Saturday, October 21, 2006

Idul Fitri

The social and religious meanings of Idul Fitri

Muhamad Ali, Manoa, Hawaii

The Jakarta Post, Headlines, 21 October 2006

Idul Fitri means different things to different Muslims, religiously and socially. Some see it as a marker of the end of the tiring fasting month, the end of hardship, thirst and hunger. For others it means a long vacation.

Still others say it is a time of and for family -- being together with parents, grandparents, neighbors, relatives near and far. Most still feel it is a time to ask and give forgiveness. A few would identify it with money, especially those working on public transportation services. And many feel it is just an all-around cheerful occasion -- the end of Ramadhan, a long vacation, forgiveness and family.

The tradition of mudik, or people traveling to their hometowns for the holiday, is uniquely Indonesian, but the essence of the tradition is quite universal, in that everyone has a certain attachment to the place where he or she was born and raised. Most Muslims in Indonesia are part of both a community of place and a community of purpose.

In urban life, most activities are organized according to purposes and interests, regardless of ethnicity, religion or even nationality. The mudik tradition shows that despite the increased degree of modernity, rationalism and individualism in urban life, there is still felt a sense of one's coming from a place, as part of a community of a locality, a place considered as "home". Nostalgic memories of the past will be retrieved; family members will cheer each other, tell stories, express thanks, ask for and give forgiveness, comfort the sad and unsuccessful, and/or praise successes and share happiness.

Idul Fitri is a great occasion for people to reassert the importance of family and brotherhood. Islam reserves a special place for family relationships. Marriage remains a sacred ritual and social event. At a time when marriage as an institution has lost much of its credibility in many Western countries, such as in parts of Europe and more recently in the United States, Muslims still maintain that marriage is the only path for God's blessing in human relationships. And Idul Fitri provides an opportunity for such Muslims to be together with family before anybody else.

The religious meaning of Idul Fitri has also been changing according to personalities and circumstances. Religiosity is a dimension that is most difficult to observe and measure. Some scholars suggest that religiosity has several dimensions: experiential, ideological, intellectual, ritualistic and consequential. And from my observations, Idul Fitri is more about the experiential, ritualistic and the consequential rather than the other two dimensions.

The experiential dimension refers to the degree and intensity of a person's experience of God. Muslim believers who speak more have strong experiential religiosity, as do those who have visions and "close personal" encounters with saints or other figures of faith. But the experiential dimension also points to one's encounter with other Muslim believers, such as on the morning of Idul Fitri when Muslims come together in mosques or open fields to pray together, recite takbir (Allah is the Greatest), tahmid (Praise to Allah), tahlil (God is the only One and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah) and tasbih (everyone and everything on the universe recognizes Allah's independence of any kind of shortcomings).

The ritualistic dimensions refer to institutional or organized practices of religion, such as reading the Koran, carrying a religious charm or observing religious holidays. How Idul Fitri is carried out is mostly ritualistic, since it has become standardized and organized within certain rules and guidelines.

From the fasting time to the time of Idul Fitri, ritualistic dimensions are largely apparent. And most Muslims seem to try to obey as much as they can such ritualistic dimensions: whether a certain behavior is right (sah) or wrong (batal). These ritualistic dimensions have been largely standardized through jurisprudential and legal scholarship.

The ritualistic part of fasting and Idul Fitri is a product of early but also medieval Muslim scholars. And most of today's Muslims are conservative, in the sense that they simply follow the rituals of fasting and Idul Fitri without too much questioning. For Muslims in Indonesia and Southeast Asia, the ritualistic and legalistic aspects of fasting and Idul Fitri follow the Sunni theological and Shafiite school of thought.

World religions have stressed the importance of ritual. But there is a danger of ritualism if religion simply means ritual and nothing more and nothing implied in terms of personal and public good. Ritualism is a belief or a situation in which a believer merely follows the how (or ritual) of the religion without understanding why and for what purpose.

It is in this dimension that many Muslims have shown a lack of conformity (between rituals and good social and public dimensions). In particular, there is a lack of conformity between rituals and the general condition of Muslims in terms of education and prosperity. Blind ritualism could allow corruption, underdevelopment, illiteracy, violence, social injustice and other social problems to remain unresolved.

Thus, the consequential dimension lies in the consequences that Islam has for the individual in a variety of areas. Muslims might properly perform most rituals throughout the year, in the sense that they perform these correctly according to legal aspects, but at the same time these rituals might have little impact and consequence on their everyday lives in terms of good human fellowship.

We have seen how religion reflects society, and how individuals draw on religion in a variety of ways to give meaning to their lives. There are hypocrites, sinners, sincerely faithful people, committed people and so forth. But Muslims today are trying to seek meaning through religion. The fasting month and Idul Fitri have become a special time for them in their search for meaning, but I hope that it is the good meanings that they actually find. Selamat Idul Fitri! May God bless you on this great holiday!

The writer is a lecturer at State Islamic University, a fellow at the East-West Center and a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

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