Some countries in Southeast Asia might end up celebrating Hari Raya on different dates, but this should not detract them from the higher goals of Ramadhan.
The month of Ramadhan, which falls on the ninth month in the Islamic lunar calendar, is coming to an end. Muslims around the world are preparing for Eidulfitri, which the Malays commonly refer to as Hari Raya (the big day) or what Indonesians would term as Lebaran (the end of fasting). Ramadhan is the month when Muslims perform obligatory fasting, with many not missing the chance to reap blessings and seek salvation from the Divine. Hari Raya, or the first day of the month of Syawal, signals the end of Ramadhan.
While Ramadhan is generally a peaceful affair in Southeast Asia, deciding which day Eidulfitri falls on can cause some controversy. This frequently happens in Indonesia, especially between the followers of the traditionalist Islamic organisation Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), its modernist rivals Muhammadiyah, and other Sufi groups. There were instances where NU and Muhammadiyah followers celebrated Hari Raya on different days — usually one day apart — resulting in unpleasant exchanges between the two groups. Indonesians have observed Lebaran on different days from what was determined by the government. However, apart from Indonesia, ASEAN countries with significant Muslim populations generally celebrate Hari Raya on the same day. 2022 was an exception: Singapore celebrated Hari Raya a day later than Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia, which caused some uproar among local Malay/ Muslims. The last time Singapore and Malaysia celebrated the big day on different days was in 1971.
How can the same moon lead to two divergent conclusions for Hari Raya? This boils down to the standards applied by different religious authorities. For a country like Singapore, moon sighting is a challenge. As a result, it relies on mathematical calculations. Islam does not consider Singapore’s method sacrilegious. Without going through very technical concepts, the differences in determining Hari Raya lie in different mathematical formulae applied to moon sightings. Some religious authorities adopt the traditional moon sighting method, others purely on mathematical calculations, and most a combination of both. But applying mathematical formulas alone does not solve differences, as the formulas get re-evaluated from time to time and rely on the selective opinions of savants of the past. It is not cast in stone.
This year, determining Hari Raya across the region can potentially be contentious again. In Singapore, 22 April has been marked as this year’s Hari Raya and a public holiday. While the religious authorities in Brunei, Malaysia, and Indonesia have not made any declarations, Muhammadiyah has already decided that Hari Raya falls on 21 April. In his declaration, Muhammadiyah Chairman Haedar Nashir reminded his followers to appreciate and respect the diversity of opinions. Speculation is rife in Malaysia that Muslims may also celebrate Hari Raya a day earlier than Singapore, though the JAKIM authority was quick to dismiss it as misinformation. JAKIM urged Malaysians to trust the process. The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) has undertaken a preemptive public communications exercise by reminding local Muslims that countries do not need to follow other countries on deciding when is Hari Raya.
The lack of standardisation for Hari Raya in a region that is closely bounded by geography and societal ties can have deep religious and secular implications. Muslims are forbidden from fasting on the first day of Hari Raya (1st Syawal), since the original intent of Eidulfitri is to celebrate the successful completion of fasting in Ramadhan. Praying at the mosque on the morning of Syawal is only recommended, but since fasting on 1 Syawal is a sin, agreeing on when the exact day is a serious issue and can be perplexing for many. From a secular perspective, the changing of the date of public holidays may be equally confusing or even problematic. Countries that rely on moon sightings must be flexible enough to change the public holiday at the last minute. This happened in Singapore in 1971, when the Mufti declared no moon was sighted above the horizon, and that Hari Raya would fall a day later than Malaysia. Since the public holiday was already declared for the previous day, Singaporean Muslims had to go back to work on Hari Raya as it was a working day. If the Hari Raya date is set in advance, families can begin preparations for the celebrations and plan their vacation leave in advance.
The lack of standardisation for Hari Raya in a region that is closely bounded by geography and societal ties can have deep religious and secular implications.
There are lessons to be gleaned despite having divergent views on the date of Hari Raya. In a way, the Indonesians have come to terms that these differences arise from time to time; and NU and Muhammadiyah followers have learned to live and let live. Ultimately, it is up to Muslims to decide. Each Southeast Asian state has an official religious authority that decides on the dates for important festivals. The majority of citizens respect the decisions and follow the authority. Those who disagree normally do so, but in a civil and private manner. No religious police can haul them up in prison for celebrating Hari Raya a day earlier or later. However, they must not instigate and spread hatred to those who disagree with their personal preference. They must also respect the state’s declaration of public holidays, which also applies to non-Muslims.
Despite differences about the date, Muslims should reflect on the higher objective of Ramadhan and Eidulfitri: to spare a thought for the needy, cultivating humility, fostering of brotherhood, and developing strong family ties. All the Muslim faithful must be respectful when articulating differences and be accountable to the Divine. Being religious is also about being good citizens of a secular state and respecting the rights of those with different viewpoints.
Norshahril Saat is a Senior Fellow and Coordinator at the Regional Social & Cultural Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.