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City of Brass

City of Brass

ahlan wa sahlan, ya Shehre Ramadan

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.

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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?

  • Willow

    I just look up what the Fiqh Council of North America says and call it a day. But I think that if the Saudis want real accuracy when it comes to moonsighting, they shouldn’t offer a purse of gold to the first guy who spots it…the moon seems to come up awfully promptly in the Kingdom…
    Ramadan kareem!

  • Dilshad

    This subject of moonsighting gets debated to death in my home. Ultimately we, and I suspect most Muslims, follow what their local mosque does. Ours is part of the moonsighting crowd, and thus we will do our first fast tomorrow. Others in my town who follow a mosque on the south side (a mosque that follows the Fiqh council) started today. Two start times in the same city.
    I’ve decided that we are all trying our best, and Allah knows that. So Ramadan Mubarak to all of you, whether you started today or will do so tomorrow! Aziz — hope your first fast goes well! — your editor

  • Aziz

    Agreed, and really Dilshad I kind of like it that way. I think that the diversity of interpretation and practice on an issue as basic as when the holiest month begins, to be a marker of the health of the community of the faithful as a whole, at a fundamental level. Its really kind of great, of you think about it.

  • Sohail Khan

    Hi does anyone know of any mosques in the uk who began the holy month on the second of september, my family where amongst those who decided to wait for the official sighting rather than following the calculation.

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