Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Eid ul-Fitr.

So it's Eid ul-Fitr, the first day of Shawal 1432. I just want to touch on how we celebrate it here, and why it's often mistaken for our New Year (which is the first day of Muharram), and why some Muslims should not get so pissy about this misunderstanding.

The following traditions may or may not have roots in Islam, Hindu, Arab or animistic culture. It's important to highlight that the Malays have a rich and varied heritage that expresses itself as a fluid culture. It's delusional to think that everything we do is 100% according to Muhammad the Prophet, but for some things, as long as it's not counter to anything in the Qur'an, in my opinion it should be seen as a valid expression of being different 'peoples and tribes' (49:13).

In the morning there is the Eid prayer and sermon. Muhammad encouraged everyone to attend -- that includes women -- but some families with a traditional gender division of labour tend to keep their women at home, cooking for the men of the family (because woman, domestic work is an act of worship!) to come back and eat breakfast together. Consequently, many Muslim girls grow up thinking that the Eid prayer is not important for them.

Some may go straight from the mosque to visit graves of deceased family members. They may offer prayers for the dead, but in my opinion, this is not useful because once God the most Merciful has passed judgment, no amount of prayers change it, because he has already expressed his ultimate mercy. In the same vein, each soul can only get credit for the work that s/he has done (6:164, 53:39), and no one can or may carry the burden of another (6:164).

Speaking of breakfast, Malays use the main ingredients of coconut and rice to make all kinds of yummy dishes. The ketupat and pulut classics: coconut leaves are woven into a small pillow- or onion-shaped bags, filled with rice, and boiled to create thick rice cakes.

3x3x1 inches square of ricey goodness

And with that comes an entire plethora of meat and seafood dishes cooked with coconut milk, desiccated coconut, chilli, vegetables, spices, etc. Each family has their own special dish (or more) for Eid.

Then we visit the houses of extended family members, beginning with the eldest and therefore the most important to respect. Once there, the host/hostess urges us to eat or taste cookies and/or food that they have cooked themselves -- this is more important that eating food cooked and given by someone else or bought from a store. This visiting goes on during the following three weekends (until Shawal is over) because 1) Malays have large families, and 2) if Ramadan is a month of fasting, ergo Shawal is a month of celebrating.

Money is given in small colourful envelopes to children and those who have not started working, or those married. Those who have started working are generally expected to start giving envelopes of money to those younger than them. So, the net number of envelope givers generally remain about the same, haha. This is also done by the Chinese during their New Year, so honestly I don't blame anyone for thinking that Eid is a New Year too.

Because the Arabic language is so flexible -- words have multiple meanings -- the phrase Eid ul-Fitr can be translated in several ways. One is 'Celebration of the Breaking of Fast' which directly translates into the standard Malay Eid greeting of 'Selamat Hari Raya'. Another is 'Return to the Original State', which refers to the pure(r) spiritual state one is in after fasting during Ramadhan. Is it this idea of this change of state or renewal that prompts Malays to getting brand new houses and clothes?

One thing that struck me when going to Geylang Serai (an area of Singapore historically full of Malays, and now full of Malay shops) is the enormous bazaar (that is rented out by Chinese businessmen, by the way) that sells among other things, curtains and cushion covers! Some Malays take the idea of renewal très seriously -- they carry out massive spring cleaning, change their curtains, cushions and even furniture! Spring cleaning is also done by the Chinese before they celebrate Chinese New Year.

Interestingly, as far as I can remember (that's to say, about 20 years or so), there has also been a variety show on the Malay channel on television, with local and regional singers, actors and comedians presenting song, dances and skits for the amusement of the Malays. Recently, it's been getting bigger, grander, and shinier (all those sequins!). This year though, they had a street concert on 30th July, just 2 days before the start of the fasting month of Ramadhan. They called it "Raya Gemilang" (lit. 'Shining (!) Celebration') and you can see a video of it below:

Suria, the organisers, says that the concert is to launch the decoration of the streets Geylang Serai with neon lights and posters with educational information about well-known Malay pioneers like businessmen, religious teachers, and poets (why they are on lamp posts and not in museums is another hot issue altogether). But a lot of people are thinking that celebrating Eid/Raya before Ramadhan has even started is pushing the envelope (haha!) a little too much.

We called it 'Raya Gemilang' but it's not for Raya - honest!
Finally, forgiveness is the main theme of Eid in Singapore. The classic greeting goes 'Selamat Hari Raya, Maaf Zahir dan Batin' (the hilariously literal translation being 'Happy Day of Celebration, Sorry Outwardly and Inwardly') with the second part referring to the sincere asking of forgiveness that is done by family members in the mornings, and before leaving other houses. Doing this at the end of the visit is convenient because if it gets too emotional, they can always pull away and get into their car. Ha!

When I was ten years old and carpooling with a schoolmate, a family friend of hers asked me,
"Do Malays really mean it when they say sorry during Hari Raya?"
Hey, you gotta take it as it is. Of course it's absurd to think that this is only done once a year, but for those who may not think about it at all, it's a start. So Muslims, don't get pissy about having Eid ul-Fitr being mistaken for a New Year celebration when your rituals are similar to Chinese New Year -- be forgiving.

And on that forgiving note, I'm sorry if the words in this blog have aggrieved any of my readers (you always have the option of clicking over to the next Blogger blog, heh) and ultimately, God is most Forgiving.


Syuhada said...

The part about offering prayers for the dead not being useful is not quite right. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said: “When a man dies, all his good deeds come to an end except three: ongoing charity; beneficial knowledge; and a righteous son who will pray for him.”(Narrated by Muslim, 1631) Of course, one should always pray for one's parents, not just when one is visiting his parents' grave, nor should one make it a custom to visit the graves only during Eid. Wallahu a'lam!

Sya said...

Yup, I'm aware of this hadith (I'm just really picky!). The above is just my opinion about that in light of what the Qur'an contains.
And of course I agree that a lot of people customarily, but not visit graves only on Eid.


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