Every Ramzan is a nail-biting finish for fasting Muslims. As the month draws to a close, the exact date for Eid-ul-Fitr festival, which ends Ramzan, depends on the sighting of the new moon.

For theological matters, Islam follows a lunar calendar. The lunar year, however, adds up to about 354 days. Thus Islamic months are out of step with the solar year and the date of Eid falls back by about 11 days every solar or Gregorian year. As a result, throughout history, while Muslim administrations have conducted religion using the Islamic calendar, other more prosaic matters such as tax collection were usually conducted using solar calendars.

Sticking to tradition

But there’s more confusion still. Traditionally, a lunar Islamic month (29/30 days) starts with the new moon. Here’s what that the months means in lunar terms:

The dashed line shows the position of the moon while the outermost circle shows the phases of the moon, as it would appear from Earth. The entire cycle repeats itself every 29.5 days. Credit: Wikimedia commons
The dashed line shows the position of the moon while the outermost circle shows the phases of the moon, as it would appear from Earth. The entire cycle repeats itself every 29.5 days. Credit: Wikimedia commons

Now, given the state of modern-day astronomy, the date of a new moon can be predicted with pin-point accuracy. However, most Muslims chose not to exercise this new-fangled option. Canonically, the Islamic month always began when the first crescent was spotted in the sky. When Islam started out in the sixth century, this was probably the only way the new moon could be approximated. However, the emphasis on the new moon in the Islamic calendar actually spurred Muslim scholars to study astronomy. One sect, the Ismailis (of which Bohras are a subsect) accepted the use of astronomy. However, most other Muslim sects rejected it in favour of visual sighting.

Confusion

Clambering on to rooftops to peer at the sky at the end of Ramzan might be exciting but it results in a fair bit of confusion given the sheer size and geographical spread of the global Muslim community. Saudi Arabia, for example, often celebrates Eid a day ahead of India. However, in India, Kerala often follows not Delhi but Saudi Arabia, synchronising its Eid with Mecca. In Indonesia, the Muhammadiyah and the Nahdlatul Ulama, the country’s largest Muslim groups, often fail to agree on one date for Eid. In Lucknow, Eid dates are sometimes split according to Shia and Sunni with some clerics being able to spot the moon and others being bested by a cloudy sky.

India’s Muslim-majority neighbours, Pakistan and Bangladesh have national moon sighting committees. This makes for less confusion. However, in Pakistan even this centralised approach has regularly been embroiled in controversy. As it so happens, much of this opposition has run along political lines. In 1967, as Pakistan’s largely secular army dictator Ayub Khan, clashed with the Islamic right, matters took a lunar turn. The Jama’at-e-Islami, a far right party, and many other clerics refused to follow a scientifically determined one-nation-one-Eid formula. For his intransigence, Khan had the head of the Jama’at (as it so happenes, a Partition migrant from Aurangabad in current-day Maharashtra) jailed for almost two years. In today’s Pakistan, the province of Khyber-Pakhtunwa regularly disagrees with the Central government’s Eid date.

Pakistan's moon sighting comittee at work in 2005. Credit: AFP/Tariq Mahmood
Pakistan's moon sighting comittee at work in 2005. Credit: AFP/Tariq Mahmood

Minority dissidents

In this, a few bodies and clerics do support using astronomical calculations. One is the Fiqh Council of North America that contends that using using “scientifically authenticated astronomical calculations are a valid Islamic source of confirming or negating an Islamic month”. In India, Lucknow cleric Kalbe Sadiq also supports the use of astronomy to fix dates.

However, both Sadiq and the Fiqh Council of North America are in a minority and most of the word’s Muslims still prefer to stick with eyewitness accounts of the moon’s status before opting to celebrate Eid.