As a child, I have fond memories of making my way to Karachi's rooftops and hunting for a new, barely-there crescent in the sky. Sighting the crescent meant Ramadan would start the next morning.
This beautiful tradition of moon-sighting has been carried on for over 1,400 years in the Muslim faith, and is rooted in a hadith (a saying) in which Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) directed the faithful to view a new moon to mark the beginning and end of Ramadan.
However endearing, it is time for the American Muslim community to phase out moon-sighting and replace it with astronomical calculations as a standard to determine the annual Ramadan schedule (quick note: the Islamic calendar marks each new month with the advent of a new moon and is 11 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar).
It is embarrassing to see, every year, a segment of the Muslim community start fasting on one day while the rest start a day later. I remember one year being particularly worse. There were three Ramadan start dates in one local Muslim community, which comprised a geographical span of no more than a few hundred miles. One group complied with calculations, another group followed Saudi Arabia, and the third followed what, I haven't a clue.
With multiple start dates, we as Muslims neither feel nor appear united. Plus, the confusion -- actually the unwillingness -- of Muslims and our leadership to begin Ramadan and celebrate Eid on a single day across the nation contributes to frustration and discord in the community at one of the holiest times of the year.
On top of that, we are never quite sure how to explain to fellow Americans, a vast majority of whom have only some understanding of Islam, why we have two Eids at the end of Ramadan. That's akin to celebrating two Christmases.
The debate over moon-sighting vs. calculation adherence is futile and unnecessary. It's not as if our faith deems science as ungodly. The Quran is filled with verses urging the faithful to study, observe and apply knowledge for the betterment of humanity. For instance:
"It is He who made the sun to be a shining glory and the moon to be a light (of beauty), and measured out stages for her; that ye might know the number of years and the count (of time). Nowise did Allah create this but in truth and righteousness. (Thus) doth He explain His signs in detail, for those who understand." (10:5)
In other religious routines, Muslims embrace science without a hitch -- we consult our instruments to help us pray on time, we consult our compasses to determine the direction of Ka'bah, and we use arithmetic to compute the annual zakat (alms-giving). But when it comes to wholesale acceptance of astronomical calculations, a significant segment of mosques and Muslims in the U.S. recoil.
This segment neglects the fact that astronomical computations, among other benefits, ensure the Muslim community properly takes time off for Eid, and for congregations to be able to organize Eid prayers effectively for the masses. Can any American mosque afford the "wait and see" approach to make Eid prayer arrangements the night before for several thousand of its worshippers?
Now, I understand all ethnic and religious communities harbor some level of disorganization. My community is known for it. But the split over calculations doesn't make sense, religiously or otherwise. Indeed, it's a Muslim problem, not an Islamic problem.
The Prophet was a forward-thinking man of his time, and he fully embraced the nature of the Islamic faith, which possesses an amazing ability to adapt to age and time without compromising on principles. If he were alive today, I don't believe he would direct Muslims to make our lives unnecessarily burdensome by forgoing calculations in favor of moon-sighting.
The Muslim community, if united more on such core religious matters, would be better able to spend its limited resources tackling a plethora of key issues -- fighting worrisome hate speech aimed at our faith, building stronger ties with other communities particularly the black community, expanding efforts to fight homelessness in our neighborhoods, and guiding our nation through the issue of immigration reform.
France's Muslim heads earlier this year decided to adopt calculations as a standard to determine Ramadan dates. That's real leadership.
American Muslims ought to give heed.
As for moon-sighting, let's aim to preserve this beautiful tradition for future generations, but in an unofficial capacity.