When is Ramadan, and will Saudi Arabia get the date 'wrong' again?

When is Ramadan, and will Saudi Arabia get the date 'wrong' again?
Which day does Ramadan begin? The answer depends on who you ask.
3 min read
20 April, 2020
Muslims have often been divided over the dates of Ramadan and Eid [Getty]
The Muslim holy month of Ramadan is just days away, but the date it will fall on depends on who you ask.

Millions of Muslims around the world will rely on Saudi Arabia to announce the beginning of the fasting month, which is indicated by the appearance of the moon's new crescent. 

This is because the Islamic calendar, which dates back to the emigration of the first Muslims over 1,400 years ago, is based upon the movements of the moon.

But according to some amateur astronomers and Islamic scholars, Saudi Arabia is already set to get this year’s Ramadan date wrong – as it has allegedly done many times in the past.

This is due to such competing claims over when Ramadan begins and ends. Muslims in the UK have only achieved consensus on the dates for Ramadan and Eid twice in the last 35 years, according to the New Crescent Society (NCS), a group dedicated to reviving the Islamic tradition of celestial observation.

This year, 'moon wars' are alive and underway within Muslim communities, with many wondering about the true start date for Ramadan. 

Two Ramadans, two Eids?

According to Imad Ahmed of the NCS, Saudi Arabia's calculation-based calendar system is at the heart of why their Ramadan announcements are disputed.

"Saudi Arabia only uses moon sightings for the four religious months of the Muslim calender. For the rest of the year, the Saudi Umm al-Qura calendar is based on calculations, but that often means that their calendar is one day ahead of those based on physical sightings of the moon," Imad explains.

He cites a statement from the now-defunct website of the Umm al-Qura calendar, which said: "The Umm al-Qura calendar is both the formal and civil calendar of the  Kingdom, but it may not match the actual visibility of the crescent which is necessary to start the religious months."

So what exactly does this mean for the beginning of Ramadan this year?

"I expect that Saudi Arabia will carry out its Ramadan moon sighting on Thursday, which in itself concedes that they started the month of Shaaban - the month that precedes Ramadan - a day too early," Imad says.

"In a way, they will be forced to say they will have sighted the moon on Thursday - even though the moon will be scientifically impossible to see - because if they don't, it will mean that the month of Shaaban will be 31 days, which it can't be. This would be hugely embarrassing for them," he adds.

Despite forecasting two different start dates for Ramadan, Imad is more optimistic about the Eid al-Fitr, saying it will be "one of those lucky years" when there is no disagreement about the celebratory feast.

'New' Saudi mooonsighting system

Last year, Saudi Arabia announced it would be adopting a new system for spotting the Ramadan and Shawwal crescents, using the Mecca clock tower as an observation point.

"As of next Ramadan, the new clock tower in Mecca will be an Islamic observatory for citizens, through which we will be able to spot the Ramadan, Shawwal and other months crescents, as it will have a collection of advanced telescopes," Yaseen Maliki, supervisor of Chair of King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz was quoted Al-Bayan as saying.

Read also: Ramadan, Eid prayers to be done from home to prevent coronavirus spread: Saudi Grand Mufti

"It will contribute with global space agencies and will be the first observatory of the Islamic world. the tower will be monitoring next year both the Ramadan and Shawwal moons, making it the first integrated observatory launched by Makkah," he added.

The announcement came amid yet another controversy over the true date of Eid Al-Fitr, which was celebrated by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE on 4 June, whereas Egypt, but on 5 June by Syria, Jordan and many others.

Due to current coronavirus pandemic restrictions, however, it is unclear whether Saudi Arabia will go ahead with opening the observatory as planned.

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