Celebrating Ramadan in the digital age

Dina Al-Mahdy, Tuesday 19 Mar 2024

The impact of the digital age on celebrations of the holy month of Ramadan offers new opportunities to honour its centuries-old traditions.

Fathi Abul-Ezz
Fathi Abul-Ezz

 

Muslims worldwide are finding innovative ways to observe the holy month of Ramadan, blending technology with spirituality in a harmonious union.

Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, holds immense significance for Muslims worldwide. It is a time of fasting, prayer, reflection, and community bonding. In the Arab world, Ramadan is deeply ingrained in the cultural fabric, uniting people through shared traditions, spirituality, and acts of charity.

Historically, Ramadan marks the month when the Quran, the holy book of Islam, was revealed to the Prophet Mohamed. Muslims fast from dawn to sunset during this month to commemorate this divine revelation and to practice self-discipline, empathy, and gratitude.

In the Arab world, Ramadan brings families and communities together for special meals before sunrise (Sohour) and after sunset (Iftar), as well as collective prayers at mosques or homes. The month is also a time for increased acts of charity, community service, and spiritual reflection.

With the advent of digital technologies and social media, traditional Ramadan practices in the Arab world have been influenced in various ways. Social media platforms have become avenues for sharing Ramadan greetings, exchanging recipes, and discussing spiritual reflections. Mobile apps now offer tools for tracking prayer times, Quran recitations, and charitable donations, providing convenience and connectivity for Muslims observing Ramadan.

The impact of digital technologies on Ramadan traditions is complex, offering new opportunities for community engagement, virtual gatherings, and access to religious resources while also posing challenges in maintaining the intimacy and authenticity of in-person celebrations.

As the digital age continues to reshape how people experience Ramadan, navigating the intersection between tradition and technology remains a dynamic process for Arab communities seeking to honour their heritage while embracing innovation.

TRADITIONAL PRACTICES

Muslims in the Arab world observe fasting from dawn until sunset during Ramadan, refraining from food, drink, smoking, and other physical needs. Fasting is seen as an act of self-discipline, spirituality, and empathy for the less fortunate.

Family also plays a central role during Ramadan. Families come together for pre-dawn meals to start the day with blessings and energy. The evening meal is a special time when families gather to break their fast, share traditional dishes, and strengthen bonds.

Muslims gather at mosques for special evening prayers known as taraweeh, where sections of the Quran are recited. These prayers foster a sense of community, spirituality, and unity among worshippers.

Communal prayers, especially taraweeh prayers at mosques, create a collective spiritual experience and reinforce a sense of community. Praying together builds solidarity, boosts spirituality, and provides a supportive environment for worship and reflection.

Breaking the fast at sunset (Iftar) is often done in groups, with friends, family, and even strangers coming together to share meals and blessings. This practice promotes generosity, hospitality, and solidarity within communities.

Mosques in the Arab world also play a pivotal role during Ramadan, hosting special prayers, Quranic recitations, and Islamic lectures. Community centres organise events such as charity drives, educational programmes, and social gatherings to engage the community during this sacred month.

Ramadan also emphasises acts of charity and giving back to the community. Muslims in the Arab world engage in various charitable activities, including feeding the needy, supporting orphanages, sponsoring Iftar meals, and contributing to charitable organisations to help those in need.

Social media platforms like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook have significantly transformed the way people celebrate Ramadan and carry out such traditional practices. During this holy month, individuals may share personal reflections, inspirational quotes, and photographs of their Iftar meals and mosque visits. Social media provides a virtual space for Muslims worldwide to connect, share experiences, and spread positivity.

Al-Azhar in Cairo, one of the oldest and most prestigious Islamic institutions in the world, has recognised the importance of harnessing the power of social media to connect with a broader audience. In a forward-thinking initiative, several Islamic scholars associated with Al-Azhar have embarked on a journey to learn about the dynamics of social media and digital platforms.

