By Yodsapon Kerdviboon / Photos by Chris Beale

Islam’s holiest month this year is being held under lockdown in countries around the world. Muslims in the Northeast of Thailand are experiencing a very different Ramadan as the coronavirus outbreak upended their rituals and forced male followers to become religious leaders for their families.

It is the first time for the Dollawichichons, a Thai-Muslim family whose ancestors migrated from Pakistan and settled in Khon Kaen, to celebrate the holy month of Ramadan at home.

Usually, the family would join hundreds of other Muslims at the Khon Kaen Central Mosque to participate in the tarawih prayers, the additional night prayers during Ramadan. But this year, the COVID-19 outbreak has changed the way the holy month is being celebrated across the region.

“The Sheikhil Islam Office [Thailand’s central Islamic body] announced that there will be no group dinners at mosques, as well as no gathering to read the Quran and pray at night in a bid to curb the spreading of COVID-19,” says 57-year-old Bukori Dollawichichon.

Ramdan is special for both the devout and less devout Muslims, a time for self-reflection, self-discipline, and to practice showing generosity to the poor and vulnerable in society. Followers of Islam are also expected to fast from dawn to dusk for 30 days. This year in Thailand, Ramadan began on April 24 and ends on May 24.

“Muslims worldwide look forward to participating in Ramadan and fasting because there are huge merits, and it is the month that Allah will bless those who do good and answer all our prayers,” says Bukori, who is also the vice chairman of the Islamic Committee of Khon Kaen.

Members of the Dollawichichon family prepare dinner, the first meal of the day after fasting from dawn to dusk during the month of Ramadan. Photo by Chris Beale.

The Dollawichichon family usually breaks fast with hundreds of other Muslim families at the Khon Kaen Central Mosque. But this year, the coronavirus pandemic has forced them to stay at home. Photo by Chris Beale.

The eating area at Khon Kaen Central Mosque remains empty during this Ramadan celebration. Normally, this area of the mosque would be full of Muslim families socializing and sharing home-cooked food. Photo by Chris Beale.

Virus upends tradition

“We believe that gathering to pray at mosques in the month of Ramadan will increase our level of merit, but since our religious leaders said that we can perform these activities at home during the pandemic, we do as they say,” Bukori says.

But Bukori also says that, deep down, it bothers him that the pandemic is preventing his family and him from following this important tradition this year.

“I’ve been feeling bad this whole time. It’s like I’m breaking the rules of my religion by not praying at the mosque. This is something we’ve been waiting for more than a year, to perform good deeds for God,” he says. “Muslims hope that they can survive each year to participate in Ramadan because this month is considered a holy month. It’s a month of happiness when God liberates us from all our sins.”

Men become imams

With the mosque being closed, all ritual prayers have to take place at the family home and in absence of the community’s religious leader, or imam.

Bukori, as the family’s oldest male member, has found himself having to take on the role of the imam leading his family in prayer and through the important religious activities for the month of Ramadan.

He spent hours every day training himself on how to conduct the religious rituals without making any mistakes.

“Usually I am a follower. I have never been a religious leader,” Bukori says. “But now I have to become an imam, leading more than the prayers every night.”

Ever since realizing that he had to perform duties as an imam and leading his family members in religious activities during Ramadan, Bukori started studying the practices related to Islam’s holiest month. Photo by Chris Beale.

As Bukori is considered the head of the family, he takes on the role of imam, leading his family in religious activities in the month of Ramadan at his house. Photo by Chris Beale.

Members of the Dollawichichon family pray on their prayer mats in their home in Khon Kaen. Photo by Chris Beale.

Despite all the challenges, Bukori agrees with the measures that have been taken to curb the spread of the virus.

“Islam focuses on safety and taking care of our health,” Bukori says. “If Muslims do not follow religious orders and gather to participate in religious activities during Ramadan, it is considered causing harm towards ourselves. And it’s also a heavy sin to spread the virus to others because it’s considered hurting others.”

He and his family are directing their Ramadan prayers this year for people around the world to be safe from the pandemic and wish Muslims to be able to experience a better Ramadan next year.

“I pray to Allah for this disease to disappear from the world and from Thailand. I pray for everyone to be safe from this disease and that everything will return to normal as soon as possible,” Bukori says. “May God have mercy.”

This story was first published in Thai on May 11, 2020. Translated and edited by The Isaan Record.

Chris Beale is an American photographer based in San Francisco and Khon Kaen, Thailand. His work often focuses on underrepresented people and cultures and has been published and exhibited internationally.