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The Idul Fitri Exodus – A Socio-Religious Meaning

The fasting month of Ramadhan will soon be over, and Muslims the world over are reflecting on the values of their religion as they prepare to celebrate Idul Fitri, which is known as Lebaran in Indonesia. Lebaran is a unique phenomenon whereby Muslims visit their family and friends to ask for forgiveness for any wrongs they might have committed in the previous year.

Traditional foods are served, family and friends gather to ask for forgiveness and exchange greetings, new clothing is worn, children receive gifts and visits are made to recreational parks — all to celebrate the end of the fasting month.

Another feature of Lebaran is mudik, or the annual return to one’s hometown. While Islam does not explicitly recommend mudik, it encourages people to come together, love and forgive one another.

Mudik is an annual tradition inseparable from life in Indonesian communities. People who leave home to seek their fortunes in the big smoke usually return home only on the Idul Fitri holiday, where they visit their ancestors’ graves and pray to the spirits of the deceased.

Mudik is also a kind of therapy, as it serves to revitalize family relationships. In its spiritual aspect, it generates a new vitality, which gives migrants new vigor to return to their work in the big cities.

People who work in big cities far from their homes often feel something is lacking in their lives; and this “lost something” can be rediscovered when they return home. Mudik is therefore both an annual tradition and a remedial “side effect” or therapy for the sense of loss an urban life creates.

In this context, mudik and Idul Fitri are great opportunities for people to reaffirm the importance of family and brotherhood. Islam reserves a special place for family relationships. Marriage remains a sacred ritual and social event. At a time when marriage as an institution has lost much of its credibility in many parts of the world, Muslims still maintain marriage is the only path to God’s blessing through human relationships. And Idul Fitri provides an opportunity for Muslims to be together with family members (see Muhamad Ali, 2006).

Idul Fitri’s religious meaning also changes according to personalities and circumstances. Religiosity is a difficult dimension to observe and measure. Some scholars suggest religiosity has several dimensions: experiential, ideological, intellectual, ritualistic and consequential. From my observations, Idul Fitri is more about the experiential, ritualistic and consequential rather than the ideological and intellectual dimensions.

The experiential dimension refers to the degree and intensity of a person’s experience with God. The experiential dimension also points to one’s encounter with other Muslims, such as on the morning of Idul Fitri when Muslims gather in mosques or open fields to pray together, recite takbir (Allah is the Greatest), tahmid (Praise be to Allah), tahlil (God is the only One and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah) and tasbih (everyone and everything in the universe recognizes Allah’s independence of any shortcomings).

Ritualistic dimensions refer to institutional or organized practices of religion, such as Koran recitals, the wearing or carrying of religious charms or observing religious holidays. Idul Fitri is carried out mostly ritualistically, since it has become standardized with certain rules and guidelines. From the fasting month to Idul Fitri, ritualistic dimensions are largely apparent and most Muslims seem to try to obey these ritualistic dimensions, which have been largely standardized through jurisprudential and legal scholarship.

Muhamad Ali (2006) said the ritualistic part of fasting and Idul Fitri is a product of early, but also medieval, Muslim scholars. And the majority of Muslims today are conservative, in the sense they simply follow fasting and Idul Fitri rules without questioning them too much.

For Muslims in Indonesia, the ritualistic and legalistic aspects of fasting and Idul Fitri follow the Sunni theological and Shafiite schools of thought. World religions stress the importance of ritual, but there is a danger of ritualism if religion simply means ritual and nothing more or implied in terms of personal and public virtues.

Ritualism is a belief or a situation in which a believer merely follows the “how” (or ritual) of the religion without understanding the “why”. It is in this context that many Muslims have shown a lack of conformity (between ritual and good social and public dimensions).

In particular, there is a lack of conformity between rituals and the general condition of Muslims in terms of education and prosperity. Blind ritualism can lead to corruption, underdevelopment, illiteracy, violence, social injustices and other unresolved social problems. So, the consequential dimension lies in the consequences Islam has for the individual in a variety of areas.

Muslims might correctly perform their rituals during the year, yet these rituals may have little impact and consequence on their everyday lives in terms of good human relationships. We have seen how religion reflects society and how individuals draw on religion in a variety of ways to add meaning to their lives.

There are hypocrites, sinners, sincerely faithful people, committed people and so forth. But Muslims today are trying to seek meaning through their religion. The fasting month and Idul Fitri are a special time for those in search of that meaning — I sincerely hope they find it.

Happy Idul Fitri!

The writer (Choirul Mahfud) is a lecturer of Islamic and Western philosophy at Muhammadiyah University in Surabaya. He can be contacted at mahfudjatim@yahoo.com.