TOWARDS the end of Ramadan, there were different views expressed about the permissibility of Muslims breaking fast in buildings in (or near) non-Muslim places of worship, about Muslims breaking fast with food cooked and distributed by non-Muslims, and about a supposed general trend of events that include people of different faiths gaining in popularity that might “threaten” the faith of Muslims.
I was reminded of the story of the Caliph Omar who refused to pray in a church – not because he felt that Muslims might therefore lose their faith, but because he was afraid Muslims would then take over the building.
I also recalled examples from my travels and memories of countries where Muslims are a minority: in Cologne, Germany, where the cathedral hosted the breaking of fast for Muslims for many years before a mosque was built; the many kindnesses of my non-Muslim hosts and friends during Ramadan when I was a young student in rural England; and many dialogues and interactions involving people of different religions that have – in my experience – only ever increased understanding and tolerance while fostering greater appreciation of one’s own beliefs.
The suspicion that many polemics on these issues are often driven by political interests is sharply brought into focus when Hari Raya arrives.
I have written many times about the Seri Menanti experience of Hari Raya Aidilfitri since I began writing my columns a decade ago.
Indeed, this Hijrah year of 1440 has seen the usual traditions being observed.
The visit to the graves of family members took place before the final breaking of fast at Maghrib, with the first takbir following Isyak prayers.
After that, greetings and tokens of appreciation were distributed to the various teams of staff that work in, and more generally support, the Istana.
Early the next morning, after familial exchanges of forgiveness, Aidilfitri prayers were performed at the Masjid Diraja Tuanku Munawir, its congregation spilling beyond its walls as a result of the temporary urban-rural shift that seizes the country during this festive season.
Every year, despite the political temperature of the country, I am comforted by the fact that for most Muslim Malays, it is the performance of these traditions (no doubt with many variations across families) that most defines what it means to be Muslim and Malay – and not the politically charged rhetoric of division and intolerance.
This fact is further exemplified by what follows immediately after the observance of these most emblematic of rituals: the open house.
In the case of Seri Menanti, that means about 12,000 people from across Negri Sembilan assembling at the Istana Besar, enjoying local delicacies in the presence of their Ruler.
And what is remarkable – though one has to think about it – is how unremarkable it is that those in attendance come from all ethnic and religious backgrounds and a spectrum of educational, career and life experiences.
But all want to share in the joy that Hari Raya provides: a vision of Malaysia encapsulated, a celebration of unity exemplified.
Yet we must be wary when others appeal for “unity”, for the word has many different meanings and applications.
Do they mean unity among a particular subset of Malaysians, or unity across all Malaysians?
Even if the former, do they mean unity that inspires and promotes cooperation, or unity in opposition to those regarded as different?
Do they mean unity according to government-mandated labels, or unity based on values that people choose to have?
Even if the latter, do they mean unity under a single political affiliation, or do they recognise that unity towards values does not necessarily mean political uniformity?
Sometimes, amidst the gorging on rendang and satay, one too easily forgets the abstentions of fasting and the true purpose of Ramadan.
The usual greeting, now reduced to #shrmzb, loses its literal but profound meaning.
Thus, as we enter the open house season, it may be beneficial to remember that Aidilfitri encourages an expression of unity that is inherently individualistic, entirely voluntary and yet, deeply profound. And it is exercisable by Muslims as well as non-Muslims.
It is about seeking forgiveness from others for the wrongdoings that one may have committed.
When offered with genuine intention, and when received with honest sincerity, a bond between two people is strengthened (or at least repaired).
When replicated millions of times in our diverse nation, it surely helps solidify the foundations of shared citizenship.
Over the last year, I know that I have made many decisions that have negatively impacted others, that my words and actions may have caused offence, and that many promises could have been better kept. To you, I say Selamat Hari Raya, maaf zahir dan batin.
Tunku Zain Al-’Abidin is the founding president of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas). The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.