Reconciling the divide in Muslim life over when the moon appears


(RNS) — Over the last two years, my family has shifted from one bustling mosque that we supported from its birth in rental spaces to another that is a better fit for us for several reasons, not least among them that it’s closer to our home. Let it be noted that our mosque attendance has always been spotty for reasons I’ve written about before, but our family’s fluidity between mosques has worked well.

Except for one hiccup. Whereas our former mosque determines the beginning of each month in Islam’s lunar calendar by moon sighting, the mosque we now tend to frequent follows the scientific calculation method. When a month begins with the appearance of the crescent moon determines when Ramadan and other important holy times start and end, and therefore when Muslims take days off from work for holidays, fast or begin observances. 

In 2006, the Islamic Society of North America decided to replace the ancient moon sighting method for its organization with the use of astronomical calculations to help provide a more reliable calendar, encouraging other mosques and organizations to consider doing the same. The move came after nearly 13 years of scientific research and consultation with various Islamic scholars, and over nearly two decades has been adopted by more and more mosques across North America.

But traditional moon sighting — seeing the crescent moon on the horizon — continues to also be respectfully preferred by other mosques, Islamic scholars and organizations, including the Central Hilal Committee of North America, which put out this plea last year to unite around moon sighting. The debate between those who believe moon sighting to be the correct Islamic method and those who have moved to adopt the calculations method has been unending. With the growth of social media, it has also become the source of nonstop good-humored jokes and memes.

This push-pull can cause stress in families like mine, which after being part of a moon sighting mosque for years is now split into camps. We want the entire family to be aligned in our observance of key Islamic days of worship and holidays, especially two of the holiest months of the Islamic year, Ramadan and Dhul Hijjah.

Dhul Hijjah is the month appointed for Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, and contains Eid al-Adha, the second major holiday observed by Muslims after Eid al-Fitr, which comes at the end of Ramadan.

The first 10 days of Dhul Hijjah, like the last 10 nights of Ramadan, are considered the holiest nights of the year. Both are times during which Muslims are taught that our worship and acts of charity are rewarded by God in multitude. On the ninth day of Dhul Hijjah, Yawm Al Arafah, Hajj pilgrims stand in worship on the plains of Arafah right before Eid al-Adha; that day is considered to be the heart of the Hajj. 

The problem is that the two methods sometimes end up with different dates for these crucial days. (Some years, calculations and moon sighting align, which itself is a cause for celebration.) If you go by the calculation method, Yawm Al Arafah falls this year on Saturday (June 15), with Eid al-Adha on Sunday. If you follow moon sighting, the ninth day of Dhul Hijjah is Sunday and Eid al-Adha is Monday.

How does one reconcile that?

You don’t have to, said Dawud Walid, a Detroit-area imam. 

“There are religious differences regarding ritual practices for Muslims on a day-to-day basis,” explained Walid. “People who maybe get overly concerned because of one or two days where there’s a difference, to me seems to overlook the daily differences that Muslims have, which aren’t made to be controversial.”

As an example, Walid pointed out that Muslims differ on where they place their hands on their chest in prayer, based on different ways the Prophet Muhammad placed his hands. They differ on the timing of the midafternoon Asr prayer. “These are noncontroversial issues,” he said. “ … Likewise, the moon sighting issue is a fiqh — a matter of Islamic jurisprudence. Unity does not equal uniformity.”

The tension over moon sighting or astronomical calculations, Walid said, is an emotional issue. “People tend to overly amplify issues when they go off of feelings,” he said, adding, “The more Islamically educated a person is, the less issue they (should) have with differences.” 

Walid said the controversy over when Dhul Hijjah begins and when Yawm al Arafat and Eid-al Adha are observed pales in comparison to the consternation when mosques begin fasting in Ramadan on different days, or celebrate Eid al-Fitr at the month’s end, having completed their fast. But what’s important, he said, is that we observe Ramadan in good faith. “We say this all the time here in Detroit: May Allah accept everyone’s fast, whether they’re fasting this day or the next day,” he said.

I find a lot of comfort and wisdom in Walid’s words. When I find myself getting tense and emotional when Ramadan or Dhul Hijjah comes around, wanting all of my family to align on when we start fasting or start our extra worship, I may need to embrace the idea that it’s OK for there to be differences, even within the walls of our home, as in our wide-ranging Muslim communities.

This year my husband, children and I plan to attend Eid prayers at our local mosque, which follows scientific calculations, while my father-in-law goes to the mosque that adheres to moon sighting. My husband has respectfully discussed the matter with his father, who supports his son’s and my decision to do what we felt best for ourselves and our children. When the time comes, we expect our kids to make their own decisions after careful research and consideration.

Dilshad Ali. (Courtesy photo)

Dilshad Ali. (Courtesy photo)

For now, we’ll be praying and observing Eid al-Adha on two different days, but there will always be Eid biryani for dinner, and it doesn’t matter which day we eat it.

(Dilshad D. Ali is a freelance journalist. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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