The Saudis and the Elusive Crescent

How exactly does one determine the beginning of Ramadan? Different schools of thought provide different answers, and Saudi Arabia uses a different system than much of the rest of the Islamic world. Chris Luenen provides an overview

Crescent moon (photo: dpa)
For years it has been debated whether the first sighting of the new crescent moon can be accurately predicted

​​Every year, long before the holy month of Ramadan actually commences, Muslim scholars around the world start quarreling over the correct method for sighting the new crescent moon. At times differences of up to three days have arisen, causing Muslims worldwide to start and end Ramadan on different dates.

The reasons for this have to do with differing interpretations of shari'a law and questions of political influence.

In order to understand the problems related to the Islamic calendar and determining the start of each month, and thus the beginning of Ramadan, it is important to examine how this question is closely linked with matters of Islamic jurisprudence and authority.

Shari'a law and the new moon

According to the Qur'an, the month of Ramadan begins when the new crescent moon is first visible. Most Muslim scholars maintain that an actual physical sighting of the moon is of paramount importance. In an often cited hadith, the word ru'ya is used, which specifically refers to the sighting of the moon by the naked eye.

Bowls containing food in a mosque in Karachi (photo: AP)
Preparing for Iftar (breaking the day's fast) in Pakistan

​​Muslims worldwide are thus encouraged to look out for the newly emerging crescent moon soon after sunset on the 29th of each month and report any findings to the responsible authorities for verification. If on the 29th the crescent can not be sighted, however, then one should wait for the 30-day-cycle to be completed and commence the month on the following day.

The use of astronomical calculations to determine the beginning and end of each month has become increasingly popular over the past few years. Today, many scholars rely on these methods, at least to verify any claims of physical sightings.

Astronomical calculations

Modern astronomical methods can be used to predict the exact beginning of the new moon (when the moon disappears from view as it passes between the earth and the sun) many years in advance.

However, observers have to wait at least 13.5 hours before they can see the emerging crescent moon, and even then, they require the aid of telescopes. Predicting the exact moment when the new moon will become visible to the naked eye is extremely difficult and depends on a wide variety of factors, including the time zone of the observers and local atmospheric conditions.

So far the high accuracy of such predictions has failed to convince all Islamic scholars to embrace this mathematical approach and abandon entirely the need for physical sightings. The following three positions have dominated the current debate over the use of astronomical methods:

  • The first position completely rejects the use of astronomical calculations and solely relies on actual physical sightings of the moon.
  • The second position allows for the use of astronomical methods and calculations, but only in order to provide a general framework and refute scientifically impossible claims.
  • The third position is that astronomical calculations and empirical evidence from past years suffice to determine the beginning of a month.

Furthermore, the following two fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) positions also have to be considered in order to understand the huge variety of positions that have emerged. These are:

  • Global sightings – if the emerging crescent can be sighted anywhere on the globe, then this is binding for all Muslims in all countries and the start of Ramadan should commence the following day.
  • Local sightings – as a result of geographical differences, every community should rely on local sightings and begin Ramadan accordingly.

In practice, these opinions and criteria have led to a wide range of variations and combinations. It is often the official positions of various authorities in the Islamic world – including countries, organizations and scholars – that decide in the end when most Muslims celebrate Ramadan.

Saudi Arabia's lead

As Saudi Arabia is held in high esteem among Muslims worldwide for being the birthplace of Islam as well as the guardian of the two holiest places in Islam, many Muslims around the globe follow the Saudi lead and celebrate Ramadan accordingly.

Mevlana mosque in Constance, Germany (photo: AP)
Many Muslims break the fast at the mosque

​​Nevertheless, many renowned Muslim astronomers maintain that Saudi decisions on the beginning of Ramadan have been wrong for years. Even Saudi religious authorities such as Sheikh Al-Othaimeen have advocated the principle of local sightings for Muslims outside the kingdom in order to avoid confusion.

