As the month of Ramzan nears conclusion, and the Muslim world gears up to celebrate Eid-ul-Fitr, which marks the end of the month of fasting and introspection, Muslims in India are confronted with a familiar dilemma: “Chand kab hai?" When will the moon be sighted?

This question is important because it is the sliver of a new moon that heralds the end of Ramzan and the festival of Eid.

This year, Ramzan is likely to end on July 5, which is when the hilal, or crescent moon, is expected to be sighted. As a consequence, July 6 is likely to be celebrated as Eid in India. However, some believe that the new crescent might appear on July 4, so Eid will fall on July 5.

Science vs tradition

The Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar, and each month can have 29 or 30 days depending upon the visibility of the moon, the position of the earth and weather conditions.

In India, while some clerics announce the date for Eid in advance after making astronomical calculations, some clerics insist that it is necessary for the crescent to be physically sighted before Eid can be declared.

Muslims even have committees for the sighting of the moon.

Maulana Saif Abbas, president of the Shia Chand Committee, explained the obligations of sighting the crescent in Islam. “The moon should be sighted with the naked eye,” he said. “If weather conditions do not permit this in one city, then we have to depend on nearby cities or regions, where the moon has been sighted, or depend on the testimony of a truthful person who has seen the new moon.”

President of the Markazi Chand Committee, Maulana Khalid Rasheed Firangi Mahali, concurred. He also narrated a saying, or hadith, of the Prophet Muhammad, from Sahih Al Bukhari: “Do not fast unless you sight the crescent and do not break your fast till you sight the following [Eid’s] crescent.”

Firangi Mahali emphasised the importance of adopting modern science to religion but added that, at the same time, it was difficult to do away with the old tradition, which was accepted by millions of Muslims across the globe.

However, not everyone is in agreement with the physical sighting belief.

Kalbe Sadiq, one of the most respected Islamic scholars in the country, is famous for announcing Ramzan and Eid-ul-Fitr dates in advance. The dates he announces have coincided with the actual sighting of the moon for several years now.

“Muslims of the early Islamic period were illiterate, that is why the Prophet then told them to depend on the moon for Islamic months,” said Sadiq, who is vice-president of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board. “However, in today’s world we can easily rely on modern science to confirm the dates to avoid confusion if the moon has not been sighted.”

Two Eids

On a few occasions, Indian Muslims, under the guidance of their respective clerics, have celebrated Eid on different days. For instance, in Lucknow in 2012, some Shia Muslims celebrated Eid on August 20, while others celebrated it on August 21 along with the Sunnis. The confusion was attributed to cloudy weather conditions, which didn’t permit the moon to be seen.

Similarly in 2006, there was much confusion regarding the announcement of Eid. While some Muslims celebrated it on October 24, which was a date announced by Sadiq, many clerics didn’t make any announcement, with others declaring Eid just before sunrise. So, that year, some Muslims celebrated Eid on October 25.

The declaration of Eid in Saudi Arabia works as a guide for some Muslims in India. While the majority believe that Eid in India is celebrated a day after it is celebrated in Saudi Arabia, in Kerala – which has a sizeable population working in countries in the Middle East – Eid is celebrated on the same day as it is in Saudi Arabia.

The dependence on science

Internationally known astronomer and expert on moon sighting Syed Khalid Shukat, who is the founder of a website dedicated to the moon sighting across the world, said in an article that the sighting of the new moon has coincided with predictions made on the basis of science for over two decades now.

“Recorded data shows how the science of moon sighting is compared with the actual observations," Shukat said. "The results show that calculations of sighting and observations have matched every month since 1993. Calculations of moon sighting and actual sighting are not two different things for an Islamic Calendar when it was found that they both match.”

On the first day of the new moon, the crescent appears in the west after sunset only for a few minutes, which is why it is difficult to spot it. Asking people to testify that they have seen the crescent is another complex issue. Hence, to bring uniformity among Muslims all over the world, the scientific approach stresses the importance of one Eid for all Muslims based on scientific calculations, rather than on the physical sighting of the moon.

However, climbing rooftops to gaze at the west after the sun sets on what is believed to be the last day of Ramzan, is embedded in the cultural practice that many Muslims associate with the announcement of Eid.

Uzair Hasan Rizvi is an independent multimedia journalist based in Lucknow. He tweets using the Twitter handle @rizviuzair.