Revision to Ramadan tradition divides Muslims

Muslims around the country climbed atop hillsides and buildings Friday night looking for a glimpse of the new moon, which traditionally signals the beginning of Ramadan, the holiest month of the Islamic calendar.

But a religious decree issued by several of the leading Islamic organizations in the country seeks to lessen the significance of moon sighting, declaring that Ramadan can begin by simple lunar calculations alone.

Not all are willing to change the 1,400-year-old practice. Dissenters say that even the calculation is incorrect. So while many Bay Area Muslims will begin a month of fasting today, others didn’t even try to look on Friday night for the crescent moon that signals Ramadan’s start. They said seeing the crescent moon was impossible until today, when they’ll venture to places like Mount Diablo or the Fremont hills.

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“We have to do what the prophet (Muhammad) did,” said Imam Siraj Desai, who leads worship at the Islamic Society of the East Bay, a Fremont mosque. “You have to see the moon.”

The effort this year to have a Ramadan start date based solely on calculation is part of an explicit attempt to integrate a Muslim minority into the fabric of American life. Having a fixed date allows for the inclusion of Ramadan on calendars. It also allows Muslims to plan time off from work to make preparations.

“The reality is that our community is filled with people who do not have much control over their time,” said Ingrid Mattson, an Islamic scholar who is president of the Islamic Society of North America. When it comes to the end-of-Ramadan celebration, called Eid, many Muslims call in sick so they can celebrate with their community, Mattson said. They aren’t able to plan ahead when the date of Eid is confirmed the lunar way only the night before.

“They shouldn’t have to begin what should be a happy day with a lie,” Mattson said. “In my opinion, that’s a more important concern.”

The decision to rely solely on calculation was made by the Fiqh Council of North America, a body of Islamic scholars who issue religious decrees on any number of subjects, such as when it’s acceptable to end life support or whether Muslims should use sperm banks. In the case of Ramadan moon sighting, the Fiqh Council also said communities should decide for themselves what method they should follow.

Those who insist on physical sighting coordinate with others around the country. A confirmed sighting on the East Coast can dictate Ramadan for the West Coast, and the confirmation is posted on mosque voice mails or Web sites, like

The varying interpretations underscore the deeply nonhierarchical structure of Islam. No body can dictate uniform rules the way, for example, denominations or religious leaders do in Christianity. And sincere dissent is encouraged.

“There will be families where husband and wife will start Ramadan on different days,” Mohamad Rajabally, an Islamic Society of North America executive board member, said in his sermon to the Islamic Society of the East Bay a week ago.

The purpose of Ramadan is to develop self-restraint. During the day, Muslims abstain from food, water and sex. By denying themselves what is normally permissible during the day, Muslims believe they will be better able to resist the forbidden during the rest of the year.

Ramadan “is far beyond sighting the moon,” said Rajabally.

The monthlong observance is just one example of the way the faith is intertwined with the natural world.

The lunar calendar isn’t the only cosmic influence on Islam. The position of the sun dictates the time of the five daily prayers. The lunar and solar cycles have for centuries played an important role in Muslim study of the sciences, particularly astronomy and mathematics, several scholars said.

While there is a science to tracking time, there is a spiritual element to the ritual of looking for the moon, said Imam Faheem Shuaibe, who leads Masjidul Waritheen, an Oakland mosque.

Islamic prayer practices are intended to align “the heart, mind, body and spirit of the worshiper to creation,” said Shuaibe. “Our religion is a religion of nature. … We’re just as much a part of the cosmos as the moon and the stars. You could say they are our brothers and sisters.”

The process of moon sighting shouldn’t be taken simply as a procedure for marking time, said Shuaibe, who sees the seeking of the moon as a metaphor for knowledge.

“See it for yourself,” he said. “Seek truth for yourself. Don’t always depend on what somebody else tells you. Have a basis for your action that is based on your own insight.”

Chloe Chaudhry went out to see the moon on Friday night, knowing that it would be difficult to spot. For years, she has been leading other Muslim families into the Oakland hills for moon-sighting events.

“We’re rewarded for our intention in trying to look for the moon, not in actually seeing it,” said Chaudhry, a Berkeley resident. “There’s something so exciting about seeing the birth of the new moon. … It’s an incredible, powerful, magical feeling. It only lasts for a couple minutes, maybe 10 minutes, and then it disappears again.”


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Matthai Chakko Kuruvila, Chronicle Religion Writer, San Francisco Chronicle, Sep. 23, 2006,

Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday September 24, 2006.
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