Ramadan, the month-long period of fasting, began this year on May 16. During Ramadan, Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, and sexual relations from daybreak to sundown. The purpose of the daily ritual of fasting is to resist temptation, know what it is like to be without food, reflect on God’s blessings, and to develop God-consciousness. Ramadan will end on June 14, followed by the celebration of the holiday of Eid al-Fitr the next day.
The Muslim calendar is based on the lunar cycle, and according to tradition the crescent has to be sighted to declare the ending of Ramadan and the beginning of the new month. If the crescent is sighted on June 13, Eid al-Fitr will be celebrated on June 14; but if the crescent is not sighted that day, then Eid al-Fitr will fall a day later, on June 15. As a result, we won’t know for sure when the holiday is, until the night before, when religious authorities confirm the moon sighting.
To make the holiday predictable, leading Muslim organizations are opting to follow the astronomical calendar—which predicts the date the crescent will be visible on the horizon—and announce the date of Eid al-Fitr well in advance. However, traditionalists have maintained the practice of ‘moon sighting’ to confirm the beginning of the new month. In this piece that follows, the author shares her run-in with religious authorities as she tries to find a rational solution.
As a hybrid of Islamic practices have evolved, I’ve continued to have my clashes with tradition.
New York. Circa 1980s
I had my first run-in with moon sighting, notable because the Islamic calendar is based on the lunar cycle. The beginning of a new month is subject to moon sighting. Since Eid falls on the first day of the month after Ramadan, you won’t know when Eid is until just the day before, when the moon is sighted. In a Muslim country, no problem. As soon as the moon is sighted, the national holiday is announced for the next day and the country goes into a holiday mood. Try doing that in the U.S. The next day children may have an exam; the doctor may have patients booked. . . . So what did we do? We’d pray that Eid fell on a weekend.
When I first came to the U.S. and there was only one Islamic Center—on Riverside Drive—I would call the center weeks before to confirm the date for Eid, and Khalid (my husband) would take the day off accordingly. I was pleased that this center was forward-looking and had fixed the date for Eid well ahead of time. But that did not last. No sooner did we get the Sunday school and mosque activity going than the leadership of the mosque announced that Eid day would be subject to moon sighting. I pleaded my case with one of the leaders.
“We should fix the day—the Islamic Center in Manhattan does that. How else can we take the day off? I cannot call my boss the morning of Eid and tell him that I won’t be in because it’s a religious holiday. He’ll say, ‘You are telling me now?’ Khalid has patients scheduled. He cannot not show up. Our children have school—they need to let their teachers know.”
He explained to me that if he fixes the day, and the moon is not sighted, the community would have missed a day of obligatory fasting. I argued: why not fix it for a day later so we fast an extra day to be on the safe side. He told me that if Eid is indeed a day early, and we are fasting on Eid, that would be a misdeed because only Satan fasts on Eid.
“Can’t we follow the findings of the observatory? They predict when the new moon will be visible.”
The new moon has to be seen with the naked eye, he said.
“When will we know if the moon has been sighted?” I asked.
He explained that it could be anytime from sundown on the East Coast to sundown on the West Coast, as the crescent has to be sighted anywhere on the landmass of the continental United States.
“But that could be as late as midnight in New York? And how will we be notified?” I asked.
He patiently explained that we should prepare to fast the next day, and if the moon is sighted, calls will go out to the community.
So we may get a call at midnight telling us that Eid is on for the next morning.
He was a learned man. I respected him and appreciated his patience. I was not well-read in theology and was relying on my sense of logic, which was getting me nowhere. I had no choice but to go along. Khalid was the only one who saw eye-to-eye with me—or at least, the only one who had the courage to express his position.
What am I going to say to my boss, my colleagues, and my children’s teacher? That maybe I will come in to work, or maybe I won’t, and I won’t know until the night before that I have a religious holiday the next day? As it is, people’s impression about Islam is colored by the “terrorism” lingo on TV. And I thought I could brighten the image of Islam. So much for that! What are my children going to think?
I argued in absentia.
I understand that they are going by the book and believe that deviating from what is ordained is a violation. But I don’t believe that our religion is so antiquated that it cannot be reinterpreted to make it relevant to the times. I don’t believe that God intended to make our religion archaic, rigid, and difficult so that it is rendered unpractical. The basic idea is to follow the lunar calendar; it doesn’t matter what tools we use to determine the new moon. In the days of the Prophet, the only tool was the naked eye. Now we have the observatory. The Qur’an states how to determine prayer times based on the length of the shadow and the shades of the sky. None of the mosque leaders walk outside every afternoon and measure the length of their shadow. They follow the prayer timetable based on predicted times, down to the last minute. How is that different from predicting when the crescent will be visible on the horizon?
