Last night at sunset, according to the Fatimid lunar (Hijri) calendar, marked the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan. Today I am observing the first fast.
These are controversial statements, because the majority of muslims adhere to the hadith that each month begins with the visual sighting of the new crescent moon. The Saudi ulema have even issued a fatwa to the effect that astronomical calculations are not valid and that moonsighting is the sole acceptable method. Shayk Hamza Yusuf of the Zaytuna institute concurs, laying out the case for moonsighting in impressive scholarly detail (PDF link). However, in 2006 the Fiqh Council of North America adopted the compromise position that astronomical calculations were indeed valid, especially as a means for ruling out physically-impossible moonsighting reports. Dr. Zulfiqar Ali Shah wrote a lengthy rebuttal to Shaykh Yusuf, pointing out that the act of witnessing the new moon itself is not an act of worship in and of itself, and is merely a means of telling time. Another thorough and scholarly essay by Dr. Louay Safi notes that the choice is not between moonsighting and calculation, but rather personal testimony and calculation. Further essays and reading material on the debate are available at the Fiqh Council’s website.
In practice, muslims rely on moonsighting by a local religious authority or organization. The specifics of moonsighting vary widely from country to country, meaning that the start of Ramadan might vary by one or two days across the muslim world. This year the general consensus is that Ramadan 1429H begins on Monday, September 1st, though technically in North America the moon will not be physically visible to the eye until September 2nd, so some may elect to begin fasting on Tuesday.
This complexity in method worldwide carries over to the Western muslim community, of course, as muslim immigrants initially tend to adheres to the tradition of their homelands. But there is intense cross-fertilization between muslims in the West – something that occurs nowhere else. Ultimately it boils down to a personal judgement as to which method to use: moonsighting, calculation, or hybrid methods. Who said the gates of ijtihad were closed?