When Tomi Talabi wakes up at 4 a.m. to pray and eat, it can be difficult to drag herself out of bed to begin another day of fasting this Ramadan.
To make the process easier, in the darkness of her New York apartment, Talabi opens up the invite-only, social audio app Clubhouse and enters one of a handful of Muslim rooms inevitably going on at the time.
In an instant, she joins dozens of other Muslims around the world who are also listening to a live recitation of the Koran; chanting a dhikr, or litanies in remembrance of God; or offering advice on reaping the blessings of the holiest month in the Islamic calendar.
For thousands of Muslim women worldwide, congregating in such live audio chat rooms has become a source of spiritual sisterhood and community-building during a second Ramadan marred by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Every time I join a room, it gives me the energy to keep going,” said Talabi, 37, a beauty marketing professional who lives in New York with her young son. “I don’t have my mom or my aunties here to wake up with me, to pray and go through Ramadan with me, so this is so necessary. I just wish we had this last Ramadan.”
The popular iPhone app, which launched more than a year ago, has about 10 million downloads globally. Users can create clubs and host, listen to and — if invited to join the “stage” by the room’s host — join conversations on everything from bitcoin to Black culture. It has also generated controversy: Some say racism and misogyny can run rampant on the app, and experts have highlighted security concerns.
But many religious groups have found a home on the app. Clubs such as Muslims & Friends (which boasts about 80,000 users), Muslimahs (more than 29,000 users), Muslim But Human (12,600 users) and Being Black and Muslim (more than 4,000 users) have proliferated on the app.
Some focus entirely on performing acts of religious devotion. There are clubs aimed at Sunnis, Shiites and various ethnic and regional groups. A number of prominent Muslim educational organizations have also formed clubs on the app, where Muslim scholars and leaders offer regular talks.
Many Muslims say the month of Ramadan — which began this year around April 12 and will end around May 12 — is defined by its sense of community and sisterhood, from sharing iftar dinners to praying late into the night at the local mosque. In lieu of in-person events during the pandemic, many have turned to online platforms as a substitute.
Software engineer Alex Fox, who’s based in Oakland, Calif., joined the app in October. At that point, she said, “you really had to try to find the Muslims.” After a half-year of missing the mosque and feeling “disconnected,” Fox launched the Muslimahs club in an effort to try to find some Muslim sisterhood.
Fox and other women say the intimacy of conversations nurtured on the app is part of its appeal: Even in a room with 200 listeners, discussions often feel more like a phone call with a group of friends rather than a conference panel.
“People really, really are treating it as a safe space,” said Jamila Kabiru Fagge, a Nigerian American international broadcaster in Maryland who is active on the Tea Dua Love room, which was founded by Muslim women in northern Nigeria. “They’re speaking about all the stuff you don’t usually hear about unless you’re alone with them at home.”
It’s a rare platform through which Muslim women can share their voices with an audience, according to Fox. As she put it: “I mean, you are literally given a mic and a stage. How often are Muslim women given that?”
Since the first night of Ramadan in mid-April, members of the Muslimahs club have held a daily, women-only group recitation of the Koran. Members who volunteer take turns reciting a few of the Arabic verses. Each day, within an hour, they finish one of 30 parts of the Koran. By the end of Ramadan, they will have completed a full recitation of the scripture, an Islamic tradition during the holy month.
Women’s public recitation of the Koran can be highly controversial, with some scholars arguing that doing so violates women’s modesty. But in these semipublic, female-only spaces, women gently coach one another on pronunciation and Koranic grammar, Fox said.
The Muslimahs club has become one of the app’s most popular faith-related groups and just one of dozens aimed specifically at Muslim women. In the Muhsinat club, more than 100 women read the Koran and perform collective dhikr together. In the Rabata club, more than 300 women join founder and scholar Tamara Gray during Ramadan to celebrate female Islamic scholarship and spirituality.
Since the pandemic’s onset, Muslim institutions pivoted hard to online programming, producing a flood of video and live-streamed sermons, talks and hangouts on Zoom, YouTube and Facebook Live.
“That led to a flourishing of women-led and women-focused religious programming by mosques and other Muslim institutions, inviting women scholars to speak and give lectures sometimes even beyond just the women,” said Hind Makki, an interfaith educator who works to improve Muslim women’s access to mosques.
A year into the pandemic, many mosques are slowly reopening for Ramadan. But many have barred women and children from attending night prayers and iftar meals, or reduced capacity for women’s participation.
“Sisters are requested to pray at home,” one large Chicago-area mosque said in its Ramadan guidelines. “No arrangements are planned for their safety and health.”
Although it is considered obligatory for healthy men to pray in congregation at the mosque, especially on Fridays, it is optional for women, and some prophetic traditions suggest that praying at home is better for women. Research shows that men in the United States typically attend the mosque at slightly higher rates than women, and many women say their prayer spaces are often smaller or otherwise inadequate.
Makki says these limited reopenings have exacerbated women’s access to the mosque, while also slowing the easy-to-access and increasingly women-led virtual programming.
Even where mosques are open to women, many say they are choosing not to attend.
“Women are so often caring for other people in their families, whether it’s children, elders or people with disabilities, and they usually have the bulk of the house work,” Makki said. “Last year’s virtual Ramadan events were so flexible for a lot of people and so accessible, particularly for people with disabilities. So they’re sticking with virtual events.”
Some Muslim women say using audio apps like Clubhouse became a welcome alternative when Zoom fatigue set in. Unlike these popular live video platforms, live audio spaces provide a way for busy mothers and young professionals — whose daily workloads have only increased during the pandemic — to remain engaged in worship and religious learning even while folding a load of laundry, taking a walk or finishing up a work project.
Nor do participants or their homes have to be camera ready: They can lead an international panel even while their hijabs are off or while family members are walking around behind them, issues that can arise for women who follow strict Islamic guidelines about modesty.
“There’s no pressure to speak up if you’re in the audience, but you still get the feeling that you’re still very much a part of the conversation,” said Faryal Khatri, 32, who works in health-care philanthropy. She attends nightly prayer events at her mosque in Irving, Tex., but also joins rooms hosted by educational groups like Rabata, Al Maghrib Institute and Mizan Institute.
In such rooms, users can simply press a button to raise a virtual hand and be brought up to the “stage” to ask questions or make comments, she said.
In a mosque setting, such engagement can be much more fraught, according to Khatri. Trying to ask a religious scholar a question might require navigating to the front of the room through crowds of men, or perhaps trying to catch the imam as he exits the mosque after delivering a sermon.
Women’s scholarship and teaching have a long history in Islam, from the time of the prophet Muhammad himself. Muslim women say the use of Clubhouse is merely their latest adaptation to technology — from using YouTube to share hijab tutorials or preach, to creating WhatsApp groups to help women in the same time zone wake each other up for early-morning prayers, to using Instagram Live to normalize women’s recitation of the Koran.
“What’s new is the specific technology,” Makki said. “It’s not that Muslim women are teaching and gathering.”