening of restrictions. I probably won’t be having any social gatherings either way, indoor or otherwise. I am too busy with finding ways to help the immigrant community — these are still trying times,” said Fazil Munir, a Southern California immigration lawyer.