Chinese-Muslim convert Muhammad Shamel Mirza Lam Abdullah shares how he celebrates Hari Raya Aidilfitri, and his deep-rooted love for his multiracial, multicultural, and multifaith family.
Were Hari Raya celebrations something foreign to you before your conversion?
Muhammad Shamel Mirza Lam Abdullah: No, they were not. I am from Pantai Jerejak, Penang, where one can find a healthy mix of different races. I had more Malay friends when I was growing up. The neighbourhood boys and I would play in the playground every evening, and we only stopped playing when we heard the azan from the nearby mosque.
Looking back, I find that I have identified with the Malays since I was very young. I looked forward to Hari Raya even when I was still in primary school because it meant I got to join my Malay friends as they went around visiting houses and ask for duit raya. I assimilated into the community very well.
Did you try to fast when you were young?
I did, to try and fit in with my friends. I tried to fast when they fasted. But on some days, we would all ponteng puasa together too. We were young, so we were always thirsty and hungry!
Your parents are practising Buddhists. What were their thoughts when you fasted when you were still in school?
I don’t remember them stopping me. To them, I was joining in the fun with my friends. But my mother was very supportive when it became more apparent that I was going to be a Muslim. She said, “Boy, I respect your decision. I am not losing a son. I know my son very well. Maybe if one day you get married, I’ll gain a daughter.”
You embraced Islam in 2008. What was your first raya like?
It was glorious! I am not kidding. Before embracing Islam, Hari Raya was about listening to Sharifah Aini’s “Selamat Hari Raya” and Sudirman’s “Balik Kampung” songs, visiting my friends’ houses and gorging on Raya staples such as rendang, lemang and ketupat.
But after converting to Islam, I realise it’s more than that. Like my fellow Muslim brethren, I had to fast during Ramadan. It was quite a struggle for me. First of all, I usually wake up at 6am, so having to wake up an hour earlier during Ramadan was a nightmare. Secondly, I am used to eating a smaller portion for breakfast such as eggs and toast, but that changed to a big plate of rice with other side dishes during Ramadan. Some days I’ll eat whatever rice dishes my wife prepares. Other days, I’ll eat my usual breakfast of eggs and toast because I couldn’t stomach a big plate of rice for breakfast. That’s when I would suffer from a bad case of gastritis!
So, it was genuinely glorious when Ramadhan ended, and I finally ushered in my first Hari Raya as a Muslim. It was such an accomplishment, so I must always celebrate Raya with a bang!
What did you learn during the fasting month?
Perseverance. Fasting is not only about abstaining from basic human needs like eating and drinking. It’s also about overcoming addiction and abstaining from selfish desires and wrongdoing. I’m a vaper, so I don’t vape during the fasting period, and every vaper or smoker will tell you how hard it is because it’s an addiction. But I persevered because fasting is about strengthening my self-control and it is a spiritual exercise to be closer to Allah.
This year marks the 11th year since your conversion to Islam. You now have three young children. Will your Hari Raya be different?
Celebrating Hari Raya with children is always different. Before we had children, Hari Raya was a day to gather with families and enjoy the festivities. My wife and I rarely decorated our house for Raya because we would just balik kampung and celebrate Hari Raya with my in-laws.
But after having children, I put a lot more effort into preparing for Hari Raya. It’s very important to teach my family about traditions so that they learn about their culture and heritage.
Shamel's three children in their baju raya.
What are you doing differently?
Small things, such as going shopping at the supermarket, baking raya cookies, decorating our house one month before the fasting month and colour-coding our baju raya. My wife and I will include our sons in everything we do to prepare for Hari Raya because we can see how happy they are to spend time together as a family.
Also, this year will be the first year I’m teaching my two sons to fast. I hope they can make it. I’m quite nervous because young kids are always hungry and thirsty!
What is a typical first day of raya for you?
We are part of the annual balik kampung exodus because my in-laws live in Sungai Petani. On Raya eve, we will hit the road and head there. The jam is a nightmare, but my children look forward to balik kampung. Listening to raya classics on the way truly sets the mood, too!
On the first day of raya, I will bring my sons to the mosque along with my father-in-law and other male relatives to perform raya prayers. After that, we visit the graves of the deceased. Visiting the graves does not take long because we only clean up the area and recite a few prayers. Then, we head back to my in-laws’ house and wait for our guests. People will be flocking to my in-laws’ house from morning until late at night for the first and second days.
On the third day, it is our turn to visit other family members and friends.
What’s your family’s must-have raya food?
I would say nasi impit and satay. My father-in-law makes the best satay in the world. It’s not Hari Raya without his satay and nasi impit.
Hari Raya is a time well spent with his in-laws.
What do you love most about raya?
Seeing my sons enjoying the festivities. I can feel their excitement when they know we are going to balik kampung. They can’t wait to get into the car. To them, it’s like a big camping trip where they get to play with fireworks and meet their cousins.
Thankfully, my in-laws’ house is very big so everyone in the family, including my wife’s siblings and families, look forward to staying together under one roof.
Personally, I look forward to asking for forgiveness – or minta ampun – from my in-laws on the morning of Hari Raya. It’s a tradition in all Muslim families, where everyone will line up to salam with the elders – in my case, the elders are my in-laws – and receive duit raya in return for blessings. It’s very much like the Chinese New Year tea ceremony.
As a mualaf, what do you hope to teach your children about living in a multifaith and multicultural society?
I am very proud to say that my family is very diverse. My parents are Chinese, and they practise Buddhism. I am not the only Muslim in my family – I have uncles and aunties who married Muslims, too. We also have Christian family members.
So my children are exposed to different faiths and races from a very young age. They celebrate Chinese New Year, Hari Raya and Christmas. They learn to celebrate the various cultures we have, and they learn to respect other people.
Emilia Ismail is a freelance writer who has a love-hate relationship with the weighing scale.