Moon Versus Maths: The Ramadhan Debate and Future of Indonesia’s Pluralism
This year’s Ramadhan saw less bickering among Indonesian Muslims about the appropriate start date for the blessed month. The ‘agree to disagree’ approach should be employed in other facets of the country’s socio-religious life.
Muslims around the world normally welcome Ramadhan with joy, and perform with bliss the fasting ritual during the blessed month. However, in Indonesia, deciding when Ramadhan begins can be a source of tension. Settling the date is crucial because it ascertains when the Eidulfitri or lebaran is celebrated. Indonesian Muslims have begun Ramadhan on the same day for the last seven years, but not this year. Yet, heated disagreements and public name-calling are almost non-existent, unlike in the past. This signals that Indonesian pluralism is moving in the right direction, but only if this ‘agree to disagree’ principle is replicated on other fronts.
Past arguments regarding Ramadhan were the most heated between Indonesia’s two biggest Muslim organisations, the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah. NU applies astronomical (rukyat) methods to determine dates by observing the crescent moon’s first visibility. By contrast, Muhammadiyah used the modern hisab or mathematical method. When differences between NU and Muhammadiyah erupted, the spat often turned ugly, contradicting the spirit of Ramadhan. Followers of the rival organisations mocked one another through mosque sermons. Some took to social media to defend their respective positions. Zufriani’s study published in the Al-Qishthu journal in 2016 captured this tension. However, in the past seven years, either a team involving NU and other Muslims could not see the new moon (hilal), or the mathematical formula accurately predicted the day the moon was sighted, hence resulting in NU, Muhammadiyah, and other Indonesian Muslims observing the first day of Ramadhan on the same day.
The Ministry of Religion declined to intervene even though it could have taken a leaf from neighbouring Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia’s books, where government-sanctioned religious authorities decide on a single date. Indonesia’s religious ministry only hosts an annual itsbat (date determination) meeting to hear different viewpoints and then decide on a common, though non-binding, date. Historically, the tensions between NU and Muhammadiyah have spilled over into the political arena. In 2013, Muhammadiyah declined to send its nominee to the itsbat meeting. Muhammadiyah leader Yunahar Ilyas argued that his organisation had already decided on the date before the meeting. He added that such meetings ‘would not accommodate Muhammadiyah’s aspiration and tended to mock Muhammadiyah.’
This year, therefore, Indonesian Muslims began fasting on three different days. Apart from NU and Muhammadiyah, Tarekat Naqsyabandiyah, a Sufi order, has muddied the waters further. Tarekat Naqsabandiyah claims that Ramadhan began on 1 April this year, while Muhammadiyah used 2 April and NU 3 April. This time, however, there were no major heated arguments.
This year’s generally warm responses towards the polarising issue are positive signs of Indonesia’s pluralism. It can potentially be an example to the Islamic world that Indonesians can settle their differences among themselves, without the state’s intervention.
Initially, the mainstream media sensationalised these differences, and there was some chatter on social media. For example, national media reported that the religious ministry invited a Muhammadiyah leader to the itsbat meeting although the organisation did not endorse him. In another separate case, a video of a person claiming that NU and the religious affairs ministry had settled on a common date for an early Ramadhan even before the itsbat meeting was circulated. This person, who claimed to be an NU member, suggested collusion between the two institutions at the expense of other organisations, including Muhammadiyah. The collusion allegation is untrue, however, and these provocations quickly dissipated.
This year, the role played by various entities — independent Muslim clerics, leaders of Muslim organisations, government officials, and leaders of opposition parties — helped to de-escalate tensions. They called for tolerance, unity, and respect for differences. Their messages were circulated widely through social and mainstream media. Even controversial and influential Muslim clerics such as Abdul Somad and Felix Siauw agreed with the options presented by NU and Muhammadiyah. There were criticisms, as expected, but these were not overly radical. To illustrate, prominent preachers Khalid Basalamah, Buya Yahya Al-Bahjah and M. Cholil Nafis did not dwell on the matter, but simply asserted that Muslims should simply follow the government’s decision.
This year’s generally warm responses towards the polarising issue are positive signs of Indonesia’s pluralism. It can potentially be an example to the Islamic world that Indonesians can settle their differences among themselves, without the state’s intervention. Some observers have regarded this issue with a sense of humour. One jokingly said on Twitter: ‘Hoping that all Indonesian Muslims celebrate (the) Idul Fitri holiday on the same date. If not, I will start fasting based on the Muhammadiyah’s decision, and celebrate Idul Fitri according to the government’s — meaning to fast a day less than others.
Ideally, Indonesian Muslims can learn from this episode and apply it to other aspects of their socio-religious life, on contested matters such as governance, gender roles and the state ideology (Pancasila). Although they can discuss intra-Muslim differences amicably, their attitude towards inter-faith and intra-faith issues remains wanting. We still see tensions arising between mainstream and religious minorities in some districts, with some resulting in violence. Sometimes, authorities pass religious opinions (fatwas) without fully understanding their impact, such as by labelling groups sesat (heretical). Ahmadiyah, a minority sect in Islam in Indonesia, has been the subject of continuous persecution nationwide. In 2005, the Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI) re-issued its fatwa that Ahmadiyah is heretical. As recently as September 2021, hundreds of Muslim Sunni residents vandalised an Ahmadiyah mosque in Sintang regency, West Kalimantan province after the local government ignored their demands to disband the Ahmadiyah in their area. Five months later, the local government forcibly converted the mosque into a residential house, depriving the Ahmadiyahs of their right to practice their faith.
Ultimately, Indonesia can be a model for the Muslim world to learn about pluralism and freedom of religion. However, there is still some way before it can handle controversial issues such as the status of the Ahmadiyah in a cool and rational manner.
A'an Suryana is Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and lecturer at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Universitas Islam Internasional Indonesia.
Norshahril Saat is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator at the Regional Social & Cultural Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.