Unlike other Muslim-majority countries, Indonesia has an annual unique tradition of celebrating Idul Fitri, or in its Indonesian term, Lebaran (derived from a Javanese word lebar meaning “the end,” signifying the end of fasting during Ramadan) and Hari Raya, meaning the Great Day. In the archipelago, Idul Fitri is not merely a public holiday for Muslims but also for Indonesians in general, regardless of their ethnic and religious affiliations. With few exceptions, Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, Hindus, Confucianists, followers of local beliefs and even nonbelievers all celebrate Lebaran with joy as the Indonesian government declares it a national holiday.
Each year, following Idul Fitri, millions of Indonesians from diverse professions and various ethnic and religious groups residing in major cities in Indonesia or even abroad make their traditional homecoming, a custom commonly called mudik (back to a home village), to spend this special day with their families. They also utilize the holiday as a chance to meet with their old friends and former colleagues. It is thus not an exaggeration to state that Idul Fitri is a common cultural attribute of Indonesians, not simply a religious tradition of Muslims. In other words, Idul Fitri is a public festival, founded in religion, but celebrated in one way or another by people of all faiths.
In a sense, Idul Fitri is a kind of master symbol unifying Indonesia’s diverse culture. Borrowing the term of Arnold van Gennep in his classic book “The Rites of Passage,” Idul Fitri can be seen as the “liminal phase [from the Latin limen signifying threshold or edge] of rites de passage,” in which Muslims and non-Muslims celebrate this unusual holiday together without the realities of religious segregation and cultural separation. Boundary maintenance blurs and indeed there is no cultural barrier between Muslims and non-Muslims during Lebaran.
For most Indonesian Muslims, more specifically, the celebration of Idul Fitri is considered to be far more important than fasting during Ramadan. It is significant to note that many Muslims in the archipelago didn’t actually fast at all during Ramadan, or just fasted the first few days of the holy month. Perhaps only santri (students of Islamic boarding schools), urban-based devout Muslims and mualaf (new converts to Islam) kept their fast throughout the month.
Many of the Muslims in this nation, namely the abangan (Javanese Muslims who combine rituals with local customs and traditions) and wong nasional (“real Indonesians,” or Muslims who prioritize national identity over the Arabic origins of religion), make no attempt to maintain the fast — nor do they put up any pretense of doing so. They keep eating, drinking and smoking in public during the fasting month.
Regardless of the fasting, most Indonesians still regard themselves as faithful Muslims and faithfully cheer Lebaran by performing salat (praying) on Idul Fitri (albeit they typically didn’t practice the five daily prayers) and other ritual ceremonies following this holiday. They believe that by conducting salat once a year on this important day, their previous sins and mistakes committed throughout the year will be forgiven by God.
Based on the experience of the plurality of Indonesian Islam, it is thus misleading to state that Muslims worldwide are a monolithic entity performing the same ritual practices. In fact, on the contrary, Muslims are a pluralistic group subscribing to different cultural practices, religious ceremonies and socio-political interests.
The central ritual act of Idul Fitri is a personal begging of forgiveness characteristically patterned in terms of status differences. For instance, the child asks pardon of the parents, the young of the old, the worker of the boss, the politician of the party chief, the follower of the leader, the minister of the president, the student of the teacher, etc. Traditionally, each of these relatively lower status people goes to the home of the higher status one, where he/she is received, usually with tea and snacks, to formally beg the pardon of the host.
The most common phrase to state during halal bihalal (Arabic for a mutual begging of pardon) is as follows: “I request your pardon for my faults, inside and outside” or in Indonesian, “ mohon maaf lahir dan batin ” (“forgive my sins, both with regard to the world as well as those within me”).
The meaning of this act is that, in the phrase of the late American anthropologist Clifford Geertz in his book “The Religion of Java,” “The petitioner [usually those holding a lower status] wishes the host [typically those who have an upper class status] to forgive from the depths of his heart any injuries — intended or unintended — which the latter has done to him in the past year, so as to lighten the weight of his sins.” It is imperative to point out that this kind of annual forgiveness ritual is not only conducted by Muslims to their Muslim brethren — many non-Muslims during the days of Idul Fitri also perform this fine act toward others, religious beliefs aside. Each year, I receive the Idul Fitri greeting along with the forgiveness ritual from my non-Muslim friends.
Although begging pardon from those having a “lower status” — economically, socially and politically — to those holding a “higher status” by visiting their houses is common, it is also significant for those who are well-off to beg forgiveness of those holding a lower status, such as the boss of the employee, the leader of the follower, the government of the citizen, etc., to signify that we’re human — we all make mistakes and have our faults. As well, in this Great Day, it is critical for the perpetrator of political and religious violence to ask for forgiveness from the wounded. This makes Idul Fitri a means of mutual forgiveness, thus the objective and the soul of Idul Fitri, which literally means “return to human’s natural tendency or character,” as free from sins and mistakes as a newborn baby, can be achieved.
With these human rituals, Idul Fitri reveals the underlying unity of Indonesian people, regardless of their faiths and beliefs, since it is the most festive and the most genuinely collective of the country’s ceremonies.
Observing the Lebaran tradition, anthropologist Geertz aptly states: “In a broad, diffuse and very general way, it [Idul Fitri] stresses the commonalities among all Indonesians, stresses tolerance concerning their differences [and] stresses their oneness as a nation. It is, in fact, the most truly nationalist of their rituals, and, as such, it indicates the reality and the attainability of what is now the explicit ideal of all Indonesians — cultural unity and continuing social progress.” Although Geertz’s observation was made back in the 1950’s when he conducted ethnographic fieldwork on religion and social change in a small village in East Java, his comments are still valid in Indonesia today.
Giving the qualities and characteristics of Idul Fitri depicted above, it is hence not hyperbole to state that Idul Fitri is — and can be used as — a cultural means of establishing social integration, religious tolerance, interfaith brotherhood and national reconciliation so that interreligious relations in this country will improve in the years to come.
“Merry Idul Fitri to all Indonesians, and forgive me of any faults.”
Sumanto Al Qurtuby is the deputy chairman of North America’s Nahdlatul Ulama and a research fellow at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.