Ramadan Moonsighting; A Lesson in “Divide and Conquer”

Every year it’s the same thing.  An epic battle rages on the internet between two different factions of Muslims.  I’m not talking Sunni vs Shia here – I’m talking about The Moonsighting Wars.

Okay, here’s the thing.  The Muslim religious calendar follows the lunar cycle.  We keep track of the moon and count the new month when the first sliver of a new moon is sighted every month.  I have a little calendar thingy on my iPhone.  It tells me that today is the sixteenth of the month of Sha’abaan.  That means Ramadan is just a couple of weeks away.

The Islamic Society of North America, ISNA, set out an email yesterday saying that they are  using astronomical calculations to determine that the fasting month of Ramadan will begin on Tuesday, July 9th.  Oh, cool, you might think.  I know exactly when the fasting begins so I can make sure I have my shopping done!  And they also announced that Eid, the day that marks the end of fasting, will be on Thursday, August 8th.  Excellent, you think.  Now I know exactly what day to ask off from work!  Ah, if only it were that simple.

See, in the early days of Islam, we didn’t have a method to calculate the movement of heavenly bodies.  I mean, remember, back in the sixth century most philosophers and “scientists” thought that the earth was the center of the universe.  So the only way to for sure know that the new month had arrived was to use the highly technical method of standing out in the middle of a field at night and looking up.  And indeed, this is what we are instructed to do by our beloved Prophet Muhammad, may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him:

“Do not fast unless you sight the crescent, and do not break your fast till you sight the (following) crescent.” (Al-Bukhari, Vol. 3:130).

So for centuries, that’s what we did.  As the end of the month approached, Muslims would look to the skies.  If a trustworthy person noted that the new moon was born, we followed that and everyone fasted, and then at the end of the month everyone stopped fasting.  If it was cloudy, we counted the days from the beginning of the last new moon up to thirty and then stopped fasting.  Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.

Then, this nasty thing called technology got in the way.  Once we figured out that the Earth was “an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the galaxy” (go read Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy), we started learning more about the universe around us.  Now, in the year 2013, sophisticated instruments and computers can calculate to a farthing the potential for moonsighting anywhere on the planet.  If you go to moonsighting.com you can see a really neat graphic overlay of a map of the earth that shows the mathematically calculated potential for seeing the new crescent.  (On a side note, according to this website today is the fourteenth of Sha’abaan and not the sixteenth, so you can see we’re already on the road to trouble here).  And according to them, the earliest possible sighting of the crescent moon anywhere on earth is on July 8th.  But that is out in the less-populated and less-Muslim-populated islands of Polynesia, so if no Muslims sight it out there, then it doesn’t count, so that’s why we’ll probably start fasting on the ninth.

A large faction of Muslims does not accept calculations, so around the world people wait for a physical sighting of the moon.  And it’s not just that the calculators calculate and the waiters wait.  In the midst of calculating and waiting (calculations are already done and waiting leaves you with a lot of time on your hands), people talk.  They light up the internets with impassioned defenses of their particular point of view. They flood their walls with articles and videos.  The word “bida’ah” is bandied about.  Bida’ah is innovation, and while innovation in science is cool, innovation in religious matters is strictly not allowed.  So those who use calculations are considered by some to be reckless innovators who are committing a huge sin. They in turn accuse the waiters of being primitives who are slaves to the letter of the law, unable to properly understand the path that led to the calculations.  And it goes back and forth, back and forth.  And back in the real world, often in the same town, you have Masjid A beginning their Ramadan fast on one day, and masjid B beginning their fast one day earlier or later.  And sometimes, there’s even a Masjid C that ignores both of them and starts on a totally different day than either of them.

I’ve been Muslim for twenty years and it has been this way as long as I can remember.  It seems the vitriol has gotten worse, though.  If anyone wants to know why the Ummah, the community of worldwide Muslims, is divided, you need look no further than this issue.  I mean, if we can’t all get together deciding when to fast, then how can we expect to deal in a unified manner with issues such as subjugation of women, warfare, education, and eradicating poverty?  Quite simply, we can’t.  Until a single strong leader comes to knock the Ummah in the head and make us listen, we’ll continue to squabble and snipe over this issue and many others.  Me, I’m going to follow my masjid, which follows ISNA, and fast along with the vast majority of Muslims in my community.  BUT I’m not going to condemn or criticize those who follow the physical sighting of the moon.  They may be right and I may be wrong.  It’s not something to tear apart the community over.  If you want to have a fight worth fighting, let’s argue over the relative merits of Arab vs Pakistani cuisine.  Now, there’s an argument I could get into.

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