[RAMADAN NOTES] How do we determine the start of the Ramadan feast?

The month of Ramadan can be 29 or 30 days long. This is a peculiarity of lunar months. »»

The month of Ramadan can be 29 or 30 days long. This is a peculiarity of lunar months. In the past, it was almost impossible to calculate the length of the month ahead of time, and it was left to observers of the sky to decide whether the next day would be a day in Ramadan or a feast day.

This last day was called the Day of Doubt. The decision whether the day would be part of Ramadan or the next month was made according to the sighting of the first crescent -- a sliver of moonlight visible for only a few seconds -- that would turn Ramadan into Shawwal. In many Muslim countries, this tradition is still followed. Folk stories relate that Saudis even take to the skies in fighter jets in order to observe the moon over possible clouds.

Whether the end of Ramadan should be determined by people on the Day of Doubt or by the accurately calculated length of lunar months as determined by astronomers today is still an uncertainty to me. However, it was already an issue of discussion in my childhood and I have adopted a rather anthropocentric position to the discussion. This is a personal view, though; I suggest my readers continue to listen to astronomers. After all, they don’t have a Grandpa Abbas.

I asked my Grandpa Abbas whether we should fast or feast on the Day of Doubt when it is declared a feast day by other countries that make the determination through observing the sky, like Saudi Arabia. Turkey went by the astronomical calculations and the Ramadan calendars of the Religious Affairs Directorate that were prepared years ahead of time. What should we do?

Grandpa suggested that the feast was not about whether the first moon was visible or not, but about whether it was actually seen or not. “Astronomical calculations can be even more accurate than eyesight, but the feast is left to the determination of the eyes of two people minimum, and they can err. The Ramadan feast is not about what is happening in the sky, it is about what is happening here, among the people,” he told me.

Thus, we would go out and watch the sky. We never saw the first moon before the date it was calculated. In fact, we never saw it on the calculated day, either. We kept listening to Saudi radio and decided whether to fast or not accordingly. It was fun.

Once in Palestine, I went to the al-Aqsa Mosque to perform the terawih prayer with the thought that the next day would be the last day of Ramadan. A few minutes before the night prayer, it was declared that the first moon had been seen -- I don’t know where -- and that we wouldn’t pray the terawih.

“Tomorrow will be the Ramadan feast. Kull ‘am wa entum bi’l-khayr [You shall be well all through the year]!” called the imam. The whole congregation started to hug and congratulate each other. It was a reminder of my childhood days spent waiting with enthusiasm around the radio to hear whether the next day would be feast day or a fasting day.

An early start makes a feast into a real festival!

My elder brother Selim, however, was not fond of utilizing the Arabs’ announcement. He had formulated his own religious fatwa. Once more, this was a personal way of looking at things. Today, Selim lives in Saudi Arabia and makes the determination through observation of the moon. However, he used to follow a simple logic: “If tomorrow is a day in Ramadan and if I do not fast, then I can still fast a make-up fast later; but if it is a feast day, it is forbidden to fast and I will sin if I fast. So I would rather not fast tomorrow either way and instead fast a make-up fast later in the rest of the year if necessary.” I don’t know whether he liked this personal fatwa because he regarded it as meaningful or because he didn’t want to fast the last day of Ramadan.

Mom was the voice of compromise on this issue. She would let whoever wanted to fast fast, but would recommend that they not criticize others and let whoever chose to break their fast to break it. She would, however, suggest that they not eat or drink anything all day long. “This way we will be sure that you are abstaining from fasting not because of your evil ordained self, but because of your sincere belief,” she would say, adding: “Fasting on a feast day is a sin, but causing confusion and internal discussion among Muslims is an even greater sin. If you don’t fast, don’t fast -- but don’t say or show this to others.”

Thus would begin the Ramadan feast in my childhood home. Today, I follow the official calendar and turn my ear from my brother Selim’s early calls to the Ramadan feast. No more surprise, and no more fun around the radio on the last day of Ramadan!

2011-08-26

Ramadan