New Crescent Society: Meet the Muslim 'moon family' searching Britain's skies for unity

Christopher Downie, a national coordinator for the New Crescent Society
8 min read
28 June, 2023

"We call it the Northala moon family," says Christopher Downie, 40, a national coordinator for British Muslim moon-sighting group the New Crescent Society.

"For me, that explains it itself, doesn't it? We are kind of like a little family," he adds at Northala Fields, a park in west London where people gather monthly to search the skies. It has been raining and Christopher is one of three sighters who came along.

Christopher, who converted to Islam in 2007 and first got involved with the New Crescent Society in 2019, is speaking with The New Arab on top of a large hill in the park. It offers a perfect vantage point from which to spot the moon, provided it's visible, and discover when the new Islamic month begins.

Christopher recounts attending an event at Northala Fields where New Crescent Society founder and director Imad Ahmed taught people how to moon-sight. The group, which works with the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, seeks to revive the practice and bring about a unified Islamic calendar in the British Isles.

Moon man: Christopher Downie at Northala Fields on 18 June 2023. [Photo credit: Nick McAlpin/The New Arab]
Moon man: Christopher Downie at Northala Fields on 18 June 2023. [Photo credit: Nick McAlpin/The New Arab]

"I came along and I was just hooked immediately. I think I was on the team like within the end of the month. I joined and, yeah, I just loved it," says Christopher, who has now been to around 50 sightings.

'A doing religion'

Asked why moon sighting is important, he compares it to other aspects of the Islamic faith. "My Quran teacher… just a few months ago, he said that our religion is like a doing religion. I thought it was really interesting. When we pray… it's like an actual action. We stand up. We bow down. And then we go into sujud [prostration] on the floor. We give charity. We go to Hajj," Christopher adds, referring to the compulsory pilgrimage to Mecca.

On 18 June, the day The New Arab interviewed him, sighters were out across the country looking for the new crescent moon that would usher in the start of Dhul Hijjah, the last month in the Islamic year. Like all months, the outgoing Dhul Qadah would have 29 days if the moon was seen and 30 if not.

Had the moon been spotted anywhere in the British Isles, 1 Dhul Hijjah would have occurred on 19 June. It wasn't, so the first day of the new Islamic month took place on 20 June, according to the New Crescent Society's calendar.

It means the 10th day of Dhul Hijjah – the beginning of Eid Al-Adha – falls on Thursday. Eid Al-Adha is one of two religious holidays celebrated by all Muslims and it coincides with Hajj.

Impossible to see

But the scientific data indicated ahead of time that the moon would be impossible to see on 18 June. So, why were sighters out after sunset looking anyway – as they do on the 29th of every Islamic month?

"Firstly and foremost, it is the sunnah [practice of Prophet Mohammed] to look on the 29th. This calendar runs with or without data," Imad, the New Crescent Society founder, tells The New Arab by video call.

"Over the years, it [has] helped us verify the data as well. The data said no and our experience of it was no."

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Imad, who is studying for a PhD in theology at the University of Cambridge, adds the Islamic calendar is based on human declaration, even if the moon is not seen.

"[When] we have seen the moon – we testify we've seen the moon. The [new] month begins," he says. "But equally, [when] we have not seen the moon… due to our declaration of not seeing the moon, the [outgoing] month will now have 30 days."

Looking for the moon every Islamic month also helps dispel any false sightings.


"There's a kind of drama around Ramadan. You see the moon – you fast. You see the moon – the fast comes to a close."

While the New Crescent Society always has sighters out on the 29th, numbers vary – from around 40 or 50 people across the country to thousands. Only three people were at Northala Fields earlier in June but the same location drew dozens at the end of Ramadan in April.

The moon sightings at the beginning and end of Ramadan determine when believers start and stop their month of fasting and when Eid Al-Fitr, the other universally celebrated Muslim holiday, takes place.

"Even for Eid Al-Adha, there's a 10-day gap. There's a kind of drama around Ramadan," says Imad. "You see the moon – you fast. You see the moon – the fast comes to a close. I think, for those reasons, in the psychological landscape of Muslims, it's very, very special."

