by Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz. First published in The Malay Mail 3 July 2015
When I was younger, I was taught that the most important thing about Ramadhan was getting to know yourself and your relationship with God, thereby striving to be a better Muslim.
This advice was particularly relevant when I started at boarding school in England. There were only a handful of Muslims at Marlborough, and none in my boarding house, so I had to sahur alone (cereal and bread in the breakfast room), and during daily classes and sports afternoons most people did not know that I was fasting. At the time I thought that didn’t matter, but now looking back, I realise it was crucial. If people don’t know you are fasting, their expectations don’t change, and it is your duty to operate as normally as possible while abstaining from food and drink. There is no outside pressure or compulsion, nor does anyone grant you special allowances. Indeed, it could have bred inconsideration and resentment if I expected or requested any (although I confess that at a younger age fasting provided a perfect excuse for escaping dreaded swimming lessons).
When I moved to London for university, fasting got easier, firstly because Ramadhan travelled regressively through winter so there were fewer daylight hours; and second, I had Muslim friends to sahur and iftar with. Still, in London it was not obvious who was fasting, and certainly university professors and employers did not alter their expectations.
The experience of fasting in Malaysia is different. On the plus side there is enormous opportunity to be enriched by the spirituality of Ramadhan, in particular by interacting with many different communities for terawih prayers – not just in kampongs across rural Negeri Sembilan where the specialities of moreh (supper) are served – but also those organised by companies, army regiments, NGOs and relatives.
There are also many little adjustments made based on the fact that a majority of people are fasting. Some, like earlier office hours to beat the jam and fewer meetings, are widely welcomed. Unfortunately, less positive attitudes are exhibited as well. In previous years I’ve commented on the expensive and inferior buffets (a major contributor to the staggering 9,000 tonnes of food wasted daily) and a couple of politically-tinged incidents, but this year the behaviour of some people in authority provide even greater juxtapositions to the aims of the holy month.
We have people being forced to wear additional items of clothing due to bureaucrats’ desire to increase visitors’ modesty on religious grounds, or an enjoyment of wielding power over others using the existence of a dress code as justification. Either way, dress codes must be clear and cognisant of the fact that government offices serve citizens who pay for services rendered, whatever their sartorial preferences.
We have the appalling “joke” by a teacher that non-Muslim students should drink their own urine, and the subsequent opinion that non-Muslims should not visibly eat in front of Muslims – indeed, to “show sensitivity” in front of someone fasting. It is an inversion of what I was taught: rather than it being the responsibility of the person fasting to resist temptation, non-fasters are instead asked to change their routines to avoid the possibility of tempting fasters.
Perhaps worst of all, we have politicians who in addition to making the usual references to defending race and religion, cite Ramadhan as well: You shouldn’t question certain things (government-linked companies for instance) because of Ramadhan; you should trust us because it’s Ramadhan; Muslims must show solidarity in Ramadhan.
In such ways, the fasting month is used to shut down debate, augment policy decisions and delegitimise non-Muslim Malaysians from commenting about national issues. Yet, countering this phenomenon is not easy as the invocation of religion is already so entrenched in our socio-political space.
Things used to be different. Our first and only Prime Minister to serve as Secretary-General of the Organisation of Islamic Conference, a man who also believed Malaysia to be a secular state, once challenged in Parliament: “Let any one amongst us who is without sin, stand up and cast the first stone” – when only the Opposition Leader stood, the Tunku’s genius retort was: “I really pity you”. In a later article, he wrote: “[Some politicians] talk glibly of creating a heavenly kingdom, a nation inhabited by saints only. When that happens, if ever, there won’t be a place for them either.”
Fasting, like many aspects of religion, only has true intent (niyyat) when individuals do things out of their most sincerely held beliefs. When the state tries to enforce a heavenly kingdom, one where the behaviour and constraints of Muslims and non-Muslims is overly policed by the state, intentions – especially those of people in power – may become blurred.
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Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz is Founding President of IDEAS