Hari Raya Puasa is celebrated at the end of the Ramadan month every year to mark the end of the fasting season. It is celebrated in a grand scale in Malaysia whose population and administration are predominantly Muslim. Hari Raya Puasa is also known as Hari Raya Aidilfitri, or simply called Hari Raya for short, even though the latter term is also used for other Muslim celebrations throughout the year.
When translated Hari Raya Puasa literally means “Celebrate the fast” or “Feast of Breaking the Fast” and Aidilfitri also has a similar meaning in Arabic. As the celebration marks an end to the Ramadan month, the first day of the celebration would fall on the first day of the Sawal month.
Since the Muslim Calendar follows the cycle of the moon, the dates for Hari Raya Puasa changes each year on the Gregorian calendar. The exact date is announced each year when religious officials view the New Moon from various points of vantage around the country.
In Malaysia, the first two days of Syawal (the month after Ramadan) are observed as public holidays but among the Muslims, it is normal to take an entire week off to celebrate. Celebrations can also last for as long as a month.
Prior to the celebration, Muslims fast for a whole month in the month of Ramadan. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and considered the holiest of months in the calendar. During this month, Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, smoking and having sexual intercourse during the day. The act of fasting and abstaining is intended to remind and teach Muslims about patience, spirituality, humility and submissiveness to Allah. It is a time of spiritual reflection and during this month, Muslims are expected to put in more effort into following the teachings of Islam. Dressing in a lewd manner, speaking ill of others and uncouthly attitude, lying, as well as looking at irreligious sights are extremely frowned upon. Only the sick are excused from fasting during this holy period. Fasting usually starts at dawn and ends at sunset and families and fellow Muslims usually break their fast together.
In the office, Muslims usually do not go for lunch as they have to fast. As a result, a large number of white collar office workers get to leave work an hour earlier. Seeing as the country is made up of a Muslim majority, the streets of major cities will usually be clogged by heavier traffic than usual from as early as 4pm as they make their way home to break fast at sundown.
During the last 10 days of the Ramadan fast, many Muslims keep vigil for Lailatul Qadr (The Night of Decree), the night when the holy Quran was descended from the heavens along with angels showering their blessings. On that night, Muslim homes are brightly decorated with oil lamps to mark the special occasion.
Every Muslim is also deemed compulsory to pay the Zakat al-Fitr before the end of the fasting month as long as he or she is fit to do so. The Zakat al-Fitr is charity given to the poor. The main purpose of the Zakat al-Fitr is to ensure that even the poor have the means to break fast and celebrate Hari Raya Aidilfitri like the rest of their fellow Muslims. The amount of Zakat is the same for every Muslim regardless of income or stature. The minimum amount is one sa’ (four double handfuls) of food, grain or dried fruit for each member of the family. The Zakat cannot be owed or paid back after the deadline has passed which is the last day of the month of Ramadan, and if a Muslim has not paid the Zakat after the deadline has passed, he or she has sinned. Other than the zakat, doing charity in general to help the poor during this time is greatly revered upon and encouraged. It is not uncommon to see people giving food and donating old clothes to the homeless and to the poor as it is believed that doing charity is more rewarding at this time of the year than at any other time.
Prayer and reading of the Qur’an
As mentioned earlier, during the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims are expected to put in more effort into praying and following the teachings and tenets of Islam. One of the most devoted and faithful acts that a Muslim can do is to read the entire Qur’an. Some Muslims recite the entire Qur’an through special prayers which are held every night in mosques. These recitals are called “Tarawih” and at every recital, a section of the Holy Qur’an is recited. There are an estimated 30 sections. Therefore, it is expected that the entire holy Qur’an is recited by the end of the month of Ramadan.
