It used to be a tradition amongst some Muslim countries to announce the eve of Ramzan with the firing of a cannon. In Pakistan, that has been replaced by a salvo fired by ignitable ministers, with an equally noisy retort from the Ruet-e-Hilal Committee.
This year proved no different. In the run-up to the holy month of Ramzan, Fawad Chaudhry, Federal Minister of Science and Technology, decided to muster the resources of his ministry to challenge again Mufti Muneebur Rehman, chairman of the Central Ruet-e-Hilal Committee. Stronger ministers than Chaudhry – once, even the National Assembly – have tried to dislodge the myopic 75-year-old maulana from his sinecure, without success. He has proved as tenacious as Janet Fisher’s limpet, attached to “anything, anyone who showed [him] the least attention”.
Before the advent of this Ramzan, the minister took on the chairman but retreated after the maulana declared the first fast a day later than the minister wanted. The minister bided his time throughout Ramzan and then in its final days, he reopened the debate. He used the media – he was not minister of information and broadcasting for nothing – to present charts and calculations that would have made Galileo proud. The chairman, contemptuous of such unverified data, remained obdurate. He stood his ground, waiting for his own moon to appear.
The notification of the sighting of any Eid moon, by government order, is the responsibility of the Central Ruet-e-Hilal Committee, a department of the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony. The committee is expected to rely on information provided from various sources – including 150 observatories of Pakistan’s Meteorological Department and evidence of sighting by responsible citizens anywhere in Pakistan. For some arcane reason, the central committee chooses to sight the moon itself, peering through high-tech telescopes from the windswept roof of a commercial bank in Karachi.
There is no legal requirement for the committee to meet in Karachi. Any hill top with clear skies would do. That would be cheaper than flying committee members to Karachi and accommodating them in what the chairman quaintly described in an interview as a “non-star hotel”. The chairman also asserted that “Pakistan’s moon sighting system is best in the world as it incorporates scientific and religious methods, resulting in best outcome [.] We seek help of the scientist to ascertain the chances of sighting the moon and use this information for cross-questioning the witnesses of moon sighting so that we could check the authenticity of testimony”.
If such a rigorous system of audit is in place, then why did the Ruet-e-Hilal Committee this year spend the evening of May 23 dillydallying, even after receiving reports that the moon had been sighted elsewhere in Pakistan?
At 9.50 pm that day, a message appeared on the committee’s website. It read: “Please Wait For Announcement Within Few Minutes. Clearfaction A Statement Uploaded Before Was A Mistake By One Of Admin He’s Was Preparing Both Type Of Statement Regarding Moon Sighted Or Not Sighted But Mistakenly It Goes Published We Are Extremely Sorry For That.”
Half an hour later, at 10.21 pm, another message appeared on the same website: “Mufti Muneeb Rehman, according to the announcement of the chairman central sighting crescent committee, the moon of shawwal 1441 Hijri has been seen in Pakistan today. So tomorrow on Sunday, there will be Eid ul-Fitr in Pakistan on Sunday. Happy Eid to all of you.” With it, this cheery addendum: “The Ministry of religious affairs and International Affairs and international A very happy birthday. Notification will be uploaded.”
The committee claims it took its final decision “after receiving authentic testimonies from Balochistan’s Chaman and Pasni areas”. Interestingly, the minister of science and technology a few days earlier had told the press that “the Shawwal moon would be visible on 23rd May evening between 7.36 pm and 8.15 pm in Badin, Thatta and Pasni”. Why then did the Ruet-e-Hilal Committee need to wait until 10.21 pm to confirm that the moon had revealed itself two hours earlier at Pasni? Could it be that the chairman did not want the “interfering” minister to be given credit for announcing Eid? Or had there been a last-minute, impatient intervention by forces that hover between government and God?
Holiday plans this summer across the world have been thrown into disarray by Covid-19. For disrupting the Eid holidays within Pakistan, the Ruet-e-Hilal Committee has only itself to blame, yet again. Little wonder that we will never, the exhortations of our prime minister notwithstanding, be a dependable tourist destination.
In 1984, his fellow cricketer Sir Ian Botham, after suffering fixtures in Pakistan, described it as “the kind of place to send your mother-in-law for a month”. Add an extra fortnight for quarantine.
This article first appeared on Dawn.