As Baltimore-area Muslims prepared this week for the monthlong fast of Ramadan, there was some uncertainty about when -- precisely -- it would begin.
"You go out and look for the new moon," explained Usman Khwaja, secretary of the Islamic Society of Baltimore, which numbers almost 500 families in its membership. "If you see it, there is no dispute."
Some local Muslim groups expected the first appearance of the moon tonight. Others believed it would be sighted tomorrow. Committees have been appointed by Maryland's mosques to go to rural areas on both nights to watch for the moon.
But Muslims all agree that the Ramadan fast, which is roughly equivalent to the Yom Kippur period of atonement for Jews and the Lenten fast for Christians, must begin at daybreak on the morning following this weekend's new moon.
If weather conditions prevent a sighting, the results of official moon-watching in other areas of the country will be checked through such central coordinating agencies as the Islamic Society of North America in Chicago.
"We go by the Naval Observatory in Washington," said Mubasher Ahmad, who is director of the center of the Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam on Garrison Boulevard. He anticipated that the month of fasting would start at dawn tomorrow, after a lunar sighting tonight.
Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim year, marks the time when the Koran, the holy book of Islam, was handed down for the people's guidance. Muslims believe the dawn-to-dusk abstention from food, drink and sexual intercourse is binding on adults physically able to endure it.
The nights of Ramadan can be a time of social activities. Celebration of the breaking of the fast will begin with the sighting of next month'snew moon.
As Baltimore adherents of Islam discussed Ramadan, a worldwide outward expression of their faith, many criticized the suppression of such public expressions of Jewish and Christian worship in Saudi Arabia since allied troops were stationed there.
"In my understanding of Islam, it has a very open attitude toward other religions, and to interfere with the freedom to practice them is contrary to Islamic law," said Mr. Ahmad, the Ahmadiyya Movement leader.
"Infringing on religious liberty is a narrow-minded, fundamentalist attitude, and it is not a reflection of the true religion of Islam," he added.
John Cason, a member of one of Baltimore's largest Muslim congregations, the Masjid-Ul-Haqq on Wilson Street, agreed.
"The prophet Mohammed allowed Christians and Jews to live in peace," Mr. Cason said.
Commented Imam William Shahid, the elected religious leader of the Wilson Street congregation, "Our prophet used to allow Christians to pray in the mosque. He is our example. Christians and Jews must be protected, must be allowed to practice their religion."
The opinions were in accord with the National Council on Islamic Affairs in New York, which issued a statement this week saying Saudi Arabia violated both Islamic principles and Arab hospitality by discouraging the open practice of religion by Jewish and Christian members of the armed forces.
The council said sensitivity to the wishes of King Fahd led to the orders to military chaplains of the United States not to wear religious insignia in Saudi Arabia and not to hold worship services in public.
"You cannot invite a person and ask him to keep his religion outside or not to exercise it," the Islamic council said.