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It’s 10.15 pm on Monday night.
Outside the sun has faded away as the clear night sky stretches over Dublin. The only thing that remains of the daylight is a thin turquoise hue that lines the horizon.
As the leaves outside sit still in the calm dark air, inside people across Dublin are tuning in online to a single voice.
“I would like to welcome you all who are joining me both Muslim and non-Muslim,” says the gentle voice of Imam Ismail Kotwal as he begins the prayer service, from his own home in Rialto.
It’s the fourth day of Ramadan, a holy month observed by Muslims, where for many, days of fasting are usually broken by big gatherings, by communal prayers and feasts.
But this year, Ramadan, like most everything else, has felt the effects of Covid-19.
Kotwal, though, has adapted.
“Very simply Ramadan is one of the pillars of Islam. It is very very important for Muslims,” says Kotwal, an imam with the Islamic Cultural & Welfare Association, earlier on the phone.
Forgiveness, blessings, and supplication are sought by Muslims during the holiest month in the Islamic calendar, he says.
“During Ramadan, there is a lot of activity in the mosque,” says Fazel Ryklief, an administrator at the Islamic Foundation of Ireland.
Ryklief is part of the South Circular Road mosque. “We would arrange meals at the mosque for the break of the fast,” he says.
No meals can take place at the mosques now as they are all closed under the Covid-19 restrictions, he says.
Says Ali: “The main message of Ramadan is to live a life that is different from the life that you usually live.”
The mosque would be the centre of the community at this time, he says.
There is a prayer that is practiced by some Muslims during Ramadan, known as the Taraweeh.
“It was during this time that the Quran was revealed to us,” says Kotwal.
The Taraweeh is a prayer, drawn from passages from the Quran, he says.
“It’s like an extra prayer. It’s not even obligatory but we take a section of the Quran each night and then try to recite it as best as we can,” he says.
It’s done an hour after the breaking of the fast at night, he says.
Says Ali last Friday: “Usually we would do that in a mosque but now because of the lockdown we are doing it on Zoom and Mixlr.”
“There is a great emphasis on me, or anybody else who has memorised the Quran, to be there for the congregation at the moment,” says Kotwal.
Kotwal says that he revises the Quran all day: “In Lidl, I’m reciting. In Aldi, I’m reciting.”
Normally, Muslims would congregate together at mosques to learn passages from the Quran at night time.
Kotwal is now learning how to bring this tradition online.
Old Traditions, New Technology
It was Parish Priest Fr Fergal MacDonagh from Our Lady of Dolours in Dolphin’s Barn who inspired Kotwal to bring his own services online, he says.
“A great blessing happened to me. It was an idea of Fr Fergal,” says Kotwal.
Fr Fergal rang Kotwal and asked him to speak at one of his sermons on the topic of fasting, he says.
“He said to me that he has a system where they can do live broadcasting,” says Kotwal.
This was the first time Kotwal was introduced to the idea of using the internet to broadcast his message, he says.
“Somebody came up with the idea of using Facebook but it was too complicated for a simple person like me,” he says.
Mixlr, a broadcasting website, was then suggested – which Kotwal liked because of the simplicity as it only uses a voice recording, he says. It’s just his voice, no video.
“I am 50 and I don’t understand all this modern technology,” he says.
Now Kotwal is using this platform to practice Taraweeh.
“We would usually go to the mosque to pray. Now, unfortunately, we have to do everything at home,” says Ali over the phone. He has been tuning into Kotwal online during Ramadan.
The passage that Kotwal recites on Monday is the sixth part of the Quran: The Table Spread.
This chapter tells of Jesus asking for heavenly food to be provided for everybody.
Reading out verse number 114, he begins to sing in Arabic.
His voice is soft as it flutters between notes, as he sings into the microphone piece of his earphones in his home.
“Jesus, send a table spread for us from the sky,” he says, translating the piece into English.
He repeats the verse again. Outside, the night sky has fallen dark.
He leaves a ten second pause after the second reciting. Then: “I will sing it one more time because I think that it is such a beautiful verse,” he says.
He encourages people to recite it at home and reflect before he turns his microphone off.
“I’ve never done anything like this before,” says Ali, one of the listeners of Kotwal’s stream.
This is a great way to stay connected to your community at this time, he says.
Says Kotwal: “It’s a way for me and the people to keep the memory of the Quran intact otherwise you would forget it.”
Hard to Adapt
Despite adapting prayers to a world hit by Covid-19 and places of worship are no longer available for people to go to, being apart is still tough.
“People are not used to this both Muslim and non-Muslim. It’s not easy even for me,” says Kotwal.
Normally Kotwal would make regular trips to the beach or to the mountains, he says.
“Especially during Ramadan I used to go to the mountains to meditate.”
Neighbours, friends, and community – Kotwal misses them deeply at this time, he says.
“I miss the atmosphere, the buzz of a mosque or Allah’s house. When there is lots of pious people gathered together the vibrancy and the atmosphere is of another level,” he says.
Ryklief from the Islamic Foundation of Ireland still works in his own mosque. “It’s hard seeing it empty at this time,” he says.
“What I miss is the smell of the basmati rice floating through the air that people prepare for the evening meal,” says Ryklief.
[CORRECTION: This article was updated at 17:33 on 30 April 2020. The original photograph used in this piece depicted the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland who were not involved in this article. We apologise for the error.]