Mosques Update Approach to Ramadan Planning

After centuries of relying on actual sightings of the moon to determine the start of Ramadan, many mosques in the United States are switching to a more scientific method, relying on astronomical calculations to determine the advent of the new moon. Many Muslims say the move will remove some of the uncertainty in planning for their holy month celebrations.

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Ramadan begins this weekend. A time of fasting and reflection for Muslims. Historically, Ramadan is determined through moon sightings that mark the beginning and end of the fasting month. But this system is often unreliable and unpredictable. Now after much debate, an influential Muslim organization in the U.S. has decided to scrap the moon sightings altogether.

NPR's Rachel Martin has the story.

RACHEL MARTIN: The Monraj(ph) family functions like a machine. It's a household of three teenagers and two busy parents. So the days are a well honed balance of board meetings, football games, school clubs and carpools. But at the end of the day everyone convenes back at home where 43-year-old Jameelah Monraj(ph) has dinner waiting for her family.

(Soundbite of door closing)

Mrs. JAMEELAH MONRAJ: Can you open the microwave please?

MARTIN: Tonight, tandoori chicken and rice.

Unidentified Man: You want this on a plate?

Ms. MONRAJ: Yes, please.

MARTIN: Dinner is promptly at 6:00 p.m., and everyone always sits at the same place at the dining room table. It may sound routine, but like many families navigating hectic schedules, Abdul Monraj(ph) says structure has become a family value.

Mr. ABDUL MONRAJ: We are very organized.

Mrs. MONRAJ: Our family is very organized.

Mr. MONRAJ: So we like to plan things ahead. Now there are some people who thrive on chaos, but this family isn't one of them.

MARTIN: But the one thing that throws the Monraj family off track is Ramadan. Every year as the holy month approaches, Muslims wait for word that the new moon has been sighted and confirmed by Islamic scholars, which means Ramadan and fasting begin the very next day. Because Islamic tradition says the new moon must be seen with a naked eye. Even a cloudy day can throw things off.

There's equal amounts of confusion at the end of the month when another sighting determines the eid(ph) celebration. Jameelah Monraj says it's impossible to schedule vacations, days off of work or even the holiday celebrations themselves.

Mrs. MONRAJ: For instance, if you wanted to have a eid party, it was so hard because you didn't know if your guest are coming the next day or the day after. So sometimes you would cook and you would have to pre-cook and you wanted your food to be fresh and it was no longer fresh.

MARTIN: There are other complaints too. Imams say they never know when to rent event halls for prayer services. And because mosques can use local or international moon sightings, the eid celebration can take place on different days in different cities.

Now after decades of debate, the Fiqh Council of North America announced last month that it would no longer rely on the sightings. Instead, modern astronomical calculations will determine the start and finish of Ramadan.

Musem el-Sadiki(ph) of the Fiqh Council explains how the new moon gives rise to the lunar shape that has long symbolized Islam.

Mr. MUSEM EL-SADIKI (Fiqh Council of North America): After that, earth moves a little and moon moves a little and the sharp edge of the moon is shown and that's called crescent. And in Islamic terminology, that is the beginning of the month.

MARTIN: Under the new system if the new moon takes place before noon Greenwich Mean Time, the next day is the first day of Ramadan. But not all mosques are going to make the switch. Irfan Kabiruddin is the imam at the Islamic Society of Baltimore. He says just because life has gotten more complicated, doesn't mean Muslims should start reinterpreting Islamic tradition.

Imam IRFAN KABIRUDDIN (Islamic Society of Baltimore): If something has taken place for 1,400 years throughout the world and people have done it, you know, to say that it's easier now and we have all these difficulties now. I don't think that's a real legit excuse.

MARTIN: But for others, like Abdul Monraj, the change has been a long time coming. He says the traditionalists like Kabiruddin are mired in old rituals that don't resonate with the modern world or a modern Islam.

Mr. MONRAJ: During the seventh century, they would measure shadows. You know, they length of a shadow was the midday prayer. Well, nobody measures shadows these days for prayer. They want to go out and sight the moon even though there are so many factors that could result in false sightings. Now I'm not saying that we have to reject all of these traditions but a lot of them don't make any sense at all.

MARTIN: According to the Fiqh Council of North America, there are several Muslim countries that already use calculations instead of moon sightings to determine Ramadan - Turkey, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, to name a few. As for the Monraj family in Virginia, they're basking the liberation that comes with knowing exactly when Ramadan will be. They scheduled parties, the kids have notified their teachers, and September 23rd, the start of this year's Ramadan, has been marked on the kitchen calendar for weeks.

Rachel Martin, NPR News, Washington.

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