The case of the missing moon
Syed Badrul Ahsan writes for DOT
The moon was espied in West Bengal. It was seen in Assam. It was located in Tripura. But in Bangladesh, said the venerable members of the National Moon Sighting Committee, there was precious little sign of the moon. And, therefore, there could be no Eid-ul-Fitr the next day. That was an awkward situation. All around the world, Muslims were already celebrating Eid. And other Muslims in other countries were preparing to do so the next day. But since the Almighty had decided that the lunar body would not be visible over Bangladesh, it was taken for granted that Bangladesh’s Muslims would observe Eid after all other Muslims in all other parts of the globe had done so.
For those of us who were children in the 1960s, there are memories of how Eid-ul-Fitr sometimes ran into unforeseen difficulties, often dampening the ardour consequent upon the end of Ramadan among followers of the Islamic faith and, additionally, leading to a bit of irritation among housewives who could not understand why the moon was delaying its appearance. Those were the days when a state called Pakistan comprised two wings separated by a thousand miles. At the end of a particular season of Ramadan, religious scholars went busily into the task of peering into the twilight sky for a sign of the moon, or properly crescent, because the Eid celebrations were dependent on its appearance. It mattered little that it also happened to be an era when the Americans and the Soviets were frantically engaged in a race to have their astronauts and their cosmonauts, in that order, beat one another to the moon. For the Muslim population of Pakistan, in that season of a nationwide search for the Eid moon, perspectives were different, naturally.
On that particular evening, the new crescent was conspicuous by its absence. Children went to bed morose, for all their preparations for Eid the next day were being thwarted by the absent moon. Their parents cleverly concealed their disappointment at having to observe a thirtieth day of fasting, though one could feel the sentiments which they were trying to suppress. Everyone went to bed, certain that they would need to have another sehri a few hours later. But then happened a miracle. At thirty minutes past two in the night, a radio announcement roused everyone to happy frenzy. Eid, after all, would indeed be celebrated the next day. How did that happen? Somewhere in East Pakistan, said Radio Pakistan, the Eid moon had been sighted. And so it was that we whooped for joy and planned on what we would eat the next day, how much Eidee we would collect from visitors and what we would buy with all that money.
But, of course, that was an era when science or technology quite did not come into this interplay of the moon and our religious aspirations. Things are different in these digital times, when it is pretty easy for scientists, for organizations like the Space Research and Remote Sensing Organisation (SPARRSO) in Bangladesh to calculate the appearance of the moon mathematically or indeed to inform people that it has already made its advent in the sky. That leads us to another thought, which is that with science having made such deep inroads in our lives, how wise is it to have such a body as the National Moon Sighting Committee, certainly not in tune with the times, take upon itself the responsibility of informing us if the moon is there in the sky or is yet to make an appearance? Such committees are redundant and perhaps it is time for a wholesale review of the system related to sightings of the moon on religious occasions. It is something of an absurdity to have men trying to spot the moon and failing to discover it when the lunar orb has already been detected in other countries. Science is certainly the answer to modern problems, here on Earth as well as in the heavens. It stands to reason, therefore, that we in Bangladesh should rethink our moon-related priorities particularly when the question is one of a celebration of Eid.
There is then the larger picture which ought to be given consideration. The Islamic world, wedded as it is to the principles enunciated by the Prophet of Islam and emphasizing the unity of Muslims all over the world, owes it to itself to fashion a uniform code of conduct on such crucial issues as a sighting of the moon. The simple truth is that a new moon simply cannot appear in a multiplicity of places on a multiplicity of days. The moon which appears in the skies over Iran today will not appear in a new form in the skies over Bangladesh tomorrow. It makes sense, therefore, to argue that the leaders of Muslim or Muslim-majority nations ought to devise the means through which the Ramadan season begins, followed by a celebration of Eid-ul-Fitr, all on the same day and simultaneously all across the Islamic world or wherever Muslims happen to be.
‘The moon is faithful to its nature’, says Deng Ming-Dao, ‘and its power is never diminished.’
Wherefore, then, should we presume that the moon will not make its appearance in our skies when we expect it to?
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a columnist and biographer.