Preparing for the festival
Similar to the celebrations of the New Year in other cultures, Muslims prepare for the day of the festival by shopping for new clothes, spring cleaning the house thoroughly and baking and buying delicacies for visitors that will surely come during the celebration. At this time of the year, special delicacies can be found in the market such as dates, glutinous rice and cakes, savoury food such as lemang (glutinous rice and coconut milk steamed inside hollow bamboo sticks), ketupat (glutinous rice wrapped in a weaved pandan leaf) and mouth-watering biscuits and cookies. A lot of the food will be eaten when breaking fast daily as these culinary treats can be bought at Ramadan bazaars and fairs held at various neighbourhoods in the entire country. As one’s energy reserves during the day are usually low due to the fast of food and water, many people refrain from cooking and buy food instead from these bazaars. Besides, the special treats are only sold once a year during the Ramadan month so it would be a waste not to have a taste. Many malls and government buildings will be adorned with colourful decorations and the colour green would normally dominate as it is the colour commonly associated with Islamic items.
Big cities like Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Johor Bahru will become quiet during the last few days prior to Hari Raya as many make their annual journey home to their hometowns in other states to be with their parents, and other family. This annual migration is usually affectionately dubbed as “Balik Kampung”. When literally translated, it means “Going Back Home” and many advertisements and promotions during the celebration is centred on this theme.
As Ramadan comes to an end, the day of celebration is determined by the sight of the new moon. On the day of celebration, Muslims start the day by waking up before dawn and praying (Salatul Fajr, the pre-sunrise prayer), and in keeping with the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad on the day of Hari Raya, they will brush their teeth, take a shower, put on new clothes and apply perfume. After that, Muslims usually gather in mosques very early in the morning to perform special prayers. It is considered forbidden to fast on the day of Hari Raya and therefore, after prayer, it’s usually breakfast at home, followed by visits to the ancestral graves to pay respects to family members that have passed away. This is then followed by a bout of merry making.
Everyone puts on new clothes, usually brightly coloured traditional “baju kurung” for the ladies and baju Melayu for the men and visit each other’s houses. The young will ask for forgiveness from their elders for any grievances or sins done upon them in the previous year. They will usually salam (Muslim handshake) and then kiss the hands of the elder person as a sign of respect.
It is customary for children and old folks to be given gifts and tokens of money called “duit raya” by married relatives and friends. A unique heritage that has crossed over from the Chinese culture in Malaysia to the Muslim culture is the practice of giving the money in green packets. During Chinese New Year, children and unmarried individuals are given red packets of money called “ang pao” to signify luck and prosperity for the coming year. The first few days are held on a grander scale but throughout the entire month, there will be many parties held in the form of “open houses” where friends and neighbours of other faiths and races will be invited to join in on the celebrations. Generally the practice of Hari Raya every year is the same. However, there have been certain occasions where Hari Raya had coincided with other festivals in the country. Again, this is especially unique to Malaysia who has so many cultures and faiths living together. In the past, Hari Raya and Chinese New Year have coincidentally fallen on the same date and was together dubbed “Gongxi Raya”, the term a mash up of Malay and Mandarin. “Gongxi” is derived from the traditional Chinese New Year greeting of “Gong Xi Fa Cai” which means “Wishing you a happy new year”. Ironically, it also means “shared” and Raya is translated into “celebration”. The last joint celebration was back in 1996 and was celebrated together until 1998. This event will not happen again until 2030.
Occasionally, Hari Raya Puasa also coincides with the Hindu faith’s Deepavali celebration. This joint celebration is usually coined the term “Deepa Raya”.
As always, no Malaysian celebration is complete without food. Delicious Malay food, usually spicy in origin will almost always be served at every dining table in every Muslim household. The ketupat is traditional Hari Raya fare and is often served with beef rendang, lontong (compressed rice cakes wrapped inside banana leaves), dodol (palm sugar sweets) curry chicken, satay (skewers of grilled meats dipped with peanut sauce) and nasi padang (rice with a variety of dishes). Dates are also a popular snack during this time as it is believed that the Prophet Muhammad broke his fast each day by eating a date. Thus, it is also tradition for Muslims to break their fast each day by eating a date.
In Kuala Lumpur, many well known figures and politicians as well as the Agong and Permaisuri (King and Queen of Malaysia) would open the doors of their official residences to the public, serving up a feast of the best food for the visitors.
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