Every year, the fasting month of Ramadan presents the Muslims around the world with the question of when it exactly starts and ends. Most Muslims believe that these two dates must be determined by the visibility of the new crescent by the naked eye. This view is based a Qur’anic verse (2.185) that is understood as instructing the Muslim to fast the month when he/she sees the new crescent. There is also a saying attributed to the Prophet that states something similar: “Fast when you see it and end your fast when you see it.”
An increasing number of Muslims have been arguing that optical aid, such as binoculars and telescopes, should be allowed to use. Some have even argued in favour of replacing the visibility of the new crescent with the time of birth, which can be precisely calculated and which does not depend on weather conditions or human factors. This debate is bound to continue for a long time to come.
Relying on the human eye has, unsurprisingly, led Muslims in different countries to start and end Ramadan on different dates. In most cases, the difference is one day, but it can at times be two. This difference is not a serious issue, as it is not a requirement of observing Ramadan that all Muslims should start or end it on the same date.
I can also understand, although not necessarily agree with, the viewpoint of those who insist that the visibility of the crescent must be established by people, whether by the naked eye or using optical aid, as opposed to using calculations. However, I completely reject neglecting science in determining whether the new crescent can be seen at all. Ramadan of this year is a case in point.
Most Islamic countries started Ramadan on Friday 20th/July on the basis of sightings of the new crescent at sunset on Thursday 19th/July. These sighting were accepted by religious courts as a result of usually at least two “credible” witnesses testifying that they saw the new crescent. Yet the human eye can be tricked by psychological and atmospheric factors into thinking it saw the new crescent, rendering the credibility and trustworthiness of the person rather irrelevant. Indeed, the new moon was impossible to see in all those countries on Thursday. This is an established fact that every astronomer would agree with. Yet religious authorities have consistently, year after year, admitted testimonies that are clearly wrong.
There are two reasons for this attitude. First, religious authorities like power and control. By following the traditional system of determining when Ramadan starts and ends, these clerics have firmly maintained control of this decision. Science is a threat to their power and authority. This attitude is not driven by keenness to preserve an intrinsic practice of Islam, but the need to keep control of a powerful symbol of status and authority.
Second, there is real apprehension, or even fear, and distrust of science. It is seen as a threat to religion and its practices. Changing how things used to be done in the past, even on the basis of new knowledge, is considered to be inherently dangerous. This is a simple decision of preferring ignorance to knowledge.
A lot of the arrested development of the Muslim world must be attributed to the abuse of position and authority that privileged clerics have exercised for centuries. This abuse is often supported and encouraged by corrupt rulers who employ those clerics to maintain control over the people. Hostility to knowledge and science and presenting centuries-long practices as immutable are seen as necessary to achieve this goal.
However, the continued democratization of Muslim countries will change the position of the religious and political authorities and lead to the inevitable end of their corrupt partnership against the people. Then Muslims will finally, among other things, start and end the fasting of Ramadan to the sighting of a truly visible lunar crescent.