Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Hari Raya / Eid al-Fitr / Idul Fitri: Initial Rituals

With the fasting month complete, Home Island residents take part in ritual meals, chanting, and an emotional visit to the graveyard.

Many homes are lit up for Hari Raya

Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month, ends with a festival. This is known as Eid al-Fitr (Romanized transcription of the Arabic); Idul Fitri (Malay version of the Arabic); or Hari Raya (a Malay term meaning "Day of Celebration"). Actually the celebrations last several days.

Hari Raya is as one person put it, "a very emotional time". Local residents mentioned feeling proud, excited and sad. I think more specifically, accompanying rituals express, among other things, relief and triumph (that fasting has been completed);  forgiveness (towards others); penitence, remorse, and atonement (for wrongdoings) ; sadness, sorrow, longing and acceptance (for those  who are absent that have died). More generally Hari Raya expresses, celebration (of life); hope (for the new year);  and many other things.

Mak Sofia and Mak Kiki take some kids for a drive, taking in the sights and sounds around the village

When does Hari Raya begin?

Put simply, Hari Raya occurs at the end of the month of Ramadan. If that's enough for you, you can skip this section, which  is concerned with the technicalities of when Hari Raya occurs. It is technical because the factors determining when Hari Raya begins run a little counter-intuitively, if you're not familiar with the traditions.

In Islam the calendar follows the moon. Every lunar cycle (approximately 28 days), a new month begins. Ramadan lasts from the sighting of the new moon to the arrival of the next new moon. It can be difficult to determine when the new moon is sighted (it might appear that there is a slight crescent to some but not to others). This might differ between countries: as night falls on Cocos the crescent might not have appeared, but by the time night falls on Morocco it might have appeared. It also might different between 'sects' or streams of Islam: a 'modernist' might say "lets just follow science on this", whereas a 'traditionalist' might say "forget science, the important thing is can we see itor not". Thus, this year, Muslims different countries and in different streams of religious adherence started on either of two days.

It was also the case on Home Island, where some thought it began on June 28, others June 29. Nek Sofia explained to me, "The tunggu tahun people go by the calendar and started on the 28th. The rokiyah people go by the moon, when they see it, they start fasting". This is also the case with finishing the fast; this meant that some on Home Island finished their four weeks of fasting on July 26, others on July 27. 

When you can first make out a crescent on the moon, Ramadan begins
Another factor determining when Hari Raya begins is that for Muslims, the day begins at sunset as opposed to sunrise. This is the same for Jewish people ("And there was evening, and there was morning -- the first day"). In other words, first comes the evening and then comes the morning. Nevertheless, in what appeared to be the spirit of accommodation all began to celebrate on the afternoon July 27, in anticipation of the sun setting and Hari Raya beginning.

Ritual Meals before Sunset

Nek Su, sitting on blue stool, pauses during his speech

Nek Arena (midlle) and Pak Sofia (black)
The first set of Hari Raya rituals I observed were ritual meals called kenduri. These occurred prior to sunset while most were still fasting. Several of these occurred in different houses around the village. Nek Su invited me to Nek Sumila's house for one. Nek Su provided the welcoming speech. He explained that the ritual was in honor [I can't think of a better right now] of various members of his family. The imam (Nek Arena in blue), flanked by the vice-imam (Pak Sofia in black), then began chanting. This was accompanied by counterpoints from other participants (see below). As it was still considered fasting time, no one ate. Rather, once the chanting was completed, the male participants gathered food to take home. With this, the kenduri concluded.

Chanting during ritual meal

Nek Sofia recalled that when he was young, people finished the last day of fasting around noon, so Hari Raya celebrations used to start earlier in the day. This might explain the origin of these ritual meals before the conclusion of the fasting month.

After Breaking the Fast

Sunset marked the end of the fasting. I expected a lot of fanfare. Instead, it was the usual sunset prayers. Things then started to gather pace with, I gather, quite a few households holding an open house. I visited two houses. Nek Zamani, husband and wife, were kind enough to invite me to their house, where I enjoyed a delicious dinner.
Meal at Nek Zamani's

We then made our way to the house of Nek Sofia, husband and wife. As usual, they were exceedingly generous and put on a meal for us and other guests. This was my second dinner, but as the food was delicious, I kept going.

Members of Nek Sofia's-, Nek Den's- and my- family.

More chanting begins

By about 9pm more chanting began in the mosque. This went on until late at night, as far as I can tell.

