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Jakarta Post

Finding the true meaning of Idul Fitri through the COVID-19 pandemic

  • Endy Bayuni

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Sat, May 23, 2020   /   09:16 am
Finding the true meaning of Idul Fitri through the COVID-19 pandemic Muslims perform the Idul Fitri mass prayer at the Bandung Grand Mosque in West Java on Sunday, June 25, 2017. (JP/Arya Dipa)

This year, Muslims in Indonesia are celebrating the end of Ramadan in a totally different fashion from the way we know and have been doing for years.

COVID-19 and the large-scale social restrictions (PSBB) that come with it are preventing many of us from making the usual trips to visit friends and relatives during Idul Fitri. The massive economic downturn means that we are spending far less than we are accustomed to during this time of year.

Idul Fitri in 2020, or the year 1441 in the Islamic calendar, may well be far less festive and far less commercialized, but it is not necessarily going to be less spiritual. It will likely be more serene and solemn – the way we should truly celebrate the end of Ramadan.

In today’s popular COVID-19 parlance, could this be the “new normal” – not only for celebrating Idul Fitri but also for observing the Ramadan fasting month? We’ll know this time next year.

But amid ever-increasing commercialism, we seem to have lost sight of the real meaning of Islam’s holiest month of the year.

Read also: 'The saddest Eid'. Coronavirus cuts lifeline for Indonesian migrant families

Fasting, which exists in many other religions, is intended to remind the faithful of what it is like to go without food and drink for a period of time, to feel what it is like to be poor, and therefore to always be thankful for the blessings we have, whatever our social circumstances are.

The obligatory alms known as zakat fitrah at the end of Ramadan tell us that we have to share a part of our wealth with the poor.

The fasting and additional prayers asked of Muslims during Ramadan are intended to sharpen our characters, not just by encouraging piety, but also by making us more thankful, patient and tolerant. In short, the observances of Ramadan seek to make better people out of all of us – to carry us through for the next 11 months.

Idul Fitri is indeed a day of victory after a trying month of fasting, but we may have taken this celebration and even the entire month of Ramadan to the extreme by indulging ourselves with endless feasts.

We have accepted without question the contradictions of Ramadan in Indonesia. The time of the year when we should be eating less is the time of the year when the monthly inflation rate is at one of its highest because of rising food prices. The other highest month is December, indicating how commerce has also taken over Christmas in predominantly Muslim Indonesia.

Ramadan and the month before and after it have become a time when we spend more money on food because of the feasts that we hold with relatives, friends, colleagues and neighbors – with essentially everybody we know. This is true with most city folks.

Typically, we have lunch or dinner get-togethers before Ramadan comes; then we have iftar (breaking-of-the-fast meals) during Ramadan and still more meals on Idul Fitri. Thereafter, halal bihalal gatherings can last for another month. These tend to involve banquets of no small scale.

The higher you are on the social ladder, the busier you are with these gatherings. Many people see their waistline increase around Ramadan. Diets begin as soon as the celebrations are over.

Read also: Frozen meals become hot seller for quarantined Indonesians

Even religious sermons have become commercialized. Many of these gatherings, particularly for iftar, seem incomplete without bringing in the most celebrated preacher in town at the cost of millions of rupiah for a 30-minute rehashed speech.

Another Idul Fitri tradition that has gotten out of control is mudik, when city folk hit the road to return to their hometowns. The exodus creates kilometers of congestion on roads leading out of Jakarta and other big cities, as well as massive jams at airports and railway stations.

This mass movement of people was the government’s doing. About a decade ago, it extended the national Idul Fitri holiday from two days to, typically, between a week and 10 days, including the weekends, taking the extra days off people’s annual holiday entitlements.

Travelers disembark from a ship at Ketapang Harbor in Banyuwangi, East Java on Tuesday. The government announced on Friday that the first day of Syawal month, which marks the Idul Fitri celebration, would fall on Sunday. Travelers disembark from a ship at Ketapang Harbor in Banyuwangi, East Java on Tuesday. The government announced on Friday that the first day of Syawal month, which marks the Idul Fitri celebration, would fall on Sunday. (Antara/Budi Candra Setya)

Arguably, this commercialization and the growth of mudik have been good for the economy. The quarterly gross domestic product usually shows a small uptick as a result of spending during Ramadan. Mudik resuscitates the rural economy as city folk shower villages with money and gifts, helping to partially address the huge urban-rural wealth imbalance.

But surely these trips and financial transfers could be done at any time of the year now because of the greater ease of travel and the increasing convenience of financial technology. They don’t have to coincide with Ramadan or Idul Fitri to the point of clouding the spirit of the occasions.

We’ve already gone through the month of Ramadan accepting the various social restrictions imposed on us because of COVID-19. There is no reason to think that we cannot celebrate Idul Fitri this weekend. It’s simply that we are celebrating it differently, probably for the better.

Whatever we think of COVID-19, the pandemic has been a reality check for our faith and our lives.

Happy Idul Fitri.