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The Beauty of Idul Fitri

A Jakarta couple I know living in the UK once told me of how awkward they felt after they sent out Idul Fitri greeting cards to their Muslim friends and colleagues in their first year there. Accustomed to sending Idul Fitri greetings to their colleagues in Indonesia, they wrote on their UK cards the words that Indonesians greet each other with on that joyous day: Minal Aidzin Wal Faidzin, Maaf Lahir dan Batin. These words, asking for forgiveness outwardly and inwardly, are not commonly said outside of the world of Malay Islam. My friends’ non-Malay Muslim colleagues did not know what they meant and why were they written on the cards.

Our cultural expression of Islam is different to the rest of the world in many ways, and Idul Fitri is a time to observe these unique characteristics. The big double-sided beduk drums traditionally used to call people to prayer alongside the adzan call, are often used as symbols of Idul Fitri here. Pictures of this ancient drum appear on everything from greeting cards to television graphics, making it synonymous with Islam and particularly with the celebration of Idul Fitri.

Usually on the eve of the big day there are beduk beating competitions all over the country, where contestants compete in rhythm and endurance tests while calling out takbir to proclaim the greatness of God.

What do beduk, made from the trunks of large tropical trees such as jackfruit or rain trees, have to do with Islam, which was revealed in Arabia where there are no trees big enough to make such a drum?

Ethnomusicologists can tell you that this drum has been around for many thousands of years and can be found in most wet-rice cultures, beginning in the North in the islands of Japan down to the Indonesian islands. The beduk has been here longer than Islam, and in Thailand tour guides will inform you that it is a Thai drum, inseparable from the form of Buddhism practiced there.

Even more than the gamelan orchestras of the Sekaten ceremonies in the palaces of Surakarta and Yogyakarta, the beduk has become a symbol of Islam here.

Just as no musical instrument from Arabia is related to the Javanese gamelan, which is closer to the Buddhist music of Nepal than it is to Islam, there is no beduk or drum like it in the Middle East.

Our Idul Fitri food is also unique. The ketupat, which is rice cooked in woven coconut leaves, has nothing to do with Arabian cuisine. Again, the food is unique to our cultures, but it has become the traditional fare for Idul Fitri and no Idul Fitri lunch is complete without it.

Like the beduk drum, the ketupat is also a favorite symbol of Islam with Indonesian graphic designers.

We customarily eat our ketupat with opor (chicken cooked in coconut milk) and sayur pedas (tempeh and chili in coconut milk soup), serondeng (shredded coconut cooked dry), soybean powder, emping melinjo crackers and rendang (beef or water buffalo meat cooked dry in coconut milk and spices). Nearly all the special dishes served for Idul Fitri here are unique to our culture, but have gained the symbolic status that roast turkey, cranberry sauce, brandied fruit cake and plum pudding have for Christmas in the West.

If in the West Christians and non-Christians alike indulge in showering each other with presents on Christmas, here on Idul Fitri, Muslims and non-Muslims alike visit each other and shake or touch each other’s two hands while asking for forgiveness. People spend time visiting elder relatives and colleagues and children receive gifts of sweets, biscuits and cakes and also money from the elders that they visit.

Javanese people also often perform sungkem on Idul Fitri, in which children and grandchildren bow down low in front of their elders, bringing their hands together in a show of respect while kneeling and kissing the knees of their revered elders.

These foods and social rituals are also unique to us and are not strictly speaking part of the teachings of Islam. Although these customs are not authentically Islam, they are very important in the practice of Islam in our culture. Just as the exchange of presents and the serving of roast turkey allows non-Christians to join in the celebrations of Christmas in the West, our unique traditions also allow non-Muslims to take part and feel included in the celebrations of Idul Fitri here.

It is reassuring to observe that although many groups among Indonesian Muslims here are agitating for a more strictly Arabian expression of Islam, scorning traditional practices like wayang kulit shadow puppets and communal selamatan ceremonies, no one seems to be bothered by the many non-Islamic practices associated with Idul Fitri.

For members of all religions here, Idul Fitri is still a time to share with family and friends. We brave the congested roads and pack tightly into public transport vehicles to be with our elders. We save up for special meals and cakes and sweets, and children receive a new set of clothes.

Having said that, there are some things in our Idul Fitri celebrations that have changed. When I was a child in the 1970s, all through Ramadhan the children in my village would be busy making and collecting fire crackers to blow-up after breaking the fast and especially during the two days of Idul Fitri. This tradition might be an indication that there was considerable Chinese influence in the spreading of Islam here, but back then none of us ever thought about it.

Nowadays, the fireworks you can purchase in the markets are a lot tamer. Children now have sparklers, cartwheels, rockets and other decorative fireworks, and the big bangers and the powder to make them are fortunately now illegal.

But the most beautiful and unique ritual of our Idul Fitri remains the same. Minal aidzin wal faidzin, maaf lahir dan batin.

The writer (Bramantyo Prijosusilo) is a farmer and artist who lives in Ngawi, East Java.