“It seems like Ramadan starts earlier and earlier every year.” Well, if it seems that way then it is only because it is true. The Islamic calendar is based on lunar cycles, and one lunar year is about eleven days shorter than its cousin, the solar year. So generally Ramadan occurs eleven days earlier than it did the previous year.
Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar and it is the most holy. Muslims celebrate Ramadan through prayer, charitable giving, and fasting. They celebrate because it is believed that Allah revealed the first verses of the Quran to the Prophet Mohammed during Ramadan. Mosques will often read one thirtieth of the Quran each night, and thus will have read the entire work by the end of Ramadan. By fasting Muslims are reminded of the struggles of the poor and the less fortunate, and will be motivated to give charitably.
Fasting is an exercise in self-control and one of the five pillars of Islam. Muslims abstain from eating and drinking during daylight hours and are supposed to, instead, focus their minds away from worldly concerns. Fasting in Islam, much like in Christianity, is intended to bring people closer to God and provide distance from physical, earthly desires. Beyond the religious components, Ramadan is also a time of fellowship.
In Indonesia, a typical day of Ramadan begins around 2:30 in the morning. People from the village, oftentimes children, will walk around the streets of the desa playing loud music to wake everyone up. As an individual who greatly enjoys his slumber, I did not find this to be a particularly appealing aspect of the Ramadan celebrations. Because Muslims are not to eat during the day they wake up early and eat a very large meal before sunrise, sahur.
If you want the authentic Ramadan-in-Indonesia experience then set your alarm to play this audio clip at 2:30 am every day for a month.
Before dawn Muslims are supposed to have achieved niyyah, an Arabic word meaning intention. They are to dedicate their fast to Allah and not perform it out of convenience or for selfish motivations such as political gain or dietary reasons. During the day Muslims are to go about their day like they would normally, though this isn’t always the case. There are some that will sleep through the majority of the day only waking up before sunset so that they may eat again.
After sahur I typically go back to bed for another hour or two before I must go to school. My school is near the end of their second semester and they are finished with testing. Understanding how Indonesian school schedules are set is something that I have not been able to grasp. My school is in session for the majority of Ramadan, but there are no classes. So students and teachers are at the facilities, but no one is being taught.
Many schools, including mine, will offer a curriculum that is specific to Ramadan. Some schools continue to have classes, though on an abbreviated schedule. Religious schools will often have their students spend the first or last week, days and nights, of Ramadan at the school to learn about Islam. My school will have one week of purely religious classes for their Muslim students.
I am not participating in Ramadan to the extent that my Muslim peers are, but I do have the morning and evening meals with my family (mostly because this is the only reliable times I can get food), and I fast on the days when it is convenient for me. Obviously, fasting when it is convenient is not the purpose of Ramadan; though as I am not a Muslim, I’m not compelled to adhere to the strict guidelines of Ramadan. I do abstain from eating and drinking in front of others as a sign of respect.
The days that I have gone totally without food or water are always very impressive to my colleagues and peers. Many believed that Christians are not allowed to fast and all of them talk about how difficult it must be for an American to participate in fasting. I am constantly asked if I am hungry or thirsty. Though, while perhaps not enjoyable, I have found fasting to be not all that difficult. Eating the right foods in the morning and evening is certainly enough to get me through twelve hours without food and water and the body has been proven capable of going much longer times without sustenance. It is always nice when I can prove to Indonesians that Americans aren’t as soft as they might think. Many volunteers have chosen to attempt fasting the entire month, most elect to at least drink water as needed throughout the day, but some fast completely.
Shortly before maghrib, the evening prayer, Muslims will break their fast, or buka puasa, by eating some fruit or dates and drinking water or some sweet drink. It is best not to immediately gorge oneself following a period of fasting, so they resume eating slowly. After their prayer they will have iftar, the meal after sunset. Iftar is a time to bond with family and friends and, of course, eat lots of delicious food.
As I only arrived in Sumedang a few days before the start of Ramadan, I haven’t had much of an opportunity to get acquainted with the community and thus I have not been to many iftars outside of those my host family. My favorite thing about iftar, and Ramadan in general, is that during hours while not fasting, there is always an abundance of cake. During one evening that I went to a neighbor’s iftar meal there were three cakes. I can’t stress enough how much I like cake.
Ramadan has been a stark change from PST. Nearly all of my days are left unscheduled and I am left to my own devices to explore my community and settle in for the next two years in Sumedang. I believe the most popular activity PCVs in Indonesia take up during Ramadan is reading. Already I have read four books and I’ve started my fifth. Coming from two months where there was hardly an hour that was left unscheduled, I am greatly enjoying my freedom and the abundance of cake.