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Indonesia's Ramadan debate

The majority of Muslims in Indonesia will begin fasting for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan on Saturday, following the date ordained by the government. But a handful will start observing the holiday today. (The photo above shows Indonesians getting in last-minute shopping before Ramadan begins.)

Both Indonesian and foreign observers are baffled by how Muslims in this country are always fighting, at times quite passionately, over when Ramadan begins and ends. It is not unusual to find families divided by this debate. Once Ramadan begins, the fights cease and everyone goes about their lives (and their faith) as usual. Until the next year, that is.

Some Indonesian Muslims are confounded, if not bewildered, by the inability of their religious leaders and the government to agree on something as basic as the start and end of Ramadan.

Foreign observers are perplexed that Indonesians have this argument at all, especially since in no other country with a large Muslim population is the issue so fiercely debated. Most countries in the Middle East and North Africa will begin observing Ramadan (by not eating and drinking from dawn to dusk for the whole month) on Friday. In Asian countries like Malaysia, Brunei, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, adherents of the faith usually begin the fasting on the same day as well. Their religious leaders may have a similar debate, but they are united once a decision is made -- usually by the government.

Not so in Indonesia. This year, the Muhammadiyah, one of the two largest Islamic organizations in Indonesia, decided weeks ago that the first day of Ramadan falls on July 20. The government, supported by the Nahdlatul Ulama, the other major Muslim organization, has just ruled that it will fall on July 21, based on the physical sighting of the new moon.

This division illustrates how Islam in Indonesia allows for different interpretations -- and they are not confined only to the question of Ramadan. What this also demonstrates is that religious differences in this country are respected, as they should be. "There shall be no coercion in matters of faith," the Koran teaches. No one, not even the government, can impose its will on the whole. "Unto you, your faith; unto me, mine," reads another verse.

While Indonesia may be the country with the world's largest Muslim population -- they make up around 88 percent of its 240 million people -- it is not an Islamic state. But the Indonesian state is also not completely secular as in Europe: The Ministry of Religious Affairs does involve itself with the needs of followers of the major confessions (though the state does not have the final say on issues pertaining to faith, whether in Islam, Christianity, Hindu, and Buddhism, which also have large followers).

The Ministry of Religious Affairs hosted a meeting on Thursday, as it does every year, to hammer out a consensus among the major Islamic organizations about when Ramadan begins. Most agreed on Saturday. The Muhammadiyah remained defiant and told its supporters to begin fasting on Friday.

The Islamic year follows the lunar calendar, where each of its 12 months has either 29 or 30 days, depending on the movement of moon. Nahdlatul Ulama and the government say that the final determinant of when the new month begins must be based on the physical sighting of the moon. On Thursday, they failed to observe the new moon, and therefore Shaban, the eighth month in the lunar calendar, has 30 days, and Ramadan starts immediately after, on Saturday.

The Muhammadiyah insists that astronomy is a better predictor for when the new moons begins. Physical sightings are susceptible to mistakes, they argue, as clouds or bad weather can impair the sighting of the moon. Din Syamsuddin, the chairman of the Muhammadiyah, deflected criticism that he was purposefully sowing divisions among Indonesian Muslims: "Let's not make a big issue out of this. Everyone should just go and practice what they believe."

As inconsequential as the issue might seem, the different views over when Ramadan begins are a symbol of the religious pluralism found in Indonesia, as shown not only by the presence of the many different faiths practiced in the country, but also by the acceptance of different interpretations of the same faith.

More importantly, it also attests to the freedom of religion that is guaranteed by the constitution, and the need for everyone to respect our own differences.

BAY ISMOYO/AFP/GettyImages

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