And then one day, I lost my temper. It was the twenty-ninth of Ramadan. The moon had not been sighted. Midnight came and went. No word, so we followed protocol and got up the next morning at 4:00 a.m. to have suhoor and begin our fast. I had just finished suhoor when the phone rang. It was a friend of mine.
“Stop eating suhoor. The moon has been sighted. It’s Eid. See you at Eid prayers in the morning.”
“What!” I raised my voice. “You’re telling us now! At four in the morning! What kind of an organization are we running?”
“It wasn’t my decision.”
I had just shot the carrier pigeon, yet I couldn’t bring myself to apologize. After I hung up, I continued.
“You know why we have a problem?” I looked at Khalid. “It’s because no one speaks up. They just go along. It’s the absence of outrage. See how calmly she is calling everyone at four in the morning, telling them to switch gears, as if it is no big deal. Did no one ask the question, Why are we finding out at 4:00 a.m.?”
That morning, the mosque was full. People were coming in, smiling, calm, not looking bothered. I sat among them, battling my frustration. Am I the only one upset? After prayers, after the greeting and eating, I turned to a close friend of mine, more for validation, telling her how upset I was at the late notification.
She gave me a serene look, and said, “Why would that upset you?”
Maybe the problem is with me.
It got worse. I called my friend in New Jersey to wish her Eid Mubarak. This was her response: “Eid is tomorrow. Did you celebrate it today?”
By the end of the day, it had become apparent that Eid was being celebrated on two different days throughout the US.
It got worse. The following year, mosques in Manhattan celebrated Eid one day, and mosques in Brooklyn the other day. It’s the same moon, isn’t it?
It got worse. The year after, one mosque in Staten Island had Eid one day while the other mosque had it the next day. Same borough, same moon. Each mosque claimed that they had it right.
What do I say to my children? What do my children say to their friends?
And here is the bitter frosting on the Eid cake: At work, I took the day off for Eid. My secretary, also a Muslim, took the next day off for Eid. The third day, our colleagues asked, “Don’t you both have the same religion?”
I refuse to be embarrassed, but I hold our religious leaders responsible for causing embarrassment and for dividing the Muslim community. Aha! Doesn’t the Qur’an stress that the Muslim ummah should stay united? Where is that in the moon-sighting equation?
I wasn’t the only one fixated on fixing the moon date. Apparently, over the last two decades, some Muslims had undertaken a scientific experiment with the naval observatory, the hypothesis being whether the sighting of the crescent can be predicted based on astronomical calculations. Predictions were made, tested, and tracked over the years. The result: you bet! Several leading Muslim organizations in the U.S. announced they would recognize astronomical calculations for the new moon. Yeah! They have since been publishing the dates on their website months in advance. Khalid read me the news, and I raised my hands with an Alhamdulillah. A graduation for Muslims in America! Khalid and I now follow their calendar. Not all mosques or organizations embraced this principle, so today you will have half the people in New York City celebrating Eid one day, the other half on the other day. Alternate-side parking is suspended for three days, and the Empire State Building lights up for three days as well—a work-around.
It’s not quite over though. Last year, on the first day of Ramadan, I called my granddaughter Laila to say Ramadan Mubarak.
“I am fasting,” she proudly announced. I asked to speak to Saqib.
“How was your fast today?” I asked.
“I am not fasting.”
“Are you OK?” I presumed that my observant son was sick.
“I am OK. But my mosque said that Ramadan starts tomorrow.”
“Then why is Laila fasting today?”
Saqib tried to explain that Saadia, my daughter-in-law, had heard that Ramadan starts today and decided to fast. He didn’t know what her plan was; he didn’t tell her what his plan was; and so, there you have it.
“When you were missing at suhoor, didn’t anyone notice?”
More explanations. Saqib doesn’t wake up for suhoor because, like all surgeons, he has to be in the OR early in the morning. He came home late last night when everyone was sleeping and didn’t connect, and for some reason, each of them thought that they were both on the same moon.
“Saqib! You cannot allow this to happen. It’s bad enough that Muslims are divided across mosques, but for a family under one roof to be observing different dates is not acceptable. Think of your children. How do you explain it to them?”
“You’re right. I should have communicated better.”
It never happened again. But it did happen once. And once is one too many.
Eid a School Holiday in New York
I heard talk that the Muslim leaders—particularly the young ones—were lobbying for Eid to be a school holiday. Are they serious? How can the school system designate the Eid holiday when we can’t agree on setting a date?
On March 4, 2015, Mayor Bill DeBlasio announced that New York City schools would be closed for Eid. He even announced the date of school closure. Who had his staff consulted on setting the date? Who cares! Will this compel the mosques to set a date? Time will tell.