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.