Hari Raya – A Guide for the Unsure

By Nadge Ariffin

“…Hari Raya, which is the Muslim New Year… ”, Oops! Have you heard anyone say something like that, or do you yourself think Hari Raya is the Muslim New Year? Well, it is not – but that was what one Malaysian Government senior official mentioned while speaking at a public function many moons ago. Granted, the person was not Muslim but having heard that, this is a good chance to help explain a few things about “puasa” and “Hari Raya” (“literally the “Great Day”) for the better understanding of our multi-cultural society.

Hari Raya Puasa in relation to the puasa (Malay word for “fasting”) in the month of Ramadhan is the celebration to mark the fulfillment of the month’s fasting. Fasting is an obligatory part of Islamic faith. Thus it is sometimes half-jokingly said that any Muslim who does not puasa doesn’t have the right to celebrate Hari Raya. Also it is clear that it is NOT the Muslim New Year, which by the way is another holiday, Awal Muharram (Muharram being the first month in the Islamic calendar).

It is pertinent to note that the Ramadhan fasting and the celebration at its completion are not just a Malaysian or Malay Muslim affair. The global Muslim Ummah (“Umat” in Malay or roughly ‘community’) all over the world performs the same fasting and celebrates it at the end. In Arabic, Hari Raya Puasa is ‘Eid-ul-Fitr and this is spelt as Aidil Fitri in Malaysia (or Idul Fitri in Indonesia).

Meanwhile the other Hari Raya is for the Hajj, or “Hari Raya Haji” and also called “Hari Raya Kurban”, because it marks both the annual Pilgrimage for pilgrims to Makkah (Mecca) in Saudi Arabia as well as commemorating the symbolic sacrifice of Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) on his son Ismail (Ishmael). Kurban means “sacrifice” and at this event certain domestic animals are sacrificed by slaughter according to Islamic rites for their meat to be distributed, especially to the poor.

Back to the puasa itself. The fasting practically and physically means not eating, drinking (not even a drop of water) or engaging in any sexual activities during the fast. Very specifically it means nothing may enter any orifice (fancy word for any opening) of the body in a way that is deliberate and satiating (fancy word for satisfying). Under the strictest of that interpretation, one shouldn’t even pick one’s nose while fasting, although if it’s to remove any blockage and not done excessively scholars fairly agree it’s forgivable. Nonetheless, that does make one realise and be grateful that one even has hands to be able to pick one’s nose and clean out a bugger. What if one doesn’t have hands? And what if one doesn’t have food to eat, isn’t that what you feel when you fast? Thus one of the lessons of fasting, among others, is to remind us to be thankful for the things and blessings that God has given us, and be charitable towards those who are less fortunate.

The actual time of fasting is during the entire daytime. This is from dawn, when the first indication of light is visible in the horizon (note that this is before actual sunrise as the sun’s light appears before the sun itself) and ends exactly at sunset. Both times are marked by an “azan” (or the “bang” in colloquial Malay) i.e. the calls to prayer at Subuh pre-sunrise and then at Maghrib sunset.

Some people also wonder about the annually “changing” times of Ramadhan and Hari Raya, which don’t coincide with the solar or Western calendar. This is because they follow the Islamic calendar, which observes the cycle of the moon, as do the Chinese months although they do not have the same calculation for the year. Interestingly, Hari Raya Puasa will coincide with Chinese New Year every 30-31 years and they will ‘stay together’ within days of each other for 2-3 years before parting; the next “Kongsi Raya” will be in 2029-2031.

There are 12 months in the Islamic calendar but as it follows the shorter moon cycle of about 29.5 days, the Islamic lunar month is less than the usual months’ 30 or 31 days. On average the Islamic year is thus shorter than the solar year by roughly 11-odd days.

This means that the Islamic months, such as Ramadhan, slowly ‘move’ earlier each year throughout the solar years. Actually both the sun and moon are not exactly regular in their relative movements with the earth and that is why there are ‘leap years’ in the solar calendar to catch up, while in the Muslim calendar the actual observation of the moon is made to visually confirm the new crescent moon that marks the start of fasting and then Aidil Fitri.

Selamat Hari Raya!