As revelers around the country are gearing up for Monday’s Loy Krathong festival, the day means nothing to about five million Thais who would be absent on that night.
To the country’s second largest religious group, the river festival is empty of meaning, and to pay homage to it through gaiety is profane. Celebrating Loy Krathong remains a taboo for Muslims – a dogma enforced by the highest Islamic authority which many young Muslims interviewed for this story said they intend to follow.
“I do not celebrate Loy Krathong. As Islam is a monotheistic religion, we believe in one God,” Noorulhuda Chalermthai, 26, said in an interview. “The purpose of Loy Krathong, from what I have known is, to pay respect and worship the goddess of water.”
Another Muslim, 21-year-old Pitchaya Vimonthammawath, echoed a similar message, “My family and friends told me that it’s not for us, and not our place or business, but for Thai Buddhists.”
On the other hand, followers of another major monotheistic religion in Thailand – Christians – said they had no issues with Loy Krathong, albeit having minor reservations about some gestures in the ritual that could be seen as acts of idolatry.
In a country where religions and animistic superstitions are mixed beyond recognition, and whose calendar is peppered with holidays inspired by multiple faiths, it is forgivable to forget that Loy Krathong is deeply rooted in Hinduism. The colorful krathongs are tributes to the Indian goddess of water, Ganga, which Thais call Phra Mae Kongka.
Due to the tradition’s ties with divine worship, Islamic clerics banned participation in the holiday, said Wisut Binlateh, an official from the Sheikul Islam Office, who wields authority on matters of Islamic beliefs.
“We don’t believe in other gods or goddesses who rules over mountains and rivers,” Wisut said in an interview. “There is only one God who we believe in, who created everything.”
The traditional belief that one can drive away past transgressions, or bad karma, by floating a boat made of banana stalk also goes agaisnt Islam’s tenets concerning forgiveness.
“If we have sins or karma, it’s from our actions. The only way to ask for forgiveness from Allah, and to do good,” he said. “You can’t just float away your sins.”
‘Not Going to Loy Krathong’
A 2018 census by National Statistics Office of Thailand found that 5.4 percent of the Thai population is Muslim, or around 3.7 million people. Many of them are in the southern region, where they make up almost 30 percent of the population.
To preserve their religious belief in a society where up to 93.5 percent of the population follows Buddhism, many Muslims often take to social media every year when Loy Krathong is around the corner to remind each other not to participate.
“Islam doesn’t have Loy Krathong tradition,” reads one popular message that’s been widely reposted by Muslims on Facebook.
“Not going to Loy Krathong, because we are Muslims,” reads another banner, shared over 500 times.
In a reply to a Facebook thread debating who one should invite as a date to Loy Krathong festivals, a Muslim user wrote, “Never had this problem. Islam doesn’t have Loy Krathong anyway.”
Even without these reminders, ignorantia juris non excusat – Muslims cannot claim they didn’t know it was a taboo, Wisut from Sheikul Islam Office said.
“Muslims can’t just say go and then later say they didn’t know about what loy krathong really means, or just go along with fads and trends,” he said.
Bukhari Alkaremi, 33, works a TV station dedicated to broadcasting Islamic teachings. He said Buddhists may see Loy Krathong as a purely cultural matter, but to him it is different.
“If it’s related to other faiths, Muslims cannot participate, even if it’s part of the culture,” he said. “To participate is to accept the rituals.”
It’s not just Loy Krathong either: Muslims also cannot participate in other festivals with religious roots, such as Christmas, Buddhist Lent, and even the New Year. Celebrations are only allowed on Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, called Eid Lek (“small Eid”) and Eid Yai (“big Eid”) in Thai, respectively.
Can Christians Do It?
On the other hand, Loy Krathong is a non-issue for Christians in the kingdom. A Catholic priest and a Protestant pastor said they recognize a distinction between culture and faith.
“We can fully separate the culture from Buddhism, and go to the festivals in a celebratory nature. We can just be sitting around quietly if they’re doing chants,” Vissanu Thanya-anan, who holds a position in the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Thailand, said in an interview.
He added, “Culture is culture, religion is religion. Appreciation of water isn’t limited to one religion. Everyone treasures the country and culture they’re born in.”
“Although a Christian has no obligation to go, of course they can go to to enjoy the festival with family and friends,” said Thongchai Pradabchananurat, the founder of New Vision Church in Bangkok. “Don’t go if you don’t want to, but there’s no need to berate others for going and ruin the mood for everyone else.”
Christians are a minority population, amounting to 1.1 percent according to a 2018 census, or around 617,000 Thais, with almost equal numbers of Catholics and Protestants.
Just as Thailand imports different influences, whether from Brahmin or animist origins, the local branch of Christianity also adopts some of the ‘Thainess’ as well, Vissanu said. “We can wai or even graab,” he said, referring to the acts of paying respect and prostrating.
Thongchai the pastor is also one of the editors of booklet series called “Can Christians Do It?” – which offers advice to Thai Christians on navigating religious holidays in Thailand like Loy Krathong and Songkran.
For the booklet on Loy Krathong, the book suggests praying to God while floating a krathong, or putting a small cross in the krathong instead of joss sticks, which are considered to be a religious objects used to venerate spirits. Still, Thongchai believes there’s nothing sinful per se about attending the festival.
“Muslims are more strict and inflexible, and do not go out of the Qu’ran so they won’t attend Loy Krathong or get involved at all,” he said. “Their concern is on purity.”
Purity and Harmony
Indeed, critics of Islam in Thailand – from secular liberals to Buddhist hardliners – often take issue with what they see as Thai Muslims’ resistance to integration, which they say could lead to conflicts and widen societal gaps.
Their concern is shared by a number of younger Muslims, who attempt to strike a balance between spiritual purity and social harmony in the Buddhist-majority nation. One of them is a popular Muslim preacher on social media who goes by the name Matty Ibnufatim Hamady.
In a Facebook post that drew over 4,500 reactions, Matty said Muslims should be culturally sensitive even when discussing celebrations or festivities that they had no intention of joining.
“If we can’t participate, then we should stay silent. If we see Chinese people celebrating Chinese New Year and post ‘Muslims say no to Chinese New Year’ then their Chinese friends will feel bad,” he wrote. “No Muslims would like it if we see someone posting ‘Buddhists say no to Hari Raya Day.’”
Several people interviewed for this story, like Bukhari and Pitchaya, also said they know some Muslims who do attend Loy Krathong festivals.
“Some people just see it as a party, or a cultural tradition,” said Pitchaya, a communication arts student in Bangkok.
Bukhari, who lives in a “melting pot” of mosque neighborhood close to Khaosan Road, said his experience taught him that participation in religious festivities isn’t necessary for building good ties. Instead, Muslims can always attend non-religious activities like sports and cleanups with members of other faiths.
“Buddhists respect us if we don’t participate, such as in Loy Krathong or Songkran,” he said.
Wisut, the cleric from the Sheikul Islam Office, suggested a similar solution.
“You shouldn’t go to the festival at all, because none of it is okay,” he said. “But afterwards, if people invite you to clean up the river, you can and should go, because it’s something good to do for the community.”