Indonesia is the country with the greatest number of Muslims in the world, but it is not an Islamic state. Nor is it strictly secular – the first principle of the state ideology is the belief in God.

Defining the boundaries between religion and politics has been a constant theme throughout the history of Indonesia as an independent state, and at no time is this debate more prominent than during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

Jakarta, along with the rest of Indonesia, entered the fasting month on Thursday this week. This in itself was a feat of state politics, as the new Religious Affairs Minister, Lukman Hakim Saifuddin, made a concerted effort to reach consensus between religious groups on when to begin fasting.

The starting date of the fast tends to be announced only a few days in advance and can differ among the major religious organisations, since Islamic scholars differ on how to calculate the precise starting date of Ramadan. Some calculations are based on the sighting of the crescent moon rather than astronomical observations.

This year, the minister arranged to announce a single starting date agreed on by the government and Indonesia's two largest Islamic organisations, Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama.

Observant Muslims will spend the next month fasting during daylight hours, aiming to control their urges and emotions, performing prayer rituals, donating to charity and celebrating the holy month in other ways with family and friends.

Unique local foods are prepared for breaking the fast, such as kolak, a warm drink made of coconut milk sweetened with palm sugar and fragrant pandan leaves, with the nourishing addition of stewed bananas, sweet potatoes and chunks of jackfruit. Fasting and eating together become rituals of solidarity and gratitude, while also developing empathy for those who go hungry on a regular basis.

There is no legal obligation for Indonesian Muslims to observe Ramadan. However, there are laws obliging certain businesses and entertainment venues to respect those who do. In Jakarta, nightclubs and men's massage parlours must close for the full month, while karaoke bars, billiard halls and live music venues face restricted opening hours.

The sale of alcohol is also restricted. Police in Jakarta this week made a show of destroying thousands of bottles of liquor that had been seized from unlicensed stalls ahead of the fasting month. The sale and public consumption of food during Ramadan is not restricted, though businesses tend to follow the convention of raising a curtain to block food and diners from view.

Both the religious affairs minister and the governor of Jakarta came under fire this week for defending the right of food stall owners to remain open during daylight hours. Both also warned against the practice of vigilante groups raiding nightlife venues, referred to in local media as 'sweeping'. The minister and the governor made similar comments regarding the politics of the fasting month, but from two different religious backgrounds.

Lukman, as the Minister for Religious Affairs and a member of the Islam-based United Development Party (PPP), addressed leaders from Islamic boarding houses in Central Java to call for a peaceful and tolerant Ramadan. He also remarked on Twitter that food stalls should not be forced to close, and that Muslims should respect those who are not required to fast or who are not fasting.

Conservative Muslim clerics, as well as members of Lukman's own party, criticised the minister for not calling for the greater respect to be paid to Muslims who are fasting. The minister responded with a series of 12 numbered tweets clarifying that fasting Muslims should 'also' be respected.

Meanwhile, Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama also found support from police in warning against citizens taking the law into their own hands by conducting 'sweeping' during Ramadan. The governor, an ethnic Chinese Christian better known by the nickname 'Ahok', has made it clear that vigilante acts by hardline groups will not be tolerated. In previous years, groups such as the Islamic Defenders' Front (FPI) have raided nightspots while authorities have been accused of turning a blind eye to the violence and destruction of property.

Ahok has nothing to lose in standing up to the FPI, who have several times staged protests against his governorship on the basis of his religion. Despite Ahok's warning, the FPI has continued to threaten backlash against food stalls and entertainment venues during the holy month.

Religion and politics are bound to overlap during the fasting month in Muslim-majority Indonesia. However, it is heartening to see that figures with backgrounds as different as Lukman and Ahok can agree on the need for tolerance among all faiths for a safe and peaceful Ramadan.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Aditya Fajar.