When does Ramadaan/Ramzaan start?

September 2, 2008 at 10:44 pm (Islam)

Ramadaan/Ramzaan Mubaarak!

Whether this greeting is timely or not depends on the community (or even sub-group) one is addressing.

The holy Islamic month of Ramadaan (pronounced as “Ramzaan” by South Asians) began on August 31, September 1, or September 2. It all depends on the community and even on individuals therein.

For centuries, the same debate has been raging throughout the Muslim world: when does Ramadaan/Ramzaan start? When does it end? How should this be found out?

This is significant because during the month of Ramadaan/Ramzaan, one fasts (from the first day of Ramadaan/Ramzaan through the last day). The first day of Shawwaal (the next month) is Eid al-Fitr, which is, celebration-wise, comparable to Christmas. On Eid al-Fitr, people go to the mosque for Eid prayers, they visit the homes of friends and relatives, they give and receive gifts, they dress up in good clothes, they have family dinners, and so on. It is forbidden, furthermore, to fast on the first of Shawwaal. (Muslims are obligated to fast during Ramadaan/Ramzaan; they may fast during most other days of the year for penitence or devotional purposes, however on certain days one is forbidden to fast for any reason.) Not knowing the correct dates of when Ramadaan/Ramzaan and Shawwaal begin means that one’s fasting may be incomplete or impermissibly extended.

There is no resolution to this debate. This is a debate because the Islamic calendar is exclusively lunar, and the beginning of a lunar month depends on the rise and sighting of the new moon in an area. The new moon does not rise in all areas on the same solar date, and so some places will observe one date on a certain solar date, while others will observe the same lunar date after or before.

According to the most stringent requirements, the new moon of Ramadaan/Ramzaan must rise in an area for Ramadaan/Ramzaan to begin therein. So while the Ramadaan/Ramzaan new moon rose in the Arab area of the world comparable to September 1 (meaning, the month started in the evening of August 31), the lunar month may begin the next day in the Americas due to the angle of the moon’s rising or setting.

But such scientific calculations are insufficient. According to the same stringent requirements, one must see the new moon in order for its presence to be verified. (And the very same phenomenon must be seen by a certain number of independent, trustworthy witnesses.)

Some time ago, a number of Islamic organizations decided to abandon the traditional method and establish a scientific lunar calendar. This way, the dates of the lunar months would be established long beforehand, allowing people to prepare accordingly. There would be no last-minute stress or wondering, nor would there by any doubt as to when Ramadaan/Ramzaan begins and when it ends. However, a good number of other organizations condemned this move as being practically apostate. More importantly, a number of people, whether affiliated with any organization or not, decided not to follow such a policy: they would still call reputable organizations who have sent their trustworthy witnesses to see if they can spot the moon, or continuously refresh the homepage of such organizations, awaiting the notification of whether the moon has been sighted or not. Phonelines are jammed and websites often are overwhelmed. But no problem: this is the traditional (and only) way to do things.

One of the biggest concerns was comparing Muslim holy days with Jewish and Christian ones. Jews and Christians know long beforehand when what holy day will fall. They can ask for days off and they can prepare, all in advance. There is no question or doubt whether the holy day has arrived or not: everyone knows the date and time of a holy day’s arrival. In contrast, Muslims would have to ask for a day off the morning of said day (or put in the notice the day before), because they have no idea when the actual holy day will fall. In most workplaces, this is not permitted: they ask for a few weeks’ advance notice, which is impossible for Muslims to give. But this did not pacify the traditionalists, who accused the experts using scientific methods of apostasy (if not being in the grip of some conspiracy to weaken and destroy Islam). They also point out that Jews have a set calendar (that is, they don’t wait to observe the moon), and so such organizations using a scientific calendar are mimicking the Jews, which is anathema to Islam. Some go further: this attempt to fix the Islamic calendar (or predict it) is a Jewish plot against Islam. Or the Islamic scholars are being fooled by Zionist/Crusader operatives. Such accusations certainly make rational debate on this issue impossible.

Ramadaan/Ramzaan has 29 or 30 days. At the end of the 29th day, witnesses are sent out. If the moon is sighted, the next day is the first of Shawwaal and, therefore, Eid al-Fitr. If the moon is not sighted (or, because of weather conditions, unable to be sighted), the next day is proclaimed to be the 30th day of Ramadaan/Ramzaan, the day after that being the first of Shawwaal (and, therefore, Eid al-Fitr). But communities will still dispute whether the moon is sighted or not.

What may complicate matters is diaspora communities. From what I have noticed, South Asian Islamic authorities are the most stringent, demanding that the moon be sighted in an area for the month to have started therein. But Bosnians, for example, will go by when the lunar month begins in Bosnia; Arabis likewise will go by when the lunar month begins in their lands. So South Asians traditionally celebrate things one day after many others, because the lunar months seems to start a day later in the Americas compared to Saudi Arabia, Bosnia, or the Pashtun areas. (In Pakistan, the Pashtun areas were notorious for celebrating one day earlier. Some say because they’re heretics; others say because the lunar month begins earlier there.)

But here’s something that really strikes me as strange. My parents are very rational people. My father doesn’t really believe in Islam. My mother strongly identifies as Muslim but doesn’t practice Islam. And yet neither of them accept the scientific calendar approach. To them, the only way is the old-fashioned way: find out if trustworthy witnesses have spotted the moon. And so for them, too, one doesn’t know until the day before when the holy day will fall.

People talk a lot about reform in Islam. But for those of us who have seen these calendar wars, we know reform will be slow in coming, if it comes at all. If Muslims cannot agree on the simple matter of how to fix the calendar issue, how can we expect them to solve women’s rights, democracy, civil rights, pluralism, tolerance, rule of law, and modernist interpretations?

I was going to rejoice that Eid al-Fitr coincided with Rosh haShanah this year. But such a coincidence is limited: it applies only to those who’ll celebrate Eid al-Fitr on September 30. Some will celebrate it on September 29, and maybe some on October 1. Who knows.

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