While the closure of places of worship was hard for all devotees, it has been more difficult for some than for others, with one such group being migrant workers. Acmal Zuheyr offers us a glimpse of the spiritual experience of Ramadan by a Muslim migrant worker during this pandemic.
With the closure of places of worship during the circuit breaker (CB) period, religious occasions and festivals that fell within it became strangely muted and subdued affairs. Christians could not celebrate Easter in church, Sikhs could not go to gurdwaras for Vaisakhi, Muslims could not go to mosques during Ramadan and so on — the usual sacred spaces where people gather to commemorate these occasions remained closed. Indeed, for devotees who usually cherish these annual occasions, this period was as difficult as it was unprecedented. Nevertheless, I believe this period of isolation showed that a yearning for a sense of spirituality is not just a means to overcome adversity but is also inherent in us as humans.
Religious gatherings are as much a source of spiritual nourishment as they are social events. Although many have used other means of spiritual devotion, for migrant workers, this is arguably more difficult mainly due to the stringent quarantine measures on top of being away from their families and home communities. I spoke with a Bangladeshi worker who has been affected by such measures. I learned how despite the disruption to the usual ways of Ramadan, he has embraced new opportunities that have arisen out of this pandemic, arguably connecting to his spiritual self more deeply than during previous Ramadans.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that migrant workers, particularly the ones staying in dormitories, are experiencing a more difficult pandemic period than many Singaporeans. They have been struck with stricter social distancing measures tantamount to a lockdown. They also reportedly faced difficulties such as being confined to crowded, stuffy rooms, as well as having to endure meals of poor quality and quantity. As such, it was not an easy Ramadan for many Muslim migrant workers confined in these dormitories. Ramadan is the holiest month in the Islamic calendar where Muslims fast and gather at mosques to do communal prayers. In Singapore, Muslim migrant workers, many of whom are Bangladeshis, are a regular sight in mosques. They help out, enjoy breaking their fasts (iftar) with meals provided by the mosques and pray communally till late night — all of which are constitutive of the heightened sense of spirituality that this month can offer. Already separated from their loved ones and now confronted more closely with the realities of the pandemic, one can empathise how mosque closures had impacted them to a higher degree this Ramadan.
In my phone conversation with Shahin, a 28-year-old Bangladeshi construction worker who, like many migrant workers, is stuck in his dormitory, I discovered something of the Ramadan experience of a Muslim migrant worker during this COVID-19 pandemic. The anxiety faced by many of these workers can be intense. Shahin mentioned how friends and neighbours he personally knows have contracted the virus and were transferred to other designated quarantine areas. The threat of infection is indeed a very real and constant worry for many of them. “When I can, I try calling my family, parents in Bangladesh. They’re really worried that I get the coronavirus.” In addition, he said it is also difficult to call his loved ones in private as he has been sharing his dormitory room with 11 other roommates.
As if the constant threat of infection is not anxiety-inducing enough, the loss of income is another cause of consternation. “Because we are not working like normal, our pay is also lesser. I have to explain to my family in Bangladesh… and my younger brother that I cannot give same money like last time,” Shahin regrets. On top of that, the social distancing measures in the dormitories effectively means they are confined to their rooms the whole day. “It’s very boring, I cannot do a lot of things and just have to lie down on my bed.”
When asked about how his Ramadan was going, Shahin reported, “This Ramadan is very different, because we cannot move around, except only go same floor toilets. We sleep a lot.” He lamented not being able to go to the mosque to do tarawih prayers – the nightly Ramadan prayers usually done in congregation. “I feel very sad I cannot go to the masjid to iftar and do tarawih at night like normal.”
However, Shahin also saw a sort of silver lining amidst this pandemic as he reflects and contrasts this Ramadan to previous ones. “What is good also… because we don’t need to work, we can fast every day, pray every day, and read more Quran. If I working in construction … it’s very tiring, very difficult and tiring for me to fast, and no time to do prayer. But now I can. At night, when I can, I would pray tarawih with my friends from same room together, but not so close to each other.”
While some of us could construe this as religion helping individuals cope in difficult times, I believe over-emphasising such an understanding of religion overlooks the inherent ways in which we humans yearn to connect to the divine — to achieve some sense of spirituality. It is true that the closure of religious spaces has prevented spirituality from being achieved through the kinds of spiritual ‘collective effervescence’1 that happen in congregations. Yet, it opens up other avenues to connect to the divine. Shahin’s description of his Ramadan, marred by restrictions, anxiety, and boredom, did not discourage him from fasting, praying, and reading the Quran. In fact, it opened up new opportunities to do exactly those things that he had always wanted to do but could not in more ‘normal’ Ramadans previously. Our migrant Muslim friends yearn for exactly the same thing as our Singaporean Muslim friends during Ramadan — to elevate their spiritual connection in the holiest month of the Muslim calender — despite their different and arguably more arduous quarantine experience.
In a lot of ways, people have a yearning to connect spiritually. No doubt the availability of sacred spaces and gatherings pre-pandemic provided spiritual avenues through the shared emotional energy of ‘collective effervescence’ — something many may have taken for granted previously. Learning from Shahin’s experience of this recent Ramadan, I believe the COVID-19 pandemic can remind us not only of the centrality of sacred spaces to our sense of spirituality, but also underline our intrinsic need for spiritual connection.
Shahin (the Bangladeshi migrant worker interviewed in this article) is also a musician and is a founding member of the Migrant Band Singapore that performs for diverse audiences to spread awareness of Bangladeshi culture and music.
1 Classical sociologist Emile Durkheim terms ‘collective effervescence’ as that social ‘electricity’ generated when individuals gather to take part in rituals that is characterised by an outpouring of unifying emotional force making them feel as if they are in contact with an extraordinary energy. ↩
(Image source: Shawn Ang, Unsplash)