Melawat Tanah Kubur--Visiting the Graveyard

It should be noted that Ramadan is not the last month of the Islamic year, but at this time there is a lot of reflection on the year that has passed and the that will come. Part of this is visiting the graveyard on the first morning of Hari RayaTwo things seemed to occur at the graveyard

A wife asks forgiveness of another wife, while their husbands do the same.

First was asking forgiveness. Men would approach other men; and women other women. According to Nek Sofia, he usually says something like:

Asking forgiveness
"Selamat Hari Raya, maaf zahir dan batin. Makan dan minum minta dihalalkan.  Kata yang tersilap atau tersalah, atau yang tertinggi, bahasa yang kasar yang tidak enak minta diampunkan. Mudah-mudahan dapat dijumpa lagi lain tahun. Semoga tuhan beri kesehetan dan keselamatan. Sampai jumpa lagi di tahun yang akan datang."
Taking a lot of license, this translates as:

"Happy Day of Celebration, sorry from the bottom of my heart. I hope the food and drinks [I have given you throughout the year] are accepted. My words that were wrong or misguided, or that were too [over the top?]; my language that was rude or not nice, I ask that they be forgiven. I hope we will meet again next year [after Ramadan]. I hope that God gives you health and safety. Until we meet again in the year that has begun..."

Such ritual speech is quietly performed while gently shaking hands. Eye contact is very limited. While one speaks, the other nods silently.

Praying at a grave

The other is related to the graves of deceased loved ones. Local residents clean these graves, spread flowers and water, and then perform prayers. Nek Sofia explained:
Praying at a grave
"we ask forgiveness for the dead and wish that they are put in the right place, which is hopefully heaven [not one of the other worlds between hell and heaven, where] if you're not a good person, you'll be stuck . We ask God to forgive them for what they have done. Most people read the Koran, some people just pray. They bring flowers to decorate the graveyards. Water to cool the place. When we were kids we believed they wore the flowers, drank the water, some people brought cigarettes and lollies, but now there's not that belief anymore. Now we believe that when you are dead you are gone. Some families still believe that. At the kenduri [ritual meals] they give Coca-Cola if they [the deceased] liked to drink that." 

Thus praying at the grave used to be directed at the spirit of the dead person, but now they prayers are directed at the Almighty, to intercede on the dead person's behalf. When it is a recently deceases person, the prayers are understandably tearful affairs.

I think a large part, if not all, of the community present on Home Island visited the graveyard that morning, so it was crowded at times.

Data and Interpretation

The writing and photos above provide some data surrounding the rituals of Hari Raya. Like other anthropologists, I use fieldwork to gather such data. The next step lies in analysis.

There are many different ways to analyse this data. Often the analysis takes a form that people from the culture being written about might not recognize. In any case, I'm going copy the way a famous anthropologists called Clifford Geertz might look at it. It's old fashioned anthropology, but I like to think of it as 'classic'...

Rituals express the way the world "really is" and the way people "should" relate to each other.

The Hari Raya rituals refer to two of the more important aspects of Home Island life; communing with dead ancestors and relatives and sharing of food.

Spirits of dead ancestors and relatives feature heavily. The feast for spirits of the dead  preceded the fasting month. In this feast, food was ostensibly provided for the spirits--now at the conclusion of fasting food is again given to them. As soon as fasting was complete, on the first morning of Hari Raya, residents visited the graveyard and pray for these spirits. While at the graveyard they also make ritualised apologies to family and friends. In a sense, they make peace with all residents; living and dead. Part of the apology is an expression of intent: that food and drink which has been shared has been accepted (dihalalkan).This brings us to the second important aspect.

Food and drink are a central theme, because, for the past month, Home Islanders have been ritually denied them--consuming them during daylight hours had been taboo. Yet throughout the fasting month, as indeed for the past year, Home Islanders have been constantly giving presents. The gifts most commonly take the form of food. This can be in the form of simple presents, but also in the context of ritual meals. Now, during Hari Raya rituals food and drink is shared, consumed and thrown away in proportions that are excessive compared to everyday usage. 

Both food sharing and the spirits of the dead may be connected. In rituals, when food is shared, it is also on offer for the spirits. Sharing food is, in the ritual context at least, a way of communing with the spirits. Sharing food is also a product of, and produces, community ties. Community, spirit and food are thus connected.


  1. For more on ritual meals, please see:



    A lecture on slametan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zIM0nN5kRqw