After a year of pandemic isolation, Anchorage Muslims return to mosque for Ramadan

Youssef Barbour, a doctor in Anchorage and spokesperson for the Islamic Community Center of Anchorage Alaska at an evening prayer service on Tuesday, April 13, 2021. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

The crescent moon appeared in the night sky on Monday, kicking off the holy month of Ramadan for Muslims around the world, including in Alaska.

At Alaska’s largest mosque, the Islamic Community Center in South Anchorage, about 50 of the faithful gathered for Tuesday evening prayers. Blue painter’s tape on the turquoise carpet marked safe social distances between men, who diligently wore masks during prayers and prostrations. Women entered from a different door and stayed in a separate area on the balcony throughout the service.

While in past years, Ramadan services centered around the breaking of the fast with a meal, this year evening prayers are the main event due to concerns about COVID-19.

“Last year, we didn’t even have the prayer, there was no activity at all. Everybody did it at home. So this year, at least we are doing that night prayer together,” said Dr. Youssef Barbour, a spokesman for center.

Men gather in the sanctuary for the evening prayer, or Ishra, which takes place every day at 9 p.m. Wearing a yellow robe at the front of the room, the Hafez, the reciter of the Quran, speaks into a microphone at the front of the service and has memorized the 600 pages of Islam’s holy book. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

The service starts at 9 p.m. with a recitation of general prayers covering a variety of topics.

“Basically for guidance for forgiveness, for removal of debt, of sorrow, of sadness, all these kinds of emotions, the bad emotion to kind of be removed and lifted, be lifted, and just replaced by good emotions,” said Barbour.

This year, he said, the prayer for healing and recovery was especially poignant after a pandemic that hit Alaska hard.

Every few minutes, congregants knelt and prostrated themselves, touching their foreheads to a floor decorated with rows of intricate arabesque. The building was completed about five years ago to serve the several thousand Muslims who live in Anchorage, according to center estimates.

After the recitation of prayers, the service turns to the recitation of the Quran, an optional addition to the nightly prayer. Barbour said having the prayer service in person helps encourage congregants to study the Quran.

Worshipper Adil Raja reads the Quran after the 9 p.m. service. Raja said he tries to read through a chapter every evening after the service. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

“It’s like peer pressure because at home you might just feel lazy, ‘I’ll do it later’ — until it’s too late. And then you want to go to bed,” Barbour said.

The Muslim holy book has 30 chapters, and the mosque tries to get through a chapter each evening. The reciter of the Quran, the Hafez, stands facing the front of the building along with the rest of the congregation.

Without a professional imam, the Hafez sometimes forgets a word or two and gets prompting from audience members following along.

The services end around 10:15 p.m. Congregants slip out the building to get some sleep before the next prayer at 5 a.m.

The tradition will continue for four more weeks until the celebration of breaking of the final fast, called Eid al-Fitr. During a normal year, it can draw 700 people to the mosque, Barbour said.

This year, he expects the end of Ramadan to be smaller, but said being able to gather in person is still a lot better than celebrating from home.

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