First light of Ramadan

Custom: Many Muslims in Pakistan rely on the ancient method of moon-sighting to determine the start of the Islamic holy month, sometimes with conflicting results.

War On Terrorism

The World

November 08, 2001|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan - Years of study and long hours hunched over his laptop computer have left Syed Shabir Ahmad Kakakhel with poor eyesight. But each year Pakistan puts its trust in his vision to spot the first sliver of the new moon marking the start of Ramadan.

It's a tough job in Pakistan, where the dates of the Islamic holy month can be a matter of bitter debate.

On the nights before Ramadan is expected to begin, families climb to their roofs hoping to see the new moon. Each new month in the Islamic calendar begins at sunset on the day when the moon's crescent can first be seen. Since no month has a fixed first day, Ramadan's beginning and end are ripe for conflict. In years of the worst disagreements, the entire country can be out of synch, with provinces and cities observing Ramadan one or two days earlier or later than the rest of the country.

Kakakhel's job is to help settle these discrepancies. An amateur astronomer, Kakakhel sits on a Pakistan government-sponsored moon-sighting committee charged with officially determining the days of Ramadan.

"We are trying to reduce the conflict," says Kakakhel, the technical adviser to the nine-member committee made up of religious scholars. "There are people who claim they have seen the new moon, but what they really see is an illusion."

Separating fact from fiction in moon sighting is of great importance, since 97 percent of Pakistan's population is Muslim. The holy month of Ramadan is a time for reflection and prayer, and for the world's 1 billion Muslims, the sighting of the moon signals the monthlong, dawn-to-dusk fast to celebrate God's delivery of the Quran, Islam's holy book, to the prophet Muhammad nearly 1,400 years ago.

In Pakistan, federal laws prohibit smoking, eating, drinking and watching movies during the daylight hours of Ramadan. Violators are punished with heavy fines and jail time. So the exact time of Ramadan's start generates huge interest among the population, which tunes into radio and television awaiting the announcement.

Pakistan's anticipation of Ramadan is heightened this year by the possibility that it will mean a pause or slowdown in the U.S.-led bombing campaign against Afghanistan. U.S. officials have warned that the bombing, and fighting on the ground, will continue.

Based on astronomical charts, the start of Ramadan is Nov. 17. But much of the Islamic world doesn't rely on modern scientific calculations, preferring ancient traditions of moon sighting.

In Egypt, the faithful go to Muqattam Hills - Cairo's highest point - to search the skies. In the United Arab Emirates, seven Islamic judges must verify the lunar sighting. In Saudi Arabia, the first two men to see the new moon are rewarded with finely woven cloaks and the equivalent of $250.

Because urban lights and pollution make sightings difficult in parts of the Muslim world, many countries verify the start of Ramadan by announcements from Saudi Arabia, the center of the Islamic world, Internet Web sites with lunar information or computer programs.

Verification required

In Pakistan, before Ramadan can officially begin, Kakakhel and the eight other members of the committee must verify that someone has sighted the new moon somewhere within the country. Witnesses who call into a moon-sighting hot line are put through rigorous questioning to confirm that they spotted the moon. Many observers often get confused and don't know how to look for the moon, Kakakhel claims.

To make life simple, the committee meets to look for the new moon. This year, the committee plans to gather on a rooftop in the outskirts of Peshawar, near the Afghan border.

As the only committee member with experience in astronomy, Kakakhel walks a tightrope between two worlds. On one side, he must obey the scientific world, which is governed by calculated tables that can tell him when the moon may be sighted. On the other side is the religious community, whose members often look with mistrust and scorn on his lunar tables, computer programs and telescopes.

A mechanical engineer by training, Kakakhel, 48, teaches at the College of Applied Sciences in Islamabad. As a graduate student in Germany, he began dabbling in designing lunar tables for his computer. He designed a system able to predict the precise location of the moon for any day of any year. He also wrote a book on moon sighting. So he is able to get by despite his bad eyesight, he says.

Kakakhel approaches the moon-sighting problem with a blend of the scientific and the religious. He argues that for Ramadan to be officially declared, there must be a scientific possibility that the new moon could be spotted. Then someone must really see the new moon, as religious scholars often demand. For instance, all the lunar tables might indicate that on the evening of Nov. 16, you should be able to see the first crescent of the new moon, but clouds or other foul weather could make the moon impossible to see. Thus, Ramadan could not be declared, Kakakhel explains.

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