Negotiating Ramadan in Indonesia

Negotiating Ramadan in Indonesia

Ade Cholik Mutaqin (JKKP) and Lisa Tilley (University Warwick) 


This article reflects on the holy month of Ramadan as a personal journey, a site of local and national cultural negotiation and as a point of articulation and contestation with global Islam. Overall a varied and textured image of Ramadan practice in Indonesia emerges which shows not that Indonesia has been absorbed by global Islam, but, instead, as Abidin Kusno (2010) puts it: “Islam has been absorbed … into the world of Indonesia”.

Ramadan, or Bulan Puasa (in Indonesia), is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and is dominated by the rituals of daily fasting. On a personal level, Muslims are obliged to fast from dawn until sunset to comply with the Qur’anic commitment set out in paragraph 183. This fasting in some ways is a negation of doing, and in that sense differs from the active obligatory acts of charitable donation in Islam. It creates an emptiness within, a space for being to take over, in Eva Muchtar’s terms. Yet, in another sense, it is an active process requiring resistance to, and control of, desire, and involving a struggle against feelings of hunger, thirst and other material and corporeal desires. Ramadan requires a month-long social and personal disciplinary routine which provokes in the observer varying reflections and sensations. Some experience a release from worldly concerns and a heightened connection with God. For others, the experience is closer to a worldly asceticism, a personal check on the will of the era towards what they perceive to be an ever more ego-centric and hedonistic way of being.

For Ade, one of the authors of this piece, experiencing hunger and thirst on a daily basis brings a heightened awareness of the condition of the poor, the dispossessed, and the displaced. In this sense it becomes a corporeal reflection (experienced as well as imagined) on poverty and suffering, which in turn inspires action. This deeper connection with worldly hardship, as well as the transcendental experience of worship, inspires social as much as religious piety. Ramadan for Ade is more an actualisation or manifestation of faith in the praxis of social life (a faith of social action). Social piety provokes a reflection on how the space for social injustice might be narrowed, whether this injustice is in the form of an unequal distribution of wealth, class inequalities, political oppression or economic exploitation.

Further, in Ade’s experience, Ramadan is an annual month-long reminder of how to be measured and balanced in life, and of how to engage in practices of hospitality and friendship, through the daily convivial experience of sharing the Iftar meal at dusk. The exuberant atmosphere of Iftar around the street stalls of Jakarta, after a day of sombre restraint, is a very public testament to the daily festivity of the Puasa month.

Across the eight thousand or so inhabited Indonesian islands and on Java in particular, many centuries of religious and cultural synthesis (Ricklefs 2006) have produced a patchwork of devotional traditions. From Buddhism and Hinduism of Indian origins, followed by Islam filtered through Indic Sufism, later the enhanced influence of Middle Eastern Islamic traditions after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, as well as forms of Christianity and myriad animist traditions and nature-based spirit-worship. The residues of these historical influences synthesise to create cultural forms unique to Indonesia. And so, Islam on Java is often referred to in terms of the double consciousness of ‘one-which-is-two’, that is, global Islam met with Hindu-Javanese culture (Kusno 2010). Yet, even within the one-which-is-two of Javanese Islam, there are manifold traditions of celebration. From the West Javanese Munggahan tradition of gathering to eat together, to the Nyadran pilgrimage to the ancestral burial site, to the Padusan Javanese bathing rituals intended to purify ahead of the holy month.

The holy month is also brought in at two different times depending upon whether your adherence is to the Nahdlatul Ulama or the Muhammadiyah, as each socio-religious organisation employs a different method to calculate the beginning of fasting. The first relies on the appearance of the new moon, or rukyat, while the second draws on hisab methods of astronomical calculations. Otherwise, the daily rituals are largely uniform. Pre-dawn Subuh prayers and the Sahur meal are often followed by sleep, then Zuhur and Asar prayers happen at intervals during the day. And after the Iftar ritual of breaking the daily fast the evening is punctuated with Magrib, Isya and Tarawih prayers.

Because many parts of Indonesia are home to such plural religious communities, Ramadan is observed by Muslims and respected by others, but not usually enforced. In Jakarta for instance, many restaurants and food stalls remain open during the day but discreet curtains conceal diners from the passing views of those on the street. Some establishments refrain from serving alcohol for some or most of the holy month. Others continue but an order for alcohol will provoke a reflection among waiting staff over whether serving a mojito might not be acceptable at all, while a gin and tonic is possible, and the locally brewed beer might come served in a teapot and poured ceremonially into a porcelain cup.

But Ramadan also brings heightened interventions from the extremist Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam or FPI). The FPI use the holy month as a time to incite violence against those serving food during daylight hours, selling alcohol or renting hotel rooms to unmarried couples. All of these activities persist regardless, however, and most Indonesian Muslims remain highly critical of this militant organisation, seeing none of their own values or morals reflected in its ethos. The FPI is seen as a product of Saudi Wahhabi influence, with the leader Habib Muhammad Rizieq Syihab being an alumnus of the Institute of Islamic and Arabic Sciences (LIPIA) in South Jakarta and a recipient of a Saudi scholarship to fund his studies in Riyadh. The organisation has a structure which mimics that of state agencies, from its national body down to sub-district divisions, and enjoys support from the police and military in Indonesia. Protests against the FPI have been widespread and its presence has been made particularly unwelcome in the most pluralist provinces such as Central Kalimantan, where indigenous Dayak customs are prominent and where even within a single family adherents to three different religions may be found.

Other parts of the country have localised laws which comply more with the sort of austere Ramadan practice favoured by the FPI. Banjarbaru, for instance, within the site of the former Banjar Islamic Sultanate in South Kalimantan, forbids the selling of street food during the day, permitting food stalls to set up only during the late afternoon hours just in time to serve the Iftar meal. Around here and in the nearby town of Banjarmasin, the FPI has one of its strongest support bases.

For most Muslims across Indonesia, however, FPI practices contradict not only Islam but also the deeply embedded unifying ethos of the state – Pancasila. This national philosophy is named from the combined Sanskrit words for ‘five principles’ and was elaborated during the independence era to unite disparate cultures around the cause of decolonialisation . The overwhelming strength of Pancasila, with its focus on ‘unity in diversity’, helps to preserve both the tolerance of fasting Muslims towards those whose faith does not oblige them to fast, and the respect of other religions towards those suffering the long, dry afternoons before Iftar. The dominant outcome is an atmosphere of mutual empathy. A Catholic Indonesian friend of ours, by way of example, also observed the Ramadan fast one year simply for the personal ascetic experience, as well as for the sense of social piety and to accompany his fasting Muslim friends.

Despite the intentions of the FPI, mutual empathy remains the dominant reality of Bulan Puasa, both within the one-which-is-two of the Javanese setting and the one-which-is-many of Islam across the wider nation. Overall, the majority of Indonesians, both through Pancasila and through the daily reality of Ramadan’s pluralist habitudes, continue to play their part in the negotiation of the place of global Islam within the world of Indonesia.


Kusno, A. (2010) The Appearances of Memory: Mnemonic Practices of Architecture and Urban Form in Indonesia. Durham: Duke University Press.

Ricklefs, M. C. (2006) Mystic Synthesis in Java: A History of Islamization from the Fourteenth to the Early Nineteenth Centuries. White Plains, NY : EastBridge.


Ade Cholik Mutaqin works for the NGO, Indonesian Community Mapping Network (JKPP), as organisational development head.  Lisa Tilley is a PhD candidate and Erasmus Mundi Fellow in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick.