Visiting Malaysia during Ramadan and Hari Raya can be a truly extraordinary experience – and a perfect time to experience the beauty of Muslim Malay culture. Our destination expert explores his experiences during Ramadan in Malaysia, and what he learned along the way.
You might think it sensible to avoid Malaysia during the holy fasting month followed by the most important religious holiday, just as you might skip China during the Lunar New Year or Europe during Christmas.
But Ramadan and Hari Raya in Malaysia can be a fascinating time to travel in the country, as it allows particular insights into the pious nature and hospitable disposition of the Malay people. But for visitors who don’t know very much about Ramadan and Hari Raya, it can be a bit daunting to visit the country during this time of year, too.
With the right knowledge and guidance, a visit to Malaysia during Ramadan and Hari Raya is one of the best opportunities to learn about its most prominent religion – and a chance to learn about a local culture in a new and intimate way.
Joining a Malay in breaking the fast after the sun goes down or being invited by a family to celebrate Hari Raya is one of Southeast Asia’s most personal and cordial experiences. It’s an experience that I was lucky enough to enjoy firsthand – and in the process, I learned a lot about how Hari Raya and Ramadan is celebrated in Malaysia, and how it’s different than many other countries.
These are some of the most fascinating facts that I learned about Malaysia’s Hari Raya season. Hopefully they’ll inspire you to explore Muslim culture in Malaysia even more.
1. You’ll find Ramadan around the world… but Hari Raya only in Malaysia.
Ramadan, sometimes spelt Ramadhan, occurs on the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and goes by the same name in every Muslim country. During Ramadan, which takes place at the same time of the year in every Muslim country, Muslims are required to fast from sunrise to sunset, lasting for 29-30 consecutive days.
The last day of Ramadan gives way to a great celebration characterized by visiting family and friends and eating enormous amounts of delicious food. This is where things get a little more complicated. In English, we usually refer to this festival as Eid, which is shortened from the Arabic Eid al-Fitr. That said, Southeast Asia’s largest majority Muslim countries – Indonesia and Malaysia – don’t use the direct Arabic term. Malaysians prefer to use the Malay language to describe the holiday: they call it Hari Raya, which is best translated as ‘Celebration Day’.
2. It is forbidden to fast on the first day of Hari Raya.
Regardless of whether you are going to continue fasting after the end of Ramadan or not, on Hari Raya – the first day after Ramadan – you are required to eat and celebrate with friends and family. It is known as ‘the day of victory’ and it’s obligatory to share your success of completing the fasting month with family and friends.
Interestingly, sometimes people get sick because they eat too much – each host of each house will plaster you with food and will sometimes even watch as you pile up your plate with their delicious offerings! The trick is not ever to eat too much regardless of how tempting it might be – and it will almost certainly be very tempting.
If you’re lucky enough to be breaking the fast with locals, make sure to comment on how amazing the food is – Malays love hearing about the delicious delights of their own cuisine!
3. There are exceptions to fasting.
Fasting is incredibly important to practicing Muslims during the holiday, but there are a few exceptions that nullify the fast. People that are ill, travelling far, or have physically demanding jobs can forego the fast for short periods of time, if needed.
This opens up the door to a lot more questions in Malaysia, as it does for Muslims all over the world – how ill do you have to be? How ‘far’ is travelling far? And what exactly constitutes physically demanding work? This point often makes for interesting discussions with the locals. Since many Malaysian Muslims are quite open and hospitable, this is a great way to talk respectfully and curiously with locals about their faith and how they practice it in modern-day Malaysia.
4. Shaking hands must be done with caution.
In some other predominantly Muslims destinations like Java, it is normal to shake the hands of your host – regardless of gender – and in order to show added respect to older people, lift their hand until it touches your forehead accompanied by a slight bow.
I very wrongly assumed that the same practice was undertaken in Malaysia, and when entering the house of the older hostess I went in immediately to shake her hand and lift it to my forehead. She recoiled and my friend pulled me aside to say that I should never touch members of the opposite sex in traditional Malay culture.
Painfully embarrassed, I immediately apologised, but she simply smiled and told me to get stuck into the food. This was my second night in Malaysia, and a lesson I was happy to learn sooner rather than later!
5. Paying zakat is a Ramadan tradition.
Much like different income tax systems, the practice of paying zakat – where Muslims contribute a portion of their yearly income to the poor – is complex. Indeed, zakat is considered a wealth redistribution tax rather than a charitable donation, and virtually all Malays will pay zakat in one form or another.
Being the holiest month of the year, Ramadan is a time when Muslims think about those that are less fortunate than themselves and this is usually when zakat is settled. It’s one of the many elements of Ramadan that can easily draw connections to other major religious holidays, no matter what faith or culture you identify with.
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