Eid ul-Fitr in the Modern World: Navigating Traditions

By Dr. Rahida Aini

April 2024 FEATURE
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EID UL-FITR, or simply Raya (celebration in Malay), marks the end of Ramadan and holds deep cultural and religious significance in the Islamic calendar. Nevertheless, the enthusiasm surrounding the celebration of Raya in recent decades has undergone noticeable changes.

Taking a stroll down memory lane back in the early 80s and 90s to recall how the celebrations went then, I realised it was quite different. I vividly recall the anticipation building up a week or two before Raya. My mother would persistently urge my dad to head to the wet market to buy palas leaves, glutinous rice and other essential ingredients to prepare the main dishes. As soon as the Raya date is officially announced on national television following the sighting of the new moon by the Keeper of the Rulers’ Seal, my mother and I would busy ourselves with late-night tasks: boiling ketupat (compressed rice cakes encased in woven coconut leaves) and preparing her signature dish—Rendang Tok, a spicy and aromatic dish made of chicken, spices, chilli paste, coconut milk and ground coconut.

Today, that anticipation has undergone a transformation. With the convenience of online shopping, one can click to order palas leaves, glutinous rice, or ketupat, making Raya preparations much easier.

Celebrations Then and Now

In the past, Eid ul-Fitr was celebrated with traditional customs, ethnic gatherings and a strong spirit of unity among families and communities. I fondly recall welcoming close neighbours to our home and reciprocating those visits later. The essence of the celebration lies in the warmth of physical presence, shared meals and sincere exchanges of greetings.

However, along with the advancement of technology, the landscape of Eid ul-Fitr celebrations is evolving. In the past, everyone was busy counting the days—a trip back to their hometowns—but now some request early leaves because they had purchased the online plane tickets months ahead to celebrate abroad!

Technology’s pervasive influence has reshaped how people connect and celebrate  Raya. With the rise of digital communication, families separated by geographical distances can now come together through video calls and virtual gatherings. In the past, people eagerly purchased Raya cards to convey heartfelt wishes via mail, turning bookstores into bustling hubs with Eid greeting cards flying off the shelves. Today, the exchange of greetings, gifts and well-wishes has transcended physical barriers, effortlessly downloadable and forwarded through Whatsapp and other social media platforms.

Time constraints and busy schedules often limit the ability to partake in communal gatherings and extended celebrations. For urban residents like Azlina, who does not have a kampung to balik, she sees Raya meals at a hotel with her in-laws as a practical choice. “With our hectic work schedules, I prefer choosing a hotel which offers a festive Raya ambience and homelike cuisine for our family get-together. This way, we can enjoy more quality time together instead of being confined to the kitchen,” she says.

Changing family structures and dynamics further contribute to the evolving nature of Eid ul-Fitr celebrations. Modern values and societal shifts may have impacted familial traditions, prompting individuals and families to adapt their practices to align with the realities of today’s diverse family setups. The essence of togetherness remains, but the ways in which families come together may evolve; like Ida, whose mixed marriage has transformed her Raya celebrations. Instead of the traditional ketupat and rendang, her signature dish for the occasion is spaghetti bolognese. “We still uphold the family tradition of assembling at our parents’ house where extended family members contribute their dishes. The family reunion has exposed my children to diverse cultures and flavours,” Ida adds.

Globalisation and Cultural Influences

Once confined to specific cultural boundaries, Eid ul-Fitr now resonates globally. Globalisation has facilitated the exchange of Islamic traditions and practices, where Muslim communities worldwide have incorporated diverse elements into their celebrations. Like the Chinese Muslim communities in Xinjiang and Ningxia, Arabic and Mandarin prayers are delivered on that day at the mosque, followed by festive feasts, street music and dancing—showcasing their unity.

Malaysia, on the other hand, observes Raya with prayers in Arabic and Malay, visits to the cemeteries to offer prayers for their deceased loved ones, and seeking forgiveness from family members. The spirit of Eid continues for the rest of the day with visits to their relatives and friends with small paper packets filled with money given to children and those in need as an act of sadaqah (giving).

Our diverse population is also enriched by people from Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh who share a common unity—Islamic values. The intercultural marriages between these groups with the locals have resulted in a unique blend of traditions, festivals, languages, food and other cultural elements.

As we reflect on the celebration of Eid ul-Fitr then and now, it is evident that traditions are resilient, adapting to the changing times. The core values of unity, compassion and gratitude endure even as technology, globalisation and modern life’s challenges affect the way we celebrate. As we navigate these contemporary challenges, finding a balance that preserves the richness of tradition is necessary while embracing the present. In doing so, we ensure that the spirit of Eid ul-Fitr remains vibrant and meaningful in the ever-changing world.

Dr. Rahida Aini

works as a Publication Officer at Penang Institute. She enjoys writing and strolling along Straits Quay, appreciating the beauty of Mother Earth.