Monday, July 18, 2011

The Ramadan crescent issue – this year's edition

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science.

Ramadan is just around the corner (in two weeks’ time), and so we’re all gearing ourselves for the usual crescent saga… Last year I wrote twice here about the crescent problem, which to me is really a calendar problem: “Ramadan by CCD” and “For a Real Islamic Calendar...

Now, there are two reasons why I’m writing about this again: 1) the folks at Huffington Post have invited me to be a regular contributor to their slate of columnists/commentators, and my first article was about the Islamic calendar issue (the “Ramadan problem”); 2) I thought perhaps some of our readers here might want to know about the situation this year.
Here’s the core of my article at Huff-Po:
Now, one of the difficulties lies in the fact that the Islamic month is based on the new crescent, not the "new moon" (the moment of passage of the moon between the earth and the sun). The latter is a purely astronomical moment, and it can be calculated with great precision, but the appearance of the thin new crescent (some 15 to 30 hours after "new moon") is rather complicated matter, as it also involves atmospheric and meteorological effects, not to mention the ability of the human eye, or of a telescope, to see a thin crescent. Still, astronomers have made huge progress on this problem and can now confidently predict in which regions of the world the crescent will be seen (by naked eye or with optical aid) on any given night.
But then, if this can be determined ahead of time, why should there be a problem at all? Can't we simply tell people when the crescent will be seen and thus when the month will start or end, and then both the religious occasions and the civil functions (appointments, travels, etc.) can be taken care of all at once? Yes, indeed, we could -- if this calendar calculation is accepted by the authorities (religious and political.)
And so we come to the crux of the matter: the need to move on from the old injunctions and their literal applications ("sight the crescent with your eyes") to a more objectivist interpretation of the intention ("use your best tools, including telescopes and computers, to ascertain the start of the month") on the part of the Muslim authorities.
Now, for those who may be interested to learn about the situation this year, that is when and where the crescent is expected to be seen, whether by naked eyes or with optical aids, and hence when Ramadan should start (though this depends on the rules that each state upholds), I present below a crescent-visibility map for July 31. (The map is extracted from the ‘Accurate Times’ software that was constructed by Mohammad Odeh and is freely available for download from the ICOP website.)

 The regions in blue are where the crescent can only be seen with optical aid; the pink zone is where the crescent could be seen with naked eyes if the atmospheric conditions are excellent and the observers are experienced; the green zone is where the crescent is easy to observe.
In Mecca, for example, the crescent will be visible with optical aids only. Below is a diagram (produced with the Starry Night software) showing the situation there just before sunset:

Considering that the crescent will be impossible to see anywhere on Earth on July 30 and visible either with telescopes, binoculars, or naked eyes in various regions of the globe on July 31, it is easy to predict that Ramadan this year will start on August 1 almost everywhere, except in places (like Pakistan and India, as far as I know) that require local observation.
The situation concerning the end of Ramadan (Eid-ul-Fitr) is a bit more complex; I may come back to it later.


Akbar said...

Nicely written. There are a few Muslim clerics in Pakistan like Mufti Munibur Rehman who are inclined towards involvement of astronomical calculations in Lunar calendar, as opposed to more obsessed hardliners. Luckily this man is still the chairman of Pakistan's national 'lunar observation' committee (or whatever you may call it in English). The problem arises where the clerics especially in the north western province of Pakistan want to follow Saudi Arabia for their lunar schedule. And it has been my personal observation that the Saudis have been historically planning Ramadhan and Eid festival based on apparently fake 'evidences' of lunar sightings when the moon is actually supposed to be setting BEFORE the sun itself. So what do you think, would they be convinced by all our astronomical evidences? You can argue with a person who does not know the truth, but you can NEVER argue and convince a person who is intentionally LYING with full knowledge. There goes the case with these Saudi clerics, committed to the core to bring on all sort of fitnas to the Muslim world in particular and the rest of the world in general. The solution is simple. Last year, I started my fasting month as per astronomical calculations and NOT by the schedule given by UK muslim clerics under influence of the Saudis, and celebrated my Eid as such too. And I am still as good (or bad) a muslim as I have always been.

Akbar said...

There are very well written articles by Zain Ahmed on the website of Karachi Astronomical Society on the same subject.

Mohamed said...

Nidhal.I'm with you on this. I think we need to move away from a literal interpretation of the texts, which require sighting with the eyes, to one more in tune with modern capabilities; it will make life so much simpler.

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Thanks, Akbar, for the references on Pakistan; always useful.

I do not agree with you when you accuse people of "intentionally lying with full knowledge." That would require very strong evidence or even full-fledged proof. I have dealt with many clerics, including several from Saudi Arabia, and though very often I get frustrated by their incapacity to move forward along the route that I and others think is the best option for Muslims today, I think that either they cannot grasp the ideas that we have reached after years of scientific training or their religious standpoint (literalism, conservatism, etc.) makes it impossible for them to let go of the old ways. But I don't doubt their sincerity -- until I have witnessed the contrary.

Akbar said...

Thanks Nidhal. May be I made too harsh a conclusion and I am sorry for that. But as a muslim as well as an astronomer, I do get an annual dose of being frustratingly pissed off each year with this moon fiasco. An illiterate farmer can get the sense in five minutes if told, so why can't these well educated high priests of religion?

Ali said...


Just wondering ...
On your cescent visibility map for July 31st, I am thinking Japan, North Korea and few other places will not be able to see the moon even using optical aid. So, what do our brothers and sisters on these countries do if Saudi Arabians see the moon and start Ramadan on the 1st of August?

Ali said...

@ Akbar

"Last year, I started my fasting month as per astronomical calculations and NOT by the schedule given by UK muslim clerics under influence of the Saudis, and celebrated my Eid as such too. And I am still as good (or bad) a muslim as I have always been."

Why do you think your way is better?
Wouldn't you be as good (or bad :)) a Muslim had you listened to the UK clerics?

Akbar said...

If it is a requirement as per sharia to 'view' the crescent by whatever means to begin the lunar month, that should be the case with Japan and Korea as well. No doubt about it. Their Ramadhan should begin on 2nd August.
I personally believe we should make Makkah as a global standard for the lunar calendar, based on the probability of visible lunar crescent there, as per astronomical calculations. This can resolve many disputes. But the case here is, nearly every year, crescent viewing is claimed in Saudi Arabia when it should not have been visible by any possible means, at times when moon should be setting before sun. So there are serious credibility issues.
Why I would observe fast and celebrate Eid based on astronomical evidence? Well there shouldn't be any problem in following the truth. What would you do when you know it should be a fasting day because of the impossibility of crescent on prior evening, when everyone else is celebrating Eid based on fake 'evidences'? I am answerable for my own deeds.

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