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Jakarta Post

Pandemic forces Muslims to forgo Ramadan traditions

  • Sausan Atika and Ardila Syakriah

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Fri, April 24, 2020   /   05:52 pm
Pandemic forces Muslims to forgo Ramadan traditions A family performs the first 'tarawih' prayer to mark the start of Ramadhan at home in Bintaro, South Tangerang, on Thursday. (JP/Seto Wardhana)

Muslims worldwide began a month of fasting on Friday amid unprecedented social restrictions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

For many Muslims in Indonesia, the long-awaited Ramadan is much more than simply abstaining from food and drink from dawn to dusk. 

The holy month brings with it a host of communal traditions, from tarawih (evening Ramadan prayers) at mosques, bukber (breaking-of-the-fast gatherings) with family, friends and colleagues, to sahur (predawn meal) “on the road” and itikaf (seclusion in mosques).

However, the viral outbreak has upended much of the Muslim way of life in the country after the government instructed people to stay at home as the main strategy to curb the contagion.

As of Friday afternoon, the country has confirmed 8,211 COVID-19 cases and 689 deaths, according to the official tally.

Every night during the month of Ramadan, worshipers would fill up all mosques across the country for tarawih, but the first night this year on Thursday was anything but crowded.

Syarafina Marha, 29, a private sector worker from Bekasi, West Java, said she always tried to go home earlier so that she could take part in the first tarawih prayers at the mosque in her residential compound. Now that the mosque was forced to close, the whole situation had given her mixed feelings.

“I guess my most-want-to-do item in Ramadan is to perform the tarawih [at the mosque] and the mass Idul Fitri prayers,” she told The Jakarta Post on Friday.

“It is just so sad to realize that now everyone must do it individually. It feels like we aren’t fully experiencing the nuances of Ramadan,” she added.

“But to save myself and other people, we don’t have any option but to follow the rules, right?”

Meanwhile, Muhammad Ellan from South Tangerang, Banten, had not lost hope that this year's Ramadan would still feel special, being the largest event of religious observance in the Muslim faith.

Ellan, 59, had been praying five times a day for the past year at his local mosque before it was forced to close down under the order of the government. Even so, he still was able to get accustomed to praying at home.

“What is more important is to be able to achieve muhasabah [introspection],” he said this week.

The Religious Affairs Ministry recently issued a letter outlining prayer and worship guidelines for Ramadan this year. It instructs Indonesian Muslims to perform the tarawih and tadarus (Quran recitations) at home and urges them not to participate in public bukber or sahur gatherings. Furthermore, any itikaf or Nuzulul Quran (day of the revelation of the Quran) events to be held at mosques would be canceled.

The nation’s two largest Islamic organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, also called on Indonesian Muslims to refrain from public gatherings. Muhammadiyah has been promoting the hashtag #RamadandiRumah (Ramadan at home) to encourage Muslims to worship at home.

Istiqlal Mosque in Central Jakarta, the largest mosque in Southeast Asia, had shown no sign of hosting congregational prayers on Thursday night, a sharp contrast to previous years when the mosque council would serve up to 5,000 portions of takjil (breaking-of-the-fast snacks) to worshipers during Ramadan. 

Istiqlal spokesperson Abu Hurairah said it was the first time in history to have the mosque closed since it opened in 1978.

However, in spite of this unprecedented era of social restraint, not all Muslims have heeded the instruction to shelter in place.

Muslims in a number of regions reportedly went ahead with tarawih prayers at mosques, as was the case in Aceh. The Aceh Ulema Council (MPU) has allowed people to continue performing mass prayers at mosques, so long as they were in areas where COVID-19 had been safely contained.

Mosques in South Jakarta, South Tangerang in Banten, Tegal in Central Java, as well as Tuban and Jombang in East Java also allowed evening Ramadan prayers to be observed, according to local reports.

UIN Syarif Hidayatullah lecturer and researcher Saiful Umam said that Muslim beliefs usually fall within a spectrum of theological arguments ranging from the fatalistic – where one conceives that fate is predetermined – to those who believe that it is the ikhtiar (effort) that counts.

Most Indonesians fall somewhere midway between the two extremes but tend to conceive the latter, making for more law-abiding citizens, Saiful said.

“But there are still some who tend toward fatalism,” he said, adding that the government ought to be cautious of reigniting divisions from the 2019 elections.

Muslim-majority Indonesia has prided itself on its moderate brand of Islam amid the global trend of rising religious and political extremism.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has proven a veritable test for the country’s devout Muslim worshipers, for whom faith is tied to national culture and identity.

Nearly 800,000 mosques and musholla (prayer rooms) are spread across the country, according to data from the Religious Affairs Ministry.

Some mosques are not affiliated with the government or the two largest grassroots organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, indicating that local Islamic figures might still hold sway at the community level, Saiful said.

He suggested that the government establish communication with all elements of society down to the community level, so that they too could call on Muslims to suspend public gatherings during Ramadan.


Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the number of mosques in Indonesia.