Ramadan in Jakarta

A Mosque at Sunset, from a Jakarta highway.

A Mosque at Sunset, as seen from a Jakarta highway

It’s Ramadan, the Muslim holiday during which Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. I was afraid that, in a country with around 200 million Muslims, I was about to be surrounded by groggy, cranky people. This judgment was based on personal experience: More than six hours without a bite to eat makes me unpleasant company. It turns out I didn’t know much about Islam or Ramadan, and my fears have been allayed.

I had not considered the reason that Muslims fast. Now, after a little research and explanation from Indonesians, I’m quite impressed with Ramadan.

Fasting for Muslims is only part of the mandate of Ramadan. It represents an increased focus on God and Islamic principles. In addition to restraint from eating, Muslims practice restraint from anger, sexual temptation, and general selfishness. They increase charitable activities, increase time spent in prayer, and practice patience. As a friend’s driver, an Indonesian Muslim, explained to me, “So many people don’t eat because they have no food … that is what I think about when I feel hungry [at Ramadan].” He explained that he personally thinks about the poor at this time.

He earns about $220 a month.

Imam Sohaib Sultan, the Muslim Life Coordinator and Chaplain at Princeton University in New Jersey, explains in his blog post this week how the fast is a way to free oneself from the binds of temptation. Citing the Quran, he argues that freedom from our inner desires is the most important freedom: “Have you ever considered [the kind of person] who makes his own desires his deity?” He writes, “There are times when restraint is just as powerful, if not even more powerful, than action.”

My personal experience in Indonesia suggests that Muslims here take this creed seriously. Many Indonesian Muslims do not wear a headscarf or pray five times a day (though many do). In fact, here, many Muslims seem to mix the practices from Buddhism and Hinduism into their faith. This seems to result in a stronger focus on the principles of the religion rather than the rituals.

I’m getting the sense, as Ramadan begins, that many of the people around us are striving for a moral standard that would be appreciated by people of any creed.

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