By embracing these technologies, they aim to transcend physical boundaries and traditional communication channels to reach a global audience interested in Islamic teachings and spiritual guidance.

Through their digital platforms, they are engaging with followers, sharing knowledge, promoting religious tolerance, and dispelling misconceptions about Islam. By leveraging social media effectively, Al-Azhar and its affiliated scholars are able to disseminate Islamic teachings, foster interfaith dialogue, and promote understanding and unity in an increasingly interconnected world.

Ahmed Shaaban, an Islamic studies professor, emphasised the significance of striking a balance between technology and tradition during Ramadan. “While advances in technology can enhance our Ramadan experience, it is vital to remember the value of traditional practices that connect us to our cultural and religious identity. By leveraging digital tools mindfully, we can enrich our spiritual journey while staying rooted in our heritage,” he said.

The rise of digital Ramadan influencers has also had a notable impact on promoting traditional values during Ramadan. These influencers use their platforms to share Islamic teachings, Ramadan tips, and acts of kindness. They play a pivotal role in inspiring others to engage in charitable activities, uphold religious practices, and foster a sense of community and spirituality.

Mobile apps have become essential tools for Muslims during Ramadan. These offer features like prayer time reminders, Quran recitations, daily duaa (supplications), and charity donation options. Muslims can easily access resources to enhance their spiritual journey, stay organised with their prayers and readings, and contribute to charitable causes with just a few taps on their smartphones.

Sara Ramzi, a tech-savvy young woman who shared her experience balancing technology and tradition during the holy month, said “I use a fasting app to keep track of prayer times and meal schedules, allowing me to structure my day more efficiently while staying connected to my religious duties.”

Despite relying on digital tools, Ramzi emphasised the importance of maintaining cherished traditions such as hosting Iftar gatherings with family and friends, preparing traditional dishes, and engaging in acts of charity as a way to ground herself in her cultural heritage.

Research conducted by the US Pew Research Center found that an increasing number of Muslims worldwide are turning to technology to observe Ramadan, with 45 per cent of American Muslims using the Internet to find out the start date of Ramadan, and 27 per cent using social media to congratulate others during the holy month.

These findings underscore the growing trend of incorporating digital resources into religious practices.

Ramzi’s story and Shaaban’s insights demonstrate the importance of integrating technology thoughtfully into Ramadan observance while staying true to cultural and religious values. By finding a harmonious balance between the convenience of digital resources and the time-honoured traditions of Ramadan, we can create a meaningful and fulfilling spiritual experience that resonates with both the past and the present.

Mobile apps have streamlined the process of making charity donations during Ramadan. Platforms like crowd-funding apps, charity organisation apps, and donation portals facilitate easy and secure ways for individuals to contribute to various causes, including providing Iftar meals, supporting orphanages, and delivering aid to those in need. The convenience of app-based donations empowers people to engage in acts of charity and make a positive impact on society.

Overall, the integration of digital media and technology into Ramadan celebrations has democratised access to religious resources, fostered a sense of global community among Muslims, and facilitated the promotion of Islamic values and teachings. These digital tools have enriched the Ramadan experience for many individuals, making it more interactive, engaging, and convenient.

VIRTUAL CELEBRATIONS

Technology has revolutionised the way Ramadan is celebrated by offering virtual alternatives for gatherings, prayers, and community events.

While there are challenges in maintaining community cohesion in a digital Ramadan, the opportunities for global connection, inclusivity, and accessibility make virtual celebrations a valuable addition to the traditional observance of the holy month.

Technology has played a crucial role in facilitating virtual gatherings and online events during Ramadan. Platforms like Zoom, Skype, and Google Meet have enabled individuals to connect with family, friends, and communities regardless of physical distance. Virtual gatherings have become a popular alternative for Iftar meals, Quran study sessions, and community events.

Virtual Iftars allow people to break their fast together virtually, sharing the spirit of Ramadan despite being apart. Live streams of taraweeh prayers provide individuals with the opportunity to observe traditional nighttime prayers from the comfort of their homes. Online Quran recitations bring the beauty of recitation and spiritual connection to a wider audience, fostering a sense of unity and devotion during the holy month.

However, one of the challenges of digital Ramadan celebrations is the potential loss of physical community engagement and intimacy that comes with in-person gatherings. Technical issues, time zone differences, and digital fatigue can also pose challenges to maintaining community cohesion.

But despite such challenges, virtual Ramadan celebrations offer unique opportunities. They allow individuals to connect with Muslim communities globally, participate in diverse cultural practices, and access religious resources and events that may not have been possible otherwise. Virtual platforms also provide a safe space for those who may feel isolated or marginalised during traditional communal gatherings.

The digital age presents a unique challenge to the preservation of cultural traditions during Ramadan. While embracing technology can enhance accessibility and outreach, it can also lead to concerns about the erosion of traditional values and practices. Balancing innovation with the preservation of cultural identity is essential in adapting to the digital era while maintaining the richness of cultural heritage.

Arab communities have been navigating the tension between tradition and technology by incorporating new media while upholding traditional values during Ramadan. Social media platforms, such as Instagram and TikTok, are being used to share traditional recipes, décor ideas, and spiritual reflections. Online platforms also showcase cultural performances, storytelling, and art, preserving and promoting Arab heritage in the digital space.

Various initiatives have emerged to bridge the gap between technology and cultural heritage. Some organisations have embarked on initiatives to create digital archives dedicated to documenting and preserving the cultural heritage of Ramadan celebrations in Arab communities.

One remarkable digital project is the Memory of Modern Egypt launched by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria to create the ultimate digital repository for culturally and historically significant material pertaining to the modern history of Egypt, starting from the French military expedition to Egypt in 1798 and leading to the end of the presidency of former president Anwar Al-Sadat in 1981.

The archive compiles historical footage, photographs, personal accounts, and artifacts related to Ramadan traditions documenting and preserving the cultural heritage of Ramadan celebrations in Egypt in the 18th and 19th centuries. By digitising these materials, it ensures that cultural knowledge and practices are accessible to a wider audience and preserved for future generations.

Cultural organisations and community groups are also organising online workshops, webinars, and interactive sessions that focus on various aspects of Ramadan traditions. These virtual events feature experts, scholars, and artists who share insights on the historical, social, and religious significance of Ramadan practices. Participants can learn traditional crafts, cooking techniques, music, and storytelling through digital platforms, fostering a deeper connection with Arab cultural heritage.

Initiatives leveraging such digital storytelling platforms aim to capture and preserve oral histories, rituals, and folklore associated with Ramadan in Arab communities. Through podcasts, videos, blogs, and social media campaigns, they showcase personal narratives, cultural practices, and community traditions that highlight the diversity and richness of Ramadan celebrations. By amplifying diverse voices and experiences, digital storytelling initiatives contribute to the preservation and promotion of cultural heritage.

These initiatives exemplify the creative ways in which technology is being harnessed to bridge the gap between innovation and cultural heritage in Ramadan celebrations. By embracing digital tools and platforms, Arab communities can ensure the continued relevance and appreciation of their cultural traditions in the digital age.

During Ramadan, it is crucial to strike a harmonious balance between technology and tradition to make the most of this sacred month. As we embrace the convenience and connectivity offered by digital tools, it is essential to reflect on how we can enrich our Ramadan experience while honouring our cultural roots.

While utilising apps for tracking prayer times, watching virtual religious lectures, or connecting with loved ones digitally can enhance our spiritual journey, it is equally important to cherish the traditional practices that make Ramadan exceptional.

As we navigate this blend of modernity and heritage, let us take a moment to contemplate how we can use technology mindfully to deepen our spiritual connection, while still upholding the traditions that define the essence of Ramadan.

Embracing this balanced approach can help us derive the maximum benefits from both the advancements of the digital age and the timeless rituals that have been passed down through generations.


* A version of this article appears in print in the 21 March, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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