Malls and Mosques: The Sights and Sounds of Indonesia’s Iftar

During the month-long Ramadhan, Muslims in Indonesia observe the breaking of fasts in mosques, and increasingly, in shopping malls. The differences in observance of the ritual underscore a growing class divide and corresponding social tastes between different groups of Muslims.

Editor’s Note: This piece is longer than the typical commentaries in Fulcrum. To borrow publishing parlance, it is a colour piece: an essay which seeks to give readers a sense of time and place at a significant event in Southeast Asia. The editors would like to thank the authors (and reviewers) for their legwork and effort. We hope our readers will enjoy the essay and inspire them to contribute pieces written in a similar style.

It was the seventh day of Ramadhan in Indonesia in late March, and the breaking of the fast was minutes away. The lobby of the MargoCity Mall looked deserted, with few customers seen hanging out in the stores associated with fashion, accessories, beauty and wellness. The mall is the largest in Depok City, an outskirt city located in Greater Jakarta. Many of the store owners were idling away, staring at their cell phones, engaging with contacts on social media, and checking the latest news. The food and beverages area, located on the mall’s ground floor, was abuzz with activity. Restaurants s­uch as the Japanese-themed Marugame Udon & Tempura and Ichiban Sushi and local-based Dapur Solo saw heavy traffic. For some restaurants, customers had to wait in a queue before being admitted to dine. This meant that they had to delay the breaking of their fasts. Some were accompanied by family members and friends, though the majority were youngsters in their 20s and 30s. Their attire suggested that they hail from middle-and-upper class backgrounds. 

Contrast this with the iftar situation on the same day, at a local mosque in the Banjarmasin city, which lies a two hour-flight away from Jakarta. About 130 people concluded their fasting at the Nurul Iman mosque. Relatively new compared to the other five mosques nearby, its beautiful green and yellow Galvalum domes crown the concrete walls and pillars painted in white with golden and maroon stripes. Many motorbikes are parked in the mosque’s parking lot, elevated about 20 centimeters from the road, but plenty of space was still available. Only about a third of the congregates that day came by this transportation mode, while others came by foot — clear signs that they lived nearby and belonged to the lower income group.

Inside, people formed four long lines, sitting on thick green carpets, reciting prayers together led by an imam dressed in white. As the threat of Covid-19 has subdued, people do not observe physical distancing anymore. They put on clothes appropriate for worship, some wore gamis (Arab-style long dresses), but many simply chose the popular prayer dress, Shanghai collar baju koko or t-shirts and sarong. The females made up a fifth of the total congregation, occupying one corner of the mosque. The rest are males of various ages, and together the event’s participants took up half of the mosque’s space, leaving the other half empty for the Maghrib prayer to be observed immediately after the iftar. 

The air was filled with the rich aroma of Soto Lamongan as the volunteers began to serve the yellowish soup with a chunk of chicken in melamine plates. Plastic bowls of rice were distributed as well as of lime cuts, soy and chili sauce. As the siren signalling the iftar time sounded, everyone started to eat. The meal was delicious and felt like a restaurant menu. The imam told the author (Muhajir) that with the donations collected so far, the mosque tries to prepare different menus everyday for the communal iftar. He said that “it is a pity if the congregates have to eat porridge at every iftar during Ramadhan”. 

Left: While waiting for iftar, congregants of Nurul Iman Mosque engaged in pre-iftar supplication. Right: Soto Lamongan, a Javanese-style chicken soup was served at a communal iftar at Nurul Iman mosque on 29 March 2023. (Photo: Ahmad Muhajjir)

In Indonesia, malls and mosques are popular places to break fasting communally. But the contrasting ways in which iftars are conducted in the two locations demonstrate the cleavages among Indonesian Muslims, ranging from ideology, practices, and tastes.

Communal iftars can take place in public places or private residences, and became a tradition until the outbreak of Covid-19 in early 2020. Throughout Ramadhan in 2020 and 2021, the government banned all communal and public iftars due to Covid-19. The government relaxed the ban in 2022, albeit with some restrictions. The restrictions were lifted this year.

