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Calculations for the start of Ramadan

by Bruno Van de Casteele

July 7, 2013

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Donate Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic Calendar, and it will start next week. It is generally observed as a month of fasting and spiritual reflection on one's sins. Observing Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars, and is considered obligatory (although a couple of exceptions for children, ill people, etc exist).

It is therefore quite important for a Muslim to start (and end) this month at the correct time. However, that is not that easy. The Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar, so the start date does not fall on the same date in the Gregorian Calendar. Furthermore, the beginning of each month depends in some regions on the actual observence of the lunar crescent.

I say in some regions, because there is not really a "standard" to be applied, and it more or less boils down on how the tradition is interpreted. For instance, this news story from the Arab Emirates refers to a Saoudian astronomer who has calculated that the new moon probably will be observed (from Makkah of course) on the 9th. Ramadan will then start the day after, on the 10th. However, as the article notes, the government from the Arab Emirates has the final say. I could not find any official source confirming that, but it seems settled, given the news stories, that it will be the 10th, but it all depends on having clear skies in Makkah.

However, other regions are probably not blessed that much by clear skies. Maybe therefore that the Fiqh Council of North America(FCNA)declares that, for North America, Ramadan will start on the 9th.
The Fiqh Council of North America recognizes astronomical 
calculation as an acceptable Shar’i method for determining
the beginning of Lunar months including the months of Ramadan
and Shawwal.

So here calculations differ with the previous method based on (supposed) calculations from Makkah. This probably makes it rather awkward as not all Muslims are observing Ramadan at the same time, let alone the difficulty for a travelling Muslim. (Note: travelling people can be exempt from observation of Ramadan.)

I'm assuming that the matter is still debated a lot. For instance the FCNA website has an entire (and very long) article explaining why calculations are ok. And when the French Muslim Council (CFCM) voted earlier this year to let Ramadan in France start based on calculated date, the news stories specifically mentioned "abandoning" the 1400-year old method. Reasons given include making it easier to plan, and observing the month together (at least in France). But it seems from the arguments brought forth that the matter is far from settled.

But overall, using a calculated date is an evolution that makes sense. It is probably a sign of our times that Muslims, too, need a more predictable way to know when their most holy month starts than just waiting for an observation under clear skies in a far away country. It reminds me a bit of the way Christians calculate Easter, based on a lunar cycle where the Full Moon is considered to be on the 14th day of the cyclus instead of the actual Full Moon. That one too is less based on "actual" events, and more based on a more convenient and predictable calculation.


by Bruno Van de Casteele

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