Pinning Down The Start Of Ramadan Is A Matter of Debate - Islamic Council Uses Science, Not Sightings of New Moon
More than a billion Muslims celebrate Ramadan, but they don't agree when it begins. Egypt and Saudi Arabia, for example, have said that this year it begins at sunset tomorrow, but Islamic scholars in the United States have said that it begins at sunset today. The differences lie in history.
In the 7th century, the prophet Muhammad instructed his followers to begin fasting when they sighted the new moon that marked the onset of Ramadan, the ninth month of the lunar-based Islamic religious calendar.
For centuries, Muslims waited for the religious leaders of their village, city or country to declare that they had seen the new moon. Those leaders resisted using astronomical calculations, which accurately predict a new moon's appearance, because they believed it was necessary to follow their prophet's instructions literally and see the new moon with the naked eye. Because varying geographical and weather conditions meant that everyone did not see the new moon's first appearance, Muslims around the world began fasting on different days.
But a globalized world and a desire for its 1.2 billion Muslims to begin observing Ramadan on the same day have spurred Muslim leaders to use astronomical calculations to determine the first day of Ramadan.
This year, for the first time, the Fiqh Council of North America, an organization of Muslim legal scholars, declared that it would refer to such calculations instead of naked-eye moon sightings to mark the start of Ramadan. The council's decision, posted on the Web site of the Islamic Society of North America ( http://www.isna.net ), drew criticism from some conservative Muslims, forcing the legal scholars to defend their decision.
"Currently, the actual sighting method is causing a lot of difficulties for Muslims all over the world," the council said. "Different countries are claiming sighting on different dates and starting the month of Ramadan . . . on different days. In the West, Muslims face more problems due to starting Ramadan at different timings. . . . The trouble is so great that even the family members are divided on the issue, and young Muslims are utterly confused. . . . The issue of moon sighting is causing problems of discord among Muslims and is a bone of contention all over the Muslim world."
The legal scholars, however, don't expect all Muslims to follow the council's lead.
"The Fiqh Council is not imposing its decision upon anyone," the statement says. "It is our opinion based upon the solid Islamic principles, but people have choices. We encourage every Muslim to follow the majority decision in their local area [mosques]. . . . Muslims must show unity during the month of Ramadan. . . . That is the true spirit of Islam." ( islamfortoday.com )