Ramadan traditions in Malaysia

SHAFAQNA - Kuala Terengganu is the royal capital and largest city in Terengganu. The state of Terengganu is in north-eastern Peninsular Malaysia. Its population is roughly 1 million, with Muslim Malays comprising almost 95%, while the rest are ethnic minorities such as the Chinese and Indians.

Terengganu is also dubbed “Darul Iman”, an Arabic honorific name, which means the abode of faith.

Here’s an interview with Wan Najwa Wan Sulaiman; an engineer working at United Engineer Malaysia who is originally from Kuala Terengganu, telling about the Ramadan manifestations in her city.

Could you tell us about the experience of Ramadan in your locality?

MS. Wan Sulaiman: Ramadan in Kuala Terengganu is interesting and lively. Few weeks prior to this special month, local residents can already feel that a special guest is coming. Ramadan is repeatedly mentioned in talks and religious programs in masjids and so we are constantly reminded to prepare.

Unlike other bigger cities in Malaysia like; Kuala Lumpur, Johor Bharu and Penang, which are deemed more modern and  developed, Kuala Terengganu is rather simple. Like I said before, our shopping areas are mostly decent and people do not go to the cinemas for entertainment. There are few karaoke outlets, however.

Being more or less conservative in the sense of physical development (the lack of big shopping malls, posh cinemas and other entertaining outlets) can be a good incentive, as opposed to what many people think. It simply means less distraction in Ramadan. People are mostly family-oriented here so Ramadan is also celebrated as family occasions, rather than merely spiritual ones.

On the night prior to Ramadan, it is a yearly tradition that our King (Sultan) will appear in the main state masjid to pray with local residents. This is a gesture of respect for the holy month and his way of showing solidarity with the people of Terengganu, to begin the spiritual journey.

What makes me also emotionally attached to the Ramadan experience here is the distinctiveness of the food that we have. Terengganu is known for its Nasi Dagang, Dodol Daun Palas, Keropok Lekor, Kuih Akok,  Kuih Nekbat, Satar, Otak-otak, Bronokand Laksam. We are famous too, for our sweet ‘kuih’ (pastry) of different kinds, which are sold in big Ramadan bazaars throughout the state. For most of us, the sweeter thekuih , the better!

What special activities does your locality have during Ramadan which helps boost productivity during Ramadan?

MS. Wan Sulaiman: In Ramadan, office hours end at 4 pm, instead of 5. Most shops here start operating late, after Zuhr time. That gives less chance to people to loiter idly and thus encouraging them to stay at home or at their workplace to be engaged with more fruitful activities. Masjids are active and they host many Iftar, Islamic, and charity programs.

In the afternoon the city gets lively with the Ramadan bazaar. The one in Kuala Terengganu is really big and has all kinds of traditional foods you can imagine. In a way, the bazaar gives an alternative to families and women, so that they do not always to have to cook at home. It also becomes a meeting point where residents socialize and enjoy their time.

Taraweeh prayer is another vibrant activity in Kuala Terengganu. People usually walk in large groups to the masjid, most in their prayer dresses (women in ‘telekung’, a white suit covering the whole body in 2 pieces  and men in ‘pelikat’, better known as ‘sarong’ in English and ‘kopiah’, a small white hat.

The good thing about these large congregations is that they tend to scare away those (especially young people) who wander around aimlessly in the neighborhood or on the streets. The moving crowds mainly consist of adults and they frown upon youths who loiter around. As a result, society accepts the idea that loitering is inappropriate at this time that everyone should be in the masjid.

After Taraweeh, people read the Quran in groups, an activity called ‘tadarus’, followed by ‘moreh’, a special meal at masjids for everybody. Residents take turn to provide‘moreh’ and it can be either light food (similar to supper) or a complete meal like dinner.

Some people argue that ‘moreh’ encourages waste and over-eating, but others support it on the basis that it gives free food to everyone without discrimination, including the poor who might actually need it.

People stay in the masjid much longer after Taraweeh because moreh has become another social activity, but to many especially teenagers and children, moreh can be the main reason why they feel encouraged to go to masjids in this holy month. Some women take moreh food home so that they do not have to struggle so much preparing for the pre-dawn meal, ‘sahoor’.

What are the challenges the Kuala Terengganu society face during Ramadan ?

MS. Wan Sulaiman: Being a coastal city, we have many good beaches.  This is how people, especially the young ones waste their time, including in Ramadan. As they have nowhere else to go, beaches become the common target. Starting from Asr time until Iftar, you will see Kuala Terengganu beaches full of people. They just wait for time to pass.

There is this peculiar thing some youths do at this time. They gather in big groups according to their car models, and spend time probably playing some games or simply showing off each other’s car. This is an unhealthy sign that many youngsters are in fact, away from society. They are also not properly approached as to be part of the religious activities and masjid communities.

Another distraction which is not exclusive to Terengganu is the TV. Throughout Ramadan, TV channels provide never-ending programs, some beneficial and some rather un-Islamic and contradict the values promoted by Ramadan.

women get easily distracted by the numerous recipes and cooking programs. In the end, Ramadan becomes a month of ‘exotic food and lavish meals’, as opposed to its genuine objectives of showing solidarity with the needy and hungry, fighting against one’s desires and getting closer to God.

Terengganu is known for its ‘Islamic’ image. Are the authorities there stricter during Ramadan, compared to other states?

MS. Wan Sulaiman: Yes, our local authorities are stricter in Ramadan. They especially do not tolerate youngsters who loiter in an improper manner and cause uneasiness to people in public areas. One good thing however, is that despite roaming around pointlessly, you will find these young people actually fasting!

In Terengganu it is very unlikely that you will find anyone not fasting in public. On the contrary, in Kuala Lumpur you may see people smoking and drinking publicly without any sense of guilt, but such thing does not occur in Terengganu.

A problem which perhaps is not exclusive to this state, is the young couples who date and roam around either in open areas or hidden places. Despite fasting, this kind of indecency is not perceived as ‘bad enough’ to be avoided by them in the Holy month. I believe this is a question of not understanding Islam as a whole.

The authorities usually go after these couples and either drive them away or tell them to go home, so as to deter other people from emulating this practice. This is important so that society understands it is not an acceptable culture.

What about the non-Muslims in Ramadan?

MS. Wan Sulaiman: Non-Muslims enjoy the atmosphere of Ramadan just as we do for several reasons: first, they get to visit the big bazaars and feel excited to see the numerous kinds of food. Second, some of them earn extra income during Ramadan by selling food in these bazaars. It is not uncommon to see Chinese vendors selling soy and Indian vendors selling Biryani Rice. They make sure their products are Halal.

Third, many restaurants and hotels organize big Iftars as a way of doing charity and promoting their businesses. In these occasions, non-Muslims are often invited along with Muslim guests. So I can conclude that the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims gets better in Ramadan.


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