In Ramadan, Muslims refrain from eating and drinking for a full month from dawn to dusk. Fasting in this holy month though means more than that.
Perhaps, the most popular occasion in Malaysia during Ramadan is iftar - Arabic for the breaking of fast. The word has been in popular use since a decade or so.
Before, breaking of fast was more commonly referred to simply as buka puasa in Malay. Many non-Muslims have also joined their Muslim friends in breaking fast or have participated or organised iftar in charitable homes, such as orphanages or old folks homes.
Some non-Muslims who work in the early hours of the morning may have joined or seen their Muslim friends having sahur or the pre-dawn meal before fasting begins. This meal is encouraged for those who intend to fast and they will be rewarded for it. The meal can be anything from a full set meal of rice to bread or just dried or fresh dates.
There is also another light meal that Muslims in Malaysia enjoy in Ramadan.
It is called moreh, served after terawih - the special prayers done only in the month of Ramadan - after the night prayer, Isha.
Moreh takes place at the grounds of mosques or surau. Before, food will be brought from home to be shared with the congregation. But now, it is usually provided by an individual or a group of kind souls in the community. Food served can include noodles, local traditional snacks, sweets and savouries, with teh tarik or coffee and cold drinks. Recently pastas too were added to the menu.
This post-terawih meal does not only gives avenue for charitable deeds but also binds the community. It’s a practice that also delights children who throng the mosques and suraus in Ramadan. Presently, in some of the bigger mosques, iftar and moreh are being catered for from donations collected.
A relatively new term
The word moreh, however, only came into popular use around 30 odd years ago across Peninsular Malaysia.
Before that, in many parts of the peninsula, there were no specific name given to the feast. But in most parts of the country, Muslims were sharing food with one another after the terawih prayers.
President of the The Penang Malay Charity Organisation (Pemenang) Tan Sri Mohd Yussof Latiff, 88, said, as far as he can remember, the Muslims in Penang had called the feast for breaking fast or after the terawih prayers, moreh, since before World War Two.
“Back then, we had no mosque committees, therefore, the imams of the mosques or suraus will approach prominent people in their area to ask them to sponsor a feast either for the breaking of fast or after terawih prayers. Others in the community will also contribute by bringing food from home.
“During those times, having moreh helped in fostering relationships among the people in the neighbourhood and closing the gap between the rich and the poor. The poor would also be able to take the food home for sahur,” he said.
According to Mohd Yussoff, moreh can also mean the turn to give the feast. For example, yesterday was Yusof’s moreh, tonight is Khalid’s moreh, tomorrow is Hamid’s moreh and the list goes on. When asked about the origin of the word moreh, he said “I am not sure how the word came into being, you have to ask a linguist.”
Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka was unable to ascertain the etymology or origin of the word. It is also not listed in the Kamus Besar Bahasa Indonesia (Great Dictionary of the Indonesian Language) although the current edition released in 2016 contains 127,036 entries.
The word moreh is certainly not Arabic, from which the Malay language borrow most terminologies on the Islamic religion.
Neither was it borrowed from Persian, Sanskrit, Turkish, Tamil or derived from other Austronesian languages such as Banjar, Minangkabau, Buginese and others that are similar to the Malay language.
Tracing moreh’s origins
Businessman Mohd Abdul Aziz Mydin Pitchay, 57, whose mother tongue is Tamil, said he was not aware of the word moreh in Tamil, adding that during his childhood years in Penang in the 1970s, the Indian Muslim mosque conducting terawih did not have moreh but the Malay mosques had moreh.
Artist Razak Abdullah, 72, said he never heard the word moreh while growing up in Kuala Terengganu in the 1950s, but people used to bring food in trays, balanced on their heads, to share with the congregation at the mosques or suraus after terawih prayers.
“Being children, we would open the food cover and peek to see what will be served. If we like it, we will stay after terawih, if not, we will go home,” he recalled, breaking into a smile, adding that sharing food for the breaking of fast and after terawih has long been customary in his hometown. But he does not remember any terminology used to described it.
Ahmad Abdul Hamid, 63, a businessman whose mother tongue is Javanese, believed the word moreh has its origin in the Javanese language. He was familiar with the word and its usage while growing up in the 1960s in Bagan Datuk, Perak, where there is a large community of Javanese descendants.
“We use the word moreh not only to describe the feast given after terawih but also whenever we brought food for activities outside the month of Ramadan. It’s the equivalent to the English word, potluck,” he said.
Retired teacher, Samuri Adnan, 71, a Javanese descendant himself, however, was of the opinion that the word moreh did not originate from the Javanese language.
Moreover both the Malays and the Javanese in his neighbourhood used the word.
“I grew up in Temoh, Perak in the 1950s speaking Javanese. Both the Malays and Javanese people used the word moreh to describe the food served to the congregation, not after the terawih, but for the breaking of fast. Moreh also meant taking turns in providing the feast,” he added.
Ustaz Hidayatulloh, 41, who runs a maahad tahfiz - an Islamic school for studying the Quran and committing it to memory - in Garut, Jawa Barat, Indonesia said, he had never heard the word moreh being used in Indonesia.
“I’m Sundanese. We don’t have moreh in our vocalubary and I’ve not heard Indonesians, either Javanese or other ethnicities using the word. Only recently, I introduced moreh at the maahad in Garut, adopting the custom from Malaysia,” said Hidayatulloh who often comes to Malaysia to deliver Islamic religious lectures.
A food caterer, Omar Osman, 71, from Pasir Gudang, Johor said he had never heard the word moreh, until probably 20 years ago. During his childhood years in the 1950s in Johor Bahru, he remembers people bringing and sharing their food for the breaking of fast and after terawih at the mosques or suraus in Ramadan.
But there were no specific word used to describe the feast.
Asked whether the word moreh could have been adopted from the Javanese language since there is a big community of Javanese descendants in Johor, Omar said “I don’t know. I don’t speak Javanese. I’m Malay.”
Khairol Abdan, 31, who is pursuing a Master’s in Usuluddin at Al-Azhar University, Egypt and presently taking a break from his studies, said the word moreh does not exist in the Arabic language and there is no such custom practised there like in Malaysia, adding that moreh is uniquely Malaysian.
“It, however, augurs well with the hadith (sayings) of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, who encourages Muslims to feed others and to greet those whom they know and those whom they do not know, as good deeds in Islam,” he said.
So, how did the word moreh came into being?
It could have been an acronym of makan or mangan (Javanese) selepas terawih (eat after terawih) which forms mareh but it can be confusing because it sounds like maret (month of March in Bahasa Indonesia).
It can also be an abbreviation for moh teraweh - moh meaning come or let’s. But it is quite unlikely because the word moh is usually used only by those in the southern states of Peninsula Malaysia and the usage of the word moreh there is considered recent.
Some friends offered this story. In Penang during the British administration, a British officer was invited for buka puasa. He then stayed on for terawih. Once the prayers was over, he exclaimed in surprise “Oh there’s more!” upon seeing more food being served to the congregation. He described the food as moreish, and later the word became localised as moreh.
But however the word moreh came into being, the one who started the tradition of moreh certainly had a heart of gold, concluded Mohd Abdul Aziz. - Story by Khalid Noorshah