Moon wars

"When Muslim migrants came to the UK, I have seen historical records of them attempting to sight the moon. And they said it was too cloudy, so they weren't able to sight the moon like they were in their home countries"

The New Crescent Society, whose monthly moon-sighting data stretches back to September 2017, is on a mission to bring British Muslims together around a unified calendar. If successful, the group would end the so-called "moon wars" over Ramadan and the two Eids.

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Simply put, moon sighting has long been thought impossible in the UK and so people have turned to various methods of organising the Islamic calendar. This has left family members marking religious observances on different dates and – more worryingly – Imad says he's seen videos of physical altercations in mosques.

"When Muslim migrants came to the UK, I have seen historical records of them attempting to sight the moon. And they said it was too cloudy, so they weren't able to sight the moon like they were in their home countries. And so they started to look for alternative methods," says Imad, who explains the different positions tend to arrive at one of two separate dates.

Imad acknowledges it can sometimes be cloudy but says with a good spread of people across the country and the ability to communicate, a functional calendar based on domestic sightings of the moon is possible.

Moon-sighting photo Azhara Miller [Safiya Dinas]
Here's how: Moon-sighter Azhara Miller teaches children to spot the moon on 21 February 2023. [Photo credit: Safiya Dinas]

Currently, the two most widespread methods of organising the calendar are adopting the dates in use in Saudi Arabia, home to Islam's two holiest sites, and following Morocco, the nearest Muslim country to Britain. Saudi authorities, however, have been accused of announcing moon sightings that are scientifically impossible.

Mosques following Morocco will start Eid Al-Adha on the same day indicated by the New Crescent Society's local calendar. Those following Saudi Arabia began a day earlier – on Wednesday.

'Most traditional solution'

"What I think is exciting is our solution is a new solution to the UK. But it's the most traditional solution. It's the oldest solution too," says Imad, whose group livestreams its sightings each month.

The ethos of unity means the New Crescent Society requires the moon to be seen with the naked eye for it to count, since this means of sighting is acceptable to all. Tools such as telescopes may be used as aids but not to claim a valid sighting.

This policy also ensures wider accessibility. "When you move into using telescopes, it actually removes this calendar from the hands of the community to the hands of those who are skilled in using this type of equipment," says Imad. "So, I don't promote it heavily. I always say you just need your eyes."

'It's beautiful'

For those who do get the chance to see the moon, it can prove a moving experience – including for children.

Primary school teacher Azhara Miller is the director of after-school club and tuition centre Evergreeny in Sheffield, a city in northern England. She collaborates with the New Crescent Society.

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Azhara fondly recalls teaching children how to sight the moon and then watching them as they saw it for the first time. "Literally, they [are] all screaming, 'I see it. I see [it],' and all fingers pointing. It's beautiful. That feeling of me watching them was a memorable day and never to forget," she says.

"The next time you see them, you ask them, 'Have you ever seen the moon?' and… still the excitement of the thought of them seeing the moon for the first time is still in their eyes. Subhanallah [Glory be to God]. It's beautiful."

Moon sighters are highly passionate about what they do and the activity forges strong bonds between people. The New Crescent Society attracts large numbers of women and the full diversity of the Muslim community across ethnic background and sect.

"I'm thinking if we can achieve unity with the moon sighting, I mean, how amazing would that be?"

'It's bringing people together'

"I didn't know Azhara before we started moon-sighting," says Karen Hall, 54, a New Crescent Society national coordinator who sights in the northern English cities of Leeds and Bradford.

"We've never met face to face. We hope to, inshallah [God willing], but as of yet not. But I feel like we've known each other for years."

Karen, who became a Muslim two decades ago, has also connected with other sighters locally and further afield.

"It's bringing people together. And I'm thinking if we can achieve unity with the moon sighting, I mean, how amazing would that be?" she says.

Featured image: New Crescent Society national coordinator Christopher Downie at Northala Fields in London on 18 June 2023. [Photo credit: Nick McAlpin/The New Arab]

Nick McAlpin is a journalist who has worked at The New Arab since March 2021. He holds a master's degree in social anthropology and a BA in French and Arabic. He lived in Jordan for a year during his undergraduate studies. Nick started his journalism career as a freelancer in 2019.

Follow him on Twitter: @NickGMcAlpin