Hari Raya Puasa by Nazry Bahrawi

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Hari Raya Puasa is the Malay name for ‘Eid al-Fitr ( عيد الفطر ) that is celebrated by Muslims worldwide. It is a common mistake among the uninitiated to think of it as a celebration of the Islamic New Year. In fact, Hari Raya Puasa falls on the first day of the tenth Islamic month of Syawal. Rather than see it as commemorating what is to come, it is more accurate to describe Hari Raya Puasa as a celebration of the immediate past. In this sense, Hari Raya Puasa is an empirical event, more than a futurist one – a celebration steeped in practice and experience.

Indeed, Hari Raya Puasa brings to a close the holy month of Ramadan, when the Qur’an was believed to have been first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. It is also the month in which Muslims perform their obligatory yearly fast by abstaining from food and drink from dawn to dusk. Its Arabic name ‘Eid al-Fitr’ translates into ‘festival of breaking of the fast.

A Muslim boy watches mosque volunteers distribute food as he awaits the breaking of fast in a Singapore mosque. Source: The Globe and Mail

Some also find it perplexing that the date of Hari Raya Puasa changes from year to year, and from country to country. This is because the Islamic calendar operates on a lunar cycle in which the start of the month is determined by the sighting of the crescent moon. This process is known as ruqyah, oftentimes performed by the Islamic council of a specific country.

In Singapore, this responsibility for ruqyah falls on the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore. Singapore’s Islamic Council can pre-determine Hari Raya Puasa about a year ahead because it relies on astronomical calculations stemming from imkanur ruqyah, which is the calendar used by Muslims in the Southeast Asian region to set the beginning of the Islamic month based on certain criteria of the crescent’s expected visibility. Its neighbours place greater weightage on the actual sighting itself. Thus, even the neighbouring nations of Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia may occasionally celebrate it on different days.

As the nation’s highest-ranking Islamic official, the Mufti of Singapore will issue a press release to announce Hari Raya Puasa just the evening before, which is then communicated to the local Muslim community through radio, television and the Internet. Herein lies an instance of how an old religious practice is modernized.

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Malaysian religious officials using a telescope to perform the ‘ruqyah’, the sighting of the new moon of Ramadan, in Kuala Lumpur. Source: KonsultasiSyariah

Rites of Empathy
How is fasting practised in Ramadan? Typically, Muslims prepare for the day’s fast by consuming a late night or early morning meal known as sahur. In Singapore, families usually wake up between 4am and 5.30am to eat a communal meal, just before the first call for prayer at dawn.

The fast is ended sometime at dusk with the evening call for prayer. This is known as iftar. Singaporean Muslims typically break their fast at around 7.15pm. Muslims usually break their fast by eating dates, a practice of Prophet Muhammad, and say a prayer before consuming a full meal. For this reason, Muslims often give one another packets of dates before the start of Ramadan – a charitable act that can be translated as wishing another a good fasting month ahead.

Given that Hari Raya Puasa stems from the ritualistic act of fasting, a practice that is also performed by adherents of other faiths such as Hinduism and Christianity, this offers us a chance to ask an important question – what is the value of rituals for human life?

A good starting point can be found in the practice of li (ritual propriety) described in Confucius’ Analects, one of the texts taught in SUTD’s humanities core module. While li is a complex concept, it also denotes the practice of a host of rituals such as ancestor worship and tea drinking. Harvard University’s professor of Chinese history Michael Puett explained in an interview in The Atlantic that the emphasis on rituals in Chinese philosophy is premised on the belief that “the way to really change lives for the better is from a very mundane level, changing the way people experience and respond to the world…”.

If we accept that rituals are acts of self-cultivation that teach us to embody benign values on a mundane level, what then could be the significance of the Ramadan fast, or sawm? While theological sources offer no conclusive reasons, many Islamic scholars speak of the cultivation of empathy for the less fortunate, whose access to a basic meal may not be as forthcoming. In Singapore, this sense of empathy is further expressed in several ways. Mosques offer free meals to anyone on their premises during iftar. Muslims have also organised meals-on-wheels deliveries to lower income households during the month.

The interpretation that fasting is empathic self-cultivation is supported by the fact that Ramadan is also the time when Muslims are required to perform another compulsory ritual – zakat al-fitr, or the paying of alms. A large part of the alms is to be channelled to the poor and needy.

Multicultural Raya
Empathy does not end with the close of Ramadan. That charitable spirit endures beyond Hari Raya Puasa. In the month of Syawal, Muslims in the Malay Archipelago practice the act of seeking forgiveness between family members and friends. This often comes in the form of seeking pardon for acts where one may have knowingly, or unknowingly, caused offence to another.

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A typical scene at Hari Raya is the seeking of forgiveness between family members. Source: Straits Times

In what is likely to be the Malay adaptation of the Chinese cultural practice of handing out red packets (ang pow) during Chinese New Year, adult Muslims in our region also give out sampul hijau, or green envelopes, containing money to guests who visit their homes. These are usually presented by working adults to their parents and school-going children, or any others they deem as being in need of some financial assistance.

Hari Raya Puasa is also a treat for the visually inclined among us. The first day of Raya in Singapore sees many Muslim families out and about to visit relatives, donning multicoloured baju kurung, a traditional Malay attire. Some Muslims may also dress in the traditional attires of other Muslim cultures such as the Pakistani kurta for males, or the Arabic abayya for females.

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The Arabic-styled abaya dress is fast becoming an alternative to the Malay baju kurung for Hari Raya. Source: The New Paper

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Colourful light decorations at the Geylang bazaar during Ramadan display festive greetings in Arabic (Eid Mubarak) and Malay (Salam Aidilfitri).

It can be said that the multifaceted fashion of Hari Raya is an expression of multiculturalism within the Muslim community – with Islam as the canopy identity, and the variety of colours and dresses representing the varying types of Muslims existing underneath that broad shelter. As the world faces threats from extremist groups such as the Daeesh and the counter-threat of far-right groups, this feature of Muslim superdiversity expressed through Hari Raya apparel is an important reminder to not give in to Islamophobia. Indeed, no two Muslims are ever alike and the Islamic faith urges believers to be inclusive and accepting of others.

About The Author


Dr. Nazry Bahrawi is a lecturer at HASS who teaches the humanities core module ‘World Texts and Interpretation’ as well as elective modules on literary theory and multiculturalism in Southeast Asia. His research centres on the study of world literature, translation studies as well as Islam and culture in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. He is an associate editor of Critical Muslim, a UK-based journal of ideas and issues showcasing ground-breaking thinking on Islam, and what it means to be a Muslim in a rapidly changing, interconnected world.