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It doesn’t seem all that long since last year’s holy month of Ramadan started. But here we are once again. There was the usual when-will-it-start uncertainty before Ramadan was declared to be upon us. In case you didn’t read an earlier blog post, I explained that the Arabic world is governed by the Hirji calendar which is lunar based. So one year here equates to 12 lunar months, and that’s 354 days. Or maybe 355. Or perhaps even 356. It all depends upon the sighting of the new crescent moon. This can vary from region to region, and atmospheric conditions. So if there is or has been a recent sandstorm in one country the air quality may be poor and the new moon unsightable. Apparently, there have been instances of it being one month in KSA, and another in nearby Egypt, and this situation lasts until the end of the month when the next new moon is sighted and the next month starts. Or maybe not.

Ramadan is the most important month for the Islamic world, and there are all sorts of requirements for the faithful to observe, and many rituals too. So, the start of Ramadan is eagerly awaited. This year, our favourite paper, the “Arab News” ran an article imploring Saudis to go out and look for the new crescent moon, and if they saw it, they were asked to go to the local courthouse and report the fact. I kid you not. Here are some extracts from the paper over the last few days:

May 14th:  "Saudi Arabia’s Supreme Court called on all Muslims to look for the crescent moon signalling the start of Ramadan on Tuesday and to inform the nearest court of those who see it with the naked eye or through the binoculars, Saudi state-news agency SPA reported.
The statement was issued by the supreme court on Sunday, with the month of Ramadan expected to begin on Tuesday May 15th and continue until June 14th during which Muslims around the world will practice fasting from dawn until dusk."

 May 15th: "Ramadan to begin on Thursday as Saudi moon observers say no sight of crescent. Saudi moon observers could not see the new moon on Tuesday evening. The Kingdom and other Muslim nations, like Indonesia, declared Ramadan would not begin on Wednesday based on the observations by moon-sighting committees."

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Photo in Arab News showing the Saudi Arabian moon sighting committee, Tuesday, May 15, Al-Baha. (Observatory of the University of Majmaa).

May 16th: "Saudi Arabian moon observers said that there was no sight of the Ramadan crescent on Tuesday, meaning millions of Muslims around the world will begin the holy month on Thursday.

According to reports on Saudi Arabian state TV, bad weather made observation of the crescent difficult. The Kingdom and other Muslim nations, like Indonesia, declared Ramadan would not begin on Wednesday based on the observations by moon-sighting committee.

Muslims around the world are set to mark the month, during which believers abstain from eating, drinking and smoking from dawn until sunset. Fasting is intended to bring Muslims closer to Allah and remind them of those less fortunate. The Islamic world follows a lunar calendar, and the traditional moon-sighting methodology can lead to different countries declaring the start of Ramadan a day or two apart

This year, Ramadan falls on long summer days for Muslims in the Northern Hemisphere. For Muslims who live in regions where Islam is not the dominant religion, challenging fasts are believed to come with greater blessings."

May 17th:  “An image of the Ramadan crescent was captured by the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Center’s (MBRSC) remote sensing satellite DubaiSat-2 this week. The image, released by MBRSC, was taken by rotating the earth observation satellite, a maneuver that took weeks of planning and hours of painstaking alignment. Taken with a roll tilt angle of 0 degrees and roll pitch angle of 79.63 degrees, the final image was post-processed to highlight the crescent aspect of the moon.
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DubaiSat-2 orbits Earth at a speed of 7.5 kilometers/ second, completing each total orbit of the planet in 90 minutes. Its camera images Earth from an altitude of some 600 kilometers at a resolution of 1 meter per pixel, providing world class images.

The start of Ramadan is determined by the lunar calendar which follows a 29- or 30-day cycle determined by the cycle of the moon. Muslims anticipate the end of Shaaban, the month preceding Ramadan, by watching for the absence or presence of the crescent moon, which respectively indicates the continuation of Shaban or the beginning of Ramadan. Sighting of the Ramadan crescent can be achieved by three methods: through telescopes and binoculars; using astronomy; or viewing with the naked eye.”

 Not only were these moon-sighting facts reported in the paper, but there was debate and discussion on the correspondence pages too. Here’s a paraphrased report of what the Astronomers had to say:

“Proving the beginning of Ramadan is not limited to crescent sighting,” said Sheikh Abdullah bin Sulaiman Al-Manea, member of the Council of Senior Scholars in Saudi Arabia. “There are other ways and means to determine the first day of the month, including astronomy. Astronomy is, in fact, more accurate and more convincing than moon sighting, which is only hypothetical while astronomy is conclusive and definitive.”

He said that the findings of Muslims who specialize in astronomy must therefore be taken into account because it is a proven means for confirming the crescent. The testimony of a moon sighter — who ought to be known for his justice — should not be accepted if it contradicts the astronomers’ opinion.

The crescent-screening method takes place during the emergence of the crescent moon. Once it has completed a full cycle around the Earth and started a new one, the crescent is evident before the month’s first sunset. When the sun disappears below the horizon, the crescent moon remains perched in the sky where the sun went down. It has to remain visible in the sky for at least 30 minutes after sunset. The crescent moon cannot be seen with the naked eye when15 hours have passed since the beginning of the cycle, and can only be seen through a telescope 12 hours after a new cycle begins.

To see the crescent moon clearly, it should be viewed from a high vantage point, far from heavily populated and built-up areas such as cities, and from natural and man-made obstructions that could obscure the sighting, such as mountains, hills and skyscrapers, and clear of atmospheric factors such as humidity and dust.

Scholars and experienced astronomers are the only ones who can determine whether or not the crescent moon has arrived to dictate the beginning of the holy month. If they fail to witness the crescent moon on the 29th of the month, Ramadan will not start until the 30th day.

“Astronomical calculations indicate that the month of Shaaban is a 30-day full month, which means that Thursday, May 17 will be the first day of Ramadan,” said Khalid Saleh Al-Zaaq,  member of the Arab Union for Astronomy And Space Sciences. He added that Ramadan this year will be a 29-day month, with June 15th therefore marking the first day of Eid. The dates have yet to be officially confirmed.”

Maybe its coincidence, but the people who printed my office desktop calendar got the dates right.

So there you are. I remain of my opinion that Monty Python missed a real opportunity....

   Clerk of Court, behind counter (Cleese) "Ah, yes. How can I help you, sir?"

   Muslim of good character (Palin). "I'd like to report that I've seen the moon........."

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