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Muslims in Southeast Asia begin Ramadan observance without pandemic curbs

Datetime: 2023-03-24 16:53:17

After Islamic astronomy observers confirmed the sighting of the crescent moon on the night of March 22, thousands of people in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta went to the Istiqlal Mosque to offer tarawih evening prayers and mark the eve of the first day of the holy month of Ramadan.

It was the first time in three years that a huge number of devotees gathered together in Southeast Asia's biggest mosque. Similar mass gatherings were replicated across the region that is home to more than 270 million Muslims.

Fazal Bahardeen, CEO of CrescentRating, a Singapore-based travel consultancy, said Muslims welcome the end of lockdowns and social distancing measures as this will allow them to be with their community during Ramadan.

Fazal said this is because Ramadan has two aspects. The first aspect is "intensely personal", when a devotee fasts from dawn to sunset and prays at home. But the second aspect is communal — as Muslims also observe the holy month by being with their family and community — praying at the mosque, distributing alms to the poor, and breaking the fast (iftar). The pandemic had halted these communal activities.

But this year promised to be different, with Fazal noting that Muslims will once again celebrate Ramadan with their community. The pandemic, however, changed how Ramadan is celebrated, as authorities continue to encourage people to practice hygienic measures.

This is evident in Southeast Asia where roughly 40 percent of its more than 600 million population identify as Muslim.

In Kuala Lumpur, hotels and restaurants across Malaysia's capital city have started offering Ramadan buffets — a popular way for family and friends who want to bond by sharing iftar meals. Malaysia's Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah has advised Muslims to be moderate and not wasteful, noting how much food is usually wasted during the iftar.

Noor Hisham Abdullah, director-general of health, has reminded the public that COVID-19 and other viruses still exist and urged people to practice public health measures like wearing a face mask in crowded areas and washing hands frequently.

In Singapore, Ramadan night bazaars light up the city-state, with vendors selling food, arts and crafts and clothes. Travel agents have also noted that more Singaporeans are going to Saudi Arabia to perform an umrah (minor pilgrimage). According to Muhammad Ahmad, manager of Hahnemann Travel & Tours, demand for tour packages has increased by about 40 percent from the same period last year, according to a report filed by Channel News Asia, the Singapore-based news network.

The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) chooses a "cautious approach" following the resumption of more communal activities. The MUIS urges the community to continue maintaining personal hygiene such as bringing one's own prayer mat, washing hands and only allowing prayer at designated areas.

In Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim-majority country, worshippers are flocking mosques across the country. According to Yusuf Faozi, spokesman for the Istiqlal Mosque, devotees filled three storeys of the mosque at the eve of Ramadan and he expects more worshippers to come in the next few days.

The five-story mosque has capacity to accommodate up to 250,000 people but Yusuf said the administrators will allow a maximum of 150,000 people to come in as they are still observing the development of the COVID-19 situation.

Meanwhile, workplace activities will slow down with most government and private sector offices allowing their workers to go home about one hour earlier so that Muslims can go home in time to break the fast with their family.

Indonesians are also preparing for "mudik" — the annual exodus to hometowns which occurs at the end of Ramadan. Ticket sales are going up as people are reserving train and bus seats ahead of time.

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