The Saudis rely on their Umm-ul-Qura calendar. Although this is a lunar calendar, it is not an Islamic one, as it is based on mathematical calculations instead of actual physical sightings of the emerging crescent moon. It is intended for non-religious use, a fact that is not contested by the Saudis.

For years, the Saudis have set up moonsighting committees to determine the beginning of Ramadan. These committees consist of religious authorities, astronomers, and lay persons who scan the skies at various locations around the country on the 29th day of the month before Ramadan, in accordance with the principle of sighting the emerging crescent moon with the naked eye. Yet Saudi authorities have consistently ignored the decisions of these committees.

Instead, they have relied on sighting claims from the general public, even if these could not possibly have been correct. This has allowed the Saudis to start Ramadan according to their Umm-ul-Qura calendar dates, sometimes two days before actual sighting would have been possible, writes Khalid Shaukat, an astronomer from the US who is an independent consultant to the Islamic Society in North America (ISNA).

The most reliable astronomical information on the possibility of crescent visibility to date has come from the International Crescent Observation Project (ICOP), which is a committee established by the Jordan Astronomical Society and the Moonsighting Committee Worldwide (MCW).

In-depth research conducted by individuals such as Mohammad Odeh in Jordan, Dr. Monzur Ahmed in the UK, Khalid Shaukat in the US and Gerhard Ahmad Kaufmann in Germany, who are all members of the ICOP, has served as the main point of reference for all groups and scholars that rely on astronomical criteria and calculations to determine the beginning of the month of Ramadan.

Ramadan in the West

As in previous years, differences over the beginning of Ramadan have led to a great deal of debate. This year, the ISNA and the Fiqh Council of North America (FCNA) have taken an unprecedented step and decided to rely solely on astronomical calculations. In doing so, they have effectively abandoned the criteria of physical sightings to create a pre-calculated Islamic calendar for future use.

FCNA has announced the beginning of Ramadan to fall on Saturday the 23rd, the same day as Saudi Arabia, but that is purely coincidence.

Whereas the Saudis will start Ramadan according to their Umm-ul-Qura calendar, the Fiqh Council of North America has made the possible visibility of the emerging crescent moon close to the International Date Line (IDL) in Hawaii on Friday evening their main point of reference.

However, according to the principles established by Shaukat and others, on Friday evening it was impossible to actually see the newly emerging crescent moon, aside from near the IDL, a fact that has led most scholars to reject the methodology adopted by the FCNA.

Ramadan in Germany

As in many Islamic countries, a number of smaller local mosques and Islamic communities in Germany have announced the start of Ramadan for Saturday, the 23rd of September, following a Saudi declaration based on (astronomically impossible) sightings of the previous night.

By contrast, DIWAN, a local committee set up by the Muslim Council of Germany, has announced the start of Ramadan to fall on Sunday, the 24th of September, the same day as the European Council for Fatwa and Research, which is headed by the Muslim scholar Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi.

The main Islamic communities in Germany and the "Islamic Centres" in Munich and Aachen have taken their cue from DIWAN. According to the information provided by Ahmad Kaufmann on his website, this decision was most likely a result of combining astronomical information and the global sighting principle, whereby fasting commences the day after the emerging crescent is visible somewhere in the world, which according to calculations was possible on Saturday the 24th.

Ahmad Kaufmann appears to favor the use of local sightings, meaning that Ramadan commenced on Monday, the 25th of September. However, he accepts the global sighting principle as a valid alternative.

Thus, despite the use of astronomical calculations, there is still widespread disagreement over the preferred methodology. This is most problematic for Muslims living in non-Islamic countries, like the USA, or in Europe. They are faced with a confusing array of possibilities.

Either they continue to follow the lead set by Saudi Arabia – paradoxically for the sake of unity – or, out of a sense of emotional attachment, they follow their home countries (which often amounts to following the Saudi lead), or they look to the organizations in the countries where they live, and the many groups that are trying to unite Muslims at least at a national level.

Christian Luenen

© 2006

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