On the summit of South Mountain, in business attire and jogging suits, Valley Muslims searched the skies Thursday at sunset and caught a glimpse of the elusive crescent moon that heralds the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan. With the sightings in Phoenix and Tucson verified late Thursday, national Islamic organizations declared today the start of Ramadan in the United States.

This morning, Muslims will rise before dawn for a light meal to prepare for the daily fast that is a hallmark of the spiritual time, comparable in religious significance to Easter for Christians and Yom Kippur for Jews. "Now the excitement begins," said Imam Abdur-Rahim Shamsiddeen, the spiritual leader of Masjid Jauharatul-Islam in Phoenix.

Ramadan commemorates the revelation of the Koran, the Muslims' holy scriptures, to the Prophet Mohammed more than 1,400 years ago. During the month, Muslims fast from dawn to sunset as a way to fulfill one of the basic beliefs of their religion, to learn discipline and show their love for God.

Blessings come from the fast and from reading the entire Koran during Ramadan, Shamsiddeen said. About 20 Muslims met at South Mountain to look for the crescent. Riaz Ghare, a Tempe engineer, was one of two men who reported seeing the crescent on South Mountain. They weren't sure until later if the sightings would be accepted.

If no verified reports were made, the start of Ramadan would have been Saturday. "I am so excited," Ghare said. "This is a great blessing. I will probably get up at 4:30 or 5 to eat my breakfast and I won't have to worry about taking my lunch tomorrow." He used his cellphone to call the Islamic Society of North America from South Mountain.

Although scientifically, the Muslims knew that the first day of the waxing crescent moon was Thursday, the tradition of Ramadan calls for the sighting of the moon in the sky as well. "Islam is more than 1,400 years old, and at that time they had no scientific information so they used to depend on their eyes to sight the moon. We keep to that tradition," said Imam Ahmad Shqeirat, leader of the Islamic Cultural Center in Tempe.

Phoenix, with its clear skies and high mountains, is one of the best places in the United States to sight a new crescent moon. The U.S. Naval Observatory put the visibility of the waxing crescent moon in Phoenix at zero. But, the Valley Muslims were optimistic and they knew exactly what to look for. As they watched the skies, they joked that they were America's last chance for Ramadan to start today because visibility in California isn't as good. Other countries around the world also have declared the start of Ramadan.

During Ramadan, Muslims also direct extra attention to prayers and to charity. National Muslim organizations are asking Muslims to make donations to Muslim relief efforts to send food, clothing and medicine to Muslims in Afghanistan. After the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, America declared a war on terrorism. Bombing began in Afghanistan on Oct. 7.

But, spiritual leaders note, there is more anxiety among Muslims since Sept. 11. Although Muslim countries have requested the bombing in Afghanistan to end during the holy month, American Muslims note that Muslims have carried out war during Ramadan throughout history. They just want the bombing to end, they said. "We are praying to God for the peace of our innocent victims and their families and their friends, to grant us peace and justice and to grant all mankind peace and justice," Shqeirat said. "This is our constant prayer."

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