There is one ritual during the fasting month of Ramadan that is not very visible to society – consuming a pre-dawn meal known as sahur. It is a highly recommended religious ritual and Muslims are rewarded for adhering to it, although not having sahur is not a sin.
There is no specific dish served for sahur. It depends on the individual and can range from having dates and milk, or with any other drink, to consuming a full set of dishes similar to having lunch.
Unique in Malaysia, many Malay Muslim families will serve salted eggs – a dish that is not a norm outside Ramadan for most. The belief is that salted eggs stir one’s appetite for sahur.
The time for sahur ends at the time of the Fajr prayer – or dawn prayer – where fasting begins. The time for the Fajr prayer starts between 4.48am and 5.37am for the month of May, depending on where you are in Malaysia.
The recommended time to have sahur is as close as possible to the times of the Fajr prayer. However, as a precautionary measure not to go over the time limit, Muslims usually stop eating at the time of Imsak, which is about 10 minutes before the azan (call) for the Fajr prayer.
Sahur is eaten at home so there is no question of breaking the movement control order (MCO) presently being enforced due to Covid-19, unless one has to work the graveyard shift.
If that’s the case, then one will have to have sahur at one’s workplace or eateries nearby and keep to the recommended social distancing practice.
Although sahur seems like a quiet affair, there’s a ritual that goes with it that serves as a wakeup call and is filled with an air of festivity.
In the wee hours of the morning, a group of men will go round their area of residence calling the neighbourhood to wake up for sahur, accompanied by sounds produced from musical instruments or makeshift instruments. The practice can be found in almost all countries where the Muslim population is the majority.
However, interestingly, it has been reported that in Israel, there is a Christian man who goes round to wake up his Muslim neighbours by calling out to them while playing the tambourine. He is known as a mesaharati (a person who wakes people up for sahur), taking after the footsteps of his grandfather, a devout Christian himself.
Closer to home, many villagers in Indonesia also have this custom of waking up the neighbourhood for sahur, accompanied by songs played on musical instruments. However, the practice is not allowed in Jakarta. This activity is more of a cultural tradition than a recommended ritual in Islam. It is done in the spirit of doing a good deed with the hope of getting rewards in the hereafter.
Here in Malaysia, in the villages, men will go round the kampung equipped with drums and makeshift musical instruments between 3am and 4am to wake the villagers up. They can also be youngsters who wake up to join their friends in the event that the adults had to spend the whole night at the mosques or suraus doing the optional prayers, supplications, zikir (repetition of the names of Allah and His Attributes) and reciting the Quran until the wee hours of the morning.
Pensioner Shaharuddin Sulong, 67, remembers the times when villagers were woken up by the beating of drums and the ringing of an instrument with the sound kericingkericing between 3am and 4am by a group of two, or sometimes three, adults during Ramadan.
“My late father served in the police force in Penang before being posted to Alor Star in 1965. We stayed at Kampung Seberang Perak on the outskirts of town. I was 12 years old at that time and it was new to me. The group of people went round the kampung on foot making sounds with instruments they had with them and calling out to the people to wake up for sahur.
“It’s not like we didn’t have alarm clocks, but the fact that these people did that gave the act of waking up for sahur an aura of festivity and a sense of comradeship in performing a much recommended religious ritual, ” he said.
However, he added, the tradition ended in the 1970s most probably because development had encroached into the rural areas.
Overall, the practice is not widespread in Peninsular Malaysia. Generally carried out in Kedah, Penang and Melaka, it has been abandoned for some time now but some parties are making efforts to revive it by encouraging the younger generation to participate.
In Kedah, it has been reported that villagers of Kampung Kubang Bembang, Pedu are trying to revive the tradition by grouping the young to perform the wake up call accompanied by a musical instrument called keratok (a kind of bell) and kalok (a small drum).
In Melaka, the name given to the practice is ketuk-ketuk sahur. The Muslim community in Bukit Cina is trying to revive the tradition that they claim is over 70 years old by getting the youth to sing evergreen Malay songs while going round the village accompanied by musical instruments such as kompang, gendang, rebana, kerincing, tambourine and harmonica.
In Penang, youngsters go round their kampung in Teluk Bahang riding motorcycles, calling out to the neighbourhood while hitting on bamboo sticks.
What about the villages that do not practise ketuk-ketuk sahur in other states of Peninsular Malaysia? They still participate in waking up their communities by beating a big drum known as beduk or gendang raya found in the mosques or suraus of the older established villages.
Sahur this year is probably a quiet affair due to the MCO. The fervent hope is that things would have returned to normal by the time we celebrate Ramadan next year and the gaiety of ketuk-ketuk sahur will once again fill the air and bring back the festivity of a cultural heritage held dear by many.