Moon-Sighting at Ramadan

Moon-Sighting at Ramadan

The Islamic calendar is lunar-based, with each month coinciding with the phases of the moon and lasting either 29 or 30 days. Traditionally, one marks the beginning of an Islamic month by looking at the night sky and visibly sighting the slight crescent moon (hilal) that marks the beginning of the next month. This is the method which is mentioned in the Quran and was followed by the Prophet Muhammad.

When it comes to Ramadan, Muslims like to be able to plan ahead, though. Waiting until the evening before, to find out if the next day is the start of Ramadan (or Eid Al-Fitr), requires one to wait up until the last minute. In certain weather or locations, it may even be impossible to visibly sight the crescent moon, forcing people to rely upon other methods. Then the debate begins, around these questions:

  • What if people in one area sight the moon, but those in another area don't? Is it okay for them to start and end the fast on different days?
  • Should we follow the moon-sighting in Saudi Arabia (or any other area of the world), or should we sight it ourselves in our local community?
  • What if our location is overcast and cloudy, and the moon is not visible to us?
  • Why do we even bother looking for the moon, when we can astronomically calculate when the new moon is born, and thus when the crescent should be visible? That eliminates human error, right?

    Although these questions come up for every Islamic month, the debate takes on more urgency and significance when it comes time to calculate the beginning and end of the month of Ramadan. Sometimes within a single community or even family, people have various feelings about it all.

    Over the years, various scholars and communities have answered this question in different ways, each with support for their position.

    • The first prevailing opinion is that one should commit to a local moon-sighting, i.e. begin and end Ramadan based on the sighting of the moon in your local vicinity. Astronomical calculations can help us predict when the moon *should* be visible, but many Muslims still prefer to follow the traditional method of looking at the sky themselves to physically "sight" the moon.
    • Another prevailing opinion is that with the technology we have at our disposal, one should calculate when the new moon is going to be born, and base the calendar on that. The advantage is that lunar phases can be measured quite precisely, making it easier to plan ahead and ensuring no mistakes. However, many people feel that this method completely ignores the words of the Quran and over a thousand years of tradition.