Why do Indonesian Muslims prefer to break the fast together in public spaces (communal iftar)? From a religious point of view, the practice facilitates silaturrahmi (meetings that boost social interactions) between Muslims. Moreover, Indonesians enjoy spending time together while having meals, a manifestation of a deeply-held Eastern tradition. Many also regard the organising of communal iftar as a way to share meals with others, a deed that is promised multiple religious rewards from the Divine. 

Interestingly, malls are the second most communal spaces for communal iftars after mosques. For the Indonesian middle class, malls stand out as public places where they wish to see and be seen. Many middle-class Indonesians, especially the youths, enjoy hanging out in malls, which offer a range of culinary choices, cleanliness, air-conditioned comfort and security. Entrances to the more prominent malls are guarded by security officials, and patrons are required to undergo security checks. 

Breaking fast together in malls allows urban Muslims to be reacquainted with old friends and network with colleagues. Organising the communal iftar in malls is also convenient if some participants are non-Muslims; they may feel uncomfortable entering mosques. Private companies and foundations with Muslim and non-Muslim staff organise these iftars to develop interfaith understanding.

Since there are no more Covid-19-related restrictions for mall visitors and activities this year, mall operators estimate that the occupancy rate will increase sharply during Ramadhan and Idul Fitri. At the minimum, visitors to shopping centres will reach pre-pandemic levels. The communal iftars will be a significant contributor to this increase.

While mosques continue to be the central gathering space for Indonesians breaking fast outside the confines of their homes, malls attract a particular type of crowd and profile. To be sure, malls and mosques cater to different iftar needs. Having iftar in malls requires congregants with strong purchasing power. As such, these congregants tend to hail from the middle and upper classes. By contrast, iftar participants in mosques come from mixed socio-economic backgrounds. At first glance, iftars in malls and mosques represent social inequality in the country, which prevents the intermingling of people from different socio-economic classes. This is against the spirit of Ramadhan that seeks to promote social solidarity and unity. But since Ramadhan is a month long, it is unlikely that the same people break fast in malls daily. Some may stagger into the iftar in mosques to rejuvenate on the other days. This would enhance social solidarity. 

While mosques continue to be the central gathering space for Indonesians breaking fast outside the confines of their homes, malls attract a particular type of crowd and profile.

While malls have become popular places for the breaking of fasts, mosques still hold court in Indonesia for the ritual observance. After all, the number of mosques far exceeds that of malls in Indonesia. Mosques have traditionally served Muslim communities’ spiritual and religious needs, and in Indonesia, this is no exception. In Banjarmasin, for instance, there is only one mall but 207 mosques. Practising Muslims consider mosques sacred. Mosques in Indonesia continue to host the communal iftarserving free meals every day. To underscore the central place of mosques in Islam, Muslims are promised larger spiritual rewards if they do good deeds during Ramadhan and regularly spend time in the mosque. They are also encouraged to give monetary donations to fund the communal iftar and other religious programmes. 

Moreover, mosques offer what malls cannot: opportunities for worship. Before the iftar, mosque congregants would traditionally recite Quranic verses, chapters and Ramadhan-specific prayers together. After the iftar meals, they would observe the evening Maghrib prayer in the congregation. The atmosphere of iftar in malls is different. Participants would likely be involved in light conversations, discussions, with music playing in the background amid occasional laughter all round. Unlike in mosques, the iftars in malls do not observe gender segregation. Although shortened prayers are still recited before eating, the ensuing evening prayer is not communally recited. It is up to the individuals where and when they observe it (or they wish to do so at all). 

Despite all the differences, malls and mosques will be the most popular places in Indonesia to witness the joy of breaking the fast together. Ultimately, the breaking of fast in malls and mosques manifests the heterogeneity of Indonesian Muslims. Ideological cleavages, between the traditionalist NU and the modernist Muhammadiyah, or Salafism versus liberalism is known to many observers. But iftars in malls and mosques signal another cleavage: a class divide and the corresponding social tastes among Muslims.


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