For Muslims around the world, and Sumatra in particular, Ramadan is a special time. It’s a holy month of fasting, introspection, and praying. It’s a celebration marking the time that the prophet Muhammad received the Qur’an, the holy book of Muslims. 

Most people know that from sunrise to sunset during Ramadan, Muslims cannot eat or drink. But it’s more than that. During this time, we’re also expected to control anger, impure thoughts, and bad behavior. And at the end of the 30 days, we’ll celebrate with the most important holiday for all Muslims: Ied Al-Fitr. Just as the western world celebrates Christmas with festivity in the air, so, too, do Muslims with Ied Al-Fitr.

The mosque is the centre of many activities during Ramadan, such as Tadarus Al Qur’an.
The mosque is the centre of many activities during Ramadan, such as Tadarus Al Qur’an. Photo: Nayla Azmi

Most history says that Islam spread in Indonesia in the 14th century—but in Barus, Sumatra, there is significant proof to suggest that it was actually brought to Sumatra by a Muslim merchant in the 7th century.

Either way, Islam has been part of life for the majority of Sumatrans for many centuries. And during the special time of Ramadan, visitors to the island can see and experience a few things that only happen at this time of year.

Marpangir

Batak Muslims practice marpangir—bathing with a bundle of herbs—to welcome Ramadan fasting. It’s usually done the day before Ramadan begins and helps to purify the body and soul before entering such a holy month.

The herb uncle includes pendanus leaves, citronella, and lime, and it’s boiled to release a beautiful scent that is later mixed with the bathing water. This tradition can be done together in the river, though many people do it individually at home now.

Tadarus Al Quran session

Tadarus Alquran session is a recitation of holy Qur’an in a group. The goal of the tradition is not only to engage in a deep reading of the Qur’an, but to bond Muslims, too. At this time of year, mosques are very crowded and you can see everyone—young and old—getting together to do Tadarus.

And what makes it all the more special? Even blind communities join in the tradition with their Braille Qur’an. Everyone joins the serenity of Ramadan through this Tadarus.

  • Tadarus in a mosque.
  • Blind community Tadarus

Iftar

Iftar is probably the most awaited time during Ramadan fasting. It’s the evening sunset meal with which we end our fast.

Since Ramadan is the most special time of the year, Muslims use the opportunity to share as much as possible. It’s one month in the year that you’ll never fear being hungry. Anyone in need of food needs only to go to a mosque, where they’ll find an abundance of donated food. 

Having iftar together in the mosque is a special way of taking care of each other and is, again, about bonding.

Iftar and togetherness in the mosque.
Iftar and togetherness in the mosque. Photo: Nayla Azmi

Rare food

Since it only happens once each year, Ramadan also brings out some rare food in Sumatra. If you’re lucky enough to visit during this time, revel in the opportunity to try it!

Bubur pedas is a traditional spicy porridge that is usually served on iftar and brings a warm aftertaste. It’s made from sweet potato, corn, bamboo shoots, grated coconut, and more. In some mosques, people work together to prepare it. The Al Ma’shum Great Mosque of Medan, has a public kitchen to cook this meal and other food for iftar together.

Public kitchen in Al Ma’shum Great Mosque of Medan, with bubur pedas in process.
Public kitchen in Al Ma’shum Great Mosque of Medan, with bubur pedas in process. Photo: Nayla Azmi

A special atmosphere in Sumatra

Arrive in Sumatra during Ramadan and you’ll definitely notice the atmosphere. It’s different than in other months. Since Ramadan is the most awaited time of the year, Sumatran people pull out all the stops to welcome it, conduct it, and celebrate it at the end.

Ramadan is about so many positive values—empathy, solidarity, caring, and togetherness, to name just a few. And while the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly changed things, it hasn’t dimmed the celebrations. Most Ramadan activities can still be done with safety protocols and physical distancing.

For non-Muslims, witnessing Ramadan celebrations is something special. It’s made better by the fact that you can easily find delicious food that isn’t served at any other time throughout the year. (And we can’t forget that everyone has to curb their anger and bad behavior during this time.)

Travel to Sumatra during Ramadan and surely, you will feel how serene and peaceful it can be! 

Ramadan food stalls are easily found everywhere, this year with strict COVID-19 protocols.
Ramadan food stalls are easily found everywhere, this year with strict COVID-19 protocols. Photo: Nayla Azmi