Ramadhan – a time for reflection
Once again, Ramadhan, the holiest of months for Muslims, is almost upon us. The ninth month of the Muslim year is strictly observed by all Muslims as a month of fasting (and abstinence) during which they would abstain from the pleasures of eating, drinking and carnal desires and actions from sunrise to sunset. Ramadhan usually lasts from 29 to 30 days, after which Muslims celebrate Id-al-Fitr (Hari Raya Puasa in local language). Fasting is one of the five basic duties of Islam.
Regardless of how old one is, Ramadhan is a time to reflect, to repent, to abstain, to refrain and to endure. Small children look forward to the month of Ramadhan as the dinner table is suddenly more interesting, laden with local cakes, desserts, sweet drinks and home-cooked savouries. A few minutes before sunset, family members gather round the dining table or on the floor mat in preparation to break fast. As soon as the muezzin's call to prayer is heard, Muslims break fast by taking a sip of water or some sweet drink, followed by a date or two. They then excuse themselves from the dining table to perform the evening prayer, which is called Maghrib, before continuing with their meal.
There is an interesting anecdote which relates that during the first two weeks of Ramadhan, the dining table is so full you don't know where to start; by the third week the amount dwindles because the womenfolk have to prepare for Hari Raya. Come the last week of fasting, all you might get for dinner is rice and fried egg or salted fish! (Having spent a few years living in a traditional Malay kampong, I can attest to the accuracy and truth of that tale!)
Besides performing a religious obligation, it is said that fasting also brings other benefits to the mind and body. Chief among them is the cleansing of toxins and other matter from the body accumulated from eating approximately 335 days of the year at least three times a day. Your body is probably very grateful for the month-long break! Other faiths in Malaysia, like Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism and Christianity also observe some form of fasting or temporary abstinence from certain foods and activities. This is not surprising, as it is no secret that a healthy body leads to a healthy mind and spirit.
As a kid in a missionary school, I fondly remember our Catholic classroom teacher praising the Muslims for fasting. She told the entire class that fasting allowed one to share in the sufferings of those who didn't have enough food to eat. Even though it only lasted a month every year, all Muslims regardless of wealth and stature were equal during that time.
What do I look forward to during Ramadhan? Aside from giving my body a much needed and well deserved break, I value the discipline involved in making sure that no food or drink passed through my mouth for some 12:00 hours, from sunrise to sunset. I revel in the festivity and the ritual of the preparations for observing and breaking a fast - getting up at 4:00 am to prepare the early morning meal (sahur), spending the whole day in the office without a drop to drink and a morsel to eat while non-Muslim colleagues look on in wonder, amazement and sympathy, then looking forward to sunset and making sure that there is sufficient food to break fast with. Everything is executed with clockwork precision.
When breaking fast, Muslims are advised to practice moderation. They are told that the intake of food during Ramadhan should be no different than food intake during non-fasting days. But I beg to differ just a little bit. After a hard day of work and fasting, I defnitely look forward to a little something extra at mealtime, without over-indulging of course.
During Ramadhan, hundreds of stalls are set up everywhere selling all kinds of foods – freshly grilled chicken, rice prepared in different ways and savoury meats. Best of all are the many varieties of Malaysian kueh, some of which are next to impossible to get during other months. You don't usually see such an eclectic mix of sweetmeats on "regular" days - during Ramadhan the variety of kueh literally explodes in contrasting and mouth watering hues of red, green, blue, pink, purple, brown, white and yellow. Choosing what you want for the evening's meal requires great restraint! With a rumbling stomach in tow, it's all too easy for one to go overboard.
Popular spots to buy food for breaking fast can be found at the Komtar promenade, which is also known as Pasar Ramadhan, the stalls in Jalan Makloom and the stalls in front of the Glugor post office. Stalls are open as early as 4:00 pm right until the breaking of fast, at around 7:00 pm or thereabouts. Be prepared to jostle with large crowds or waiting while your grilled chicken or satay is being prepared.
Ramadhan comes to an end upon the sighting of the new moon. As with the breaking of fast, lavish spreads of food are served on the first day of Syawal (Hari Raya Puasa) to family members and guests. If you see some of your Muslims friends picking at their food, it is because their bodies have not adjusted to eating in the daytime! Ironically, when their appetites do return, most of the goodies have already gone!
Some Muslims, especially the women, resume fasting on the third day of Syawal, to "replace" the days that they couldn't fast during Ramadhan. All Muslims are forbidden to fast on the first day of Syawal, but are encouraged to fast for an additional six days (called puasa enam, which literally translates to six fasts) during the month of Syawal. The reason for this is rather vague, but for each day one fasts, it is equivalent to 10 days of fasting, so thirty days of fasting would equal 300 days, add another six days and it means you have fasted for 360 days, or a year.
Early on this essay, I mentioned that other religions also practice some form of fasting or abstinence. But are there non-Muslims who observe the fast the very same way that Muslims do? A friend of mine called William, Christian by birth but an agnostic in manners and customs, has joined me in my fasts since 2000, for the entire duration of Ramadhan. Not surprisingly, when we break fast with other friends, William becomes the centre of attention! He's very, very likely to join me again this year, and I look forward to his participation.
During Hari Raya, some Muslims welcome one and all to their homes, a practice known as open house. You can read about this in a separate story on Hari Raya Open House.
Writter by Raja Abdul Razak
Photographed by Adrian Cheah © All rights reserved