Embarrassment and consternation reigns in the Muslim world after it was disclosed that Saudi officials announced the end of Ramadan and the start of the festival of Eid on the wrong day.
It is a pivotal point in the Islamic calendar, the moment when a month of fasting and contemplation finally comes to an end. But the celebration of Eid this year has been marred by controversy after claims that Saudi religious officials announced the festival on the wrong day.
Traditionally Ramadan comes to an end when the new moon is visible with the naked eye.
This year, officials in Saudi Arabia announced a sighting on Monday 29 August. Since then, however, astronomers have presented evidence to show that the moon was not visible at the time, and suggested that the Saudi officials may have actually been looking at Saturn.
Maged Abou Zahra, president of the Jeddah Astronomical Society, told the Egyptian paper al-Shorouk: “The sighting of a new moon would have simply been impossible.”
If true, the mistake would mean that millions of Muslims around the world stopped fasting a day too early. When the new moon rises, it is not visible as it is completely in the shadow of the earth and astronomers claim that it usually takes around 15 hours before it is visible to the naked eye.
“The need for a naked eye sighting is a literal interpretation of Islamic tradition that should be adapted to technological realities,” he said.
Many claim that the Saudis, in fact, already use astronomical calculations to pinpoint the start of the next Islamic month, but present the information as a traditional moonsighting to please conservative Muslims. There has been no official comment from Saudi religious authorities.
Websites such as Moonsighting.com have existed for a number of years, giving the precise details of where it is possible for the moon to be seen.
But the majority of Muslims still use more traditional methods, only celebrating Eid when the moon is seen with the naked eye. This year’s embarrassing error may lead more people to use astronomical calculations to decide about the new Islamic month instead of relying on the Saudi methodology.
Muslims and Jews both follow the lunar calendar. According to the Jewish calendar, the month of Elul began on Wednesday, although this time there were 2 days of Rosh Chodesh (start of the new month), Tuesday being the last, 30th, day of Av.
In Judaism, the new months were originally declared by visual sightings of the new moon, testified to by witnesses in front of the Sanhedrin. Bonfires were then lit on hilltops to spread the word of the start of the new month. But with the start of the Exile, our wise Sages worked out a fixed calendar which we are still using today, thousands of years later.
Long ago, the appearance of the new moon each month was attested by witnesses. Once their testimony was deemed credible, fires were set on the hilltops to announce the new month to neighboring communities who, in turn, passed the message along. This system proved both dangerous and cumbersome, and once Jews lived outside Eretz Yisrael, it was wholely inadequate.
The present Jewish calendar was introduced in the time of Hillel II (358/9 CE), at which time astronomical calculations replaced the practice of calling witnesses before the Sanhedrin. Since that time, it has been possible to calculate the Jewish calendar well into the future on the basis of scientific calculations.
The Saudis and Muslims should update their systems.