When Does Ramadan Begin?

Mosques and Islamic centers see increase in the number of visitors during Ramadan. File photo of Muslims praying at Makki Masjid in Brooklyn. (Photo by Mohsin Zaheer)

Mosques and Islamic centers see an increase in the number of visitors during Ramadan. File photo of Muslims at Makki Masjid in Brooklyn. (Photo by Mohsin Zaheer)

Editor’s update: There was no consensus. The majority of the American Muslim community began fasting on Sunday, June 29. However, the Turkish and some members of other communities such as Arab and South Asians who follow the scientifically derived Islamic calendar, started fasting a day earlier, on Saturday, June 28.
The new moon was not sighted anywhere in North America and the Middle East on Friday (June 27). For this reason, followers of local and global moon sighting in the U.S. started Ramadan on the same day.

Fatih Özyurt will start Ramadan, the holiest month on the Islamic calendar, on June 28 along with the other 100,000 or so members of the Turkish-American community in the U.S.

But Özyurt, an Edgewater, New Jersey-based media professional, is not sure if his fellow Muslims from other communities will start fasting on the same day.

Ramadan is the ninth month on the Islamic calendar, during which Muslims abstain from food, drink, smoking and sexual activity from dawn to sunset. Fasting is a religious obligation and one of the five pillars of Islam which Muslims consider as a way for self-purification and self-restraint. Muslims flock to mosques, share food with fellow Muslims and the needy, and give to charity during the month. The month ends with the feast of Eid al-Fitr.

Özyurt, an immigrant from Turkey, follows the Turkish Islamic lunar calendar, which is based on scientific calculation. Other Muslims in the New York area will start the holy month using another method – after the sighting of the new moon either in the U.S., in their countries of origin, or in Saudi Arabia. If the Ramadan moon is sighted in the U.S. tomorrow (June 27), then there may not be any major division within the community and fasting will start on June 28. But with three different religiously-sanctioned ways for dating the onset of the month – by scientific calculation of the new moon, local sighting of the crescent or its sighting in any part of the world – and all of them accepted, at least by their respective followers, confusion reigns.

In fact a Google search reports that Ramadan is beginning on Saturday, June 28 this year while Al Arabiya News is reporting it is “most likely” to begin on Sunday, June 29 in Saudi Arabia.

The differences over dating the onset of Ramadan appear to fight the spirit of the holy month, which suggests that the observant should leave their differences behind. The confusion is especially marked in New York City, which has a very diverse Muslim population and is home to about 175 mosques and Islamic centers. Here, all three methods of dating the beginning of Ramadan are followed, often with different communities following what their own do.

“Egyptians follow Egypt, and Saudis follow Saudi Arabia, Yemenis follow Yemen, Iraqis follow Iraq,” said Dr. Mohrez Al-Hussini, publisher of North Bergen, New Jersey-based Arabic-language weekly Al-Manassah Al Arabiya.

There is no fixed date for the advent of Ramadan because the lunar Islamic months have 29 or 30 days. “Muslims are ordained to start the holy month on the 30th day of Sha’ban [the month preceding Ramadan] even if, for any reason, the moon is not sighted anywhere,” said Shahzad Mustafa, an Islamic scholar and director of Bellerose Islamic Center in Queens.

“Every year this is the same problem. They [community leaders] cannot find a consensus date for the whole Muslim community,” Hussini said.

Abdul Wahid, a Brooklyn-based medical doctor, recalls that two Eid al-Fitr prayers were held on two different days within a distance of 10 blocks on Coney Island Avenue last year. “In many instances, Muslim families living in one apartment building in Brooklyn celebrated the Eid on different days,” he added.

Building Consensus 

Frustration over these divisions prompted Wahid, Mustafa and other individuals to start an effort to build a consensus by visiting many mosques in the New York area.

“After a yearlong effort, we were successful in convincing at least 15 mosques and Islamic centers in Brooklyn and Queens that are run mostly by the Pakistani community to start Ramadan on the basis of the global moon sighting,” said Wahid, who also runs a charity. Leaders of these mosques and Islamic centers made a formal announcement on June 19 in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, that they agreed to start Ramadan after the moon is sighted in any part of the world. “We plan to extend our effort to other states next year,” said Wahid.

Wahid and Mustafa agree that most of the believers in global moon sighting follow Saudi Arabia. But advocates of local moon sighting are plenty, especially within the South Asian community.

Qari Saifun Nabi, an imam at the Islamic center in Jersey City, run by the Muslim Federation of New Jersey, is one of the leading opponents of global moon sighting. While he agrees in principle with the method, he objects when the sighting may be in countries very far from North America.

“When the time difference reaches several hours then you will never have a perfect Islamic month. If you are in such a situation then you have to decide on local sighting,” he said. He is also unhappy with American Muslims following Saudi Arabia in determining the Islamic calendar.

“All these people are stuck in Saudi Arabia which does not have an accurate moon sighting system,” Nabi claimed and added, “These people [who follow the Saudi Arabian Islamic calendar] blackmail us in the name of Saudi Arabia [because of its being authentic] whereas Saudi Arabia’s own scholars have given Fatwas [Islamic ruling] that Muslims in other parts of the world should not necessarily follow their calendar.”

The Solution

Muslims breaking fast at the Bergen Diyanat Mosque and Cultural Center during Ramadan last year. (Photo by Cemil Özyurt)

Muslims breaking fast at the Bergen Diyanat Mosque and Cultural Center during Ramadan last year. (Photo by Cemil Özyurt)

The Bangladeshi community is also divided. Abu Taher, executive editor of the Bengali-language weekly Bangla Patrika, said New York-based Bangladeshis will start fasting both on June 28 and 29. Kowshik Ahmed, publisher of Weekly Bangalee, believes Bangladeshis are increasingly following the scientific calculation, which he feels is the best way to end the controversy.

Imam Shamsi Ali, chairman of the Al-Hikmah Mosque in Astoria, Queens, and the director of the Jamaica Muslim Center, also believes that scientific calculation is the best course. “It’s more in line with our era, more practical with our situation as a community in the States, and more possible to unite the community’s decision,” he said in response to an email query.

In New York City, reaching a consensus as to the starting date of Ramadan is all the more important because of the likelihood that the Eid holidays will soon be official holidays in the public schools. This year, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha (the feast after the Hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca) fall on already scheduled school breaks or over the weekend, notes DOE spokesman David Pena. But next year will be a different story.

So what’s the Department of Education to do? “The DOE should follow the calendar based on scientific calculation,” said Taher.

None of the religious scholars and journalists reached by Voices of NY is sure that the divisions can ever be bridged.

Ali said that from a religious standpoint the differences are understandable. “But socially it is an unfortunate reality that is not only confusing our non-Muslim friends but also our younger generation who do not know the nature of ikhtilaf, or differences in religious interpretations,” said Ali, who himself is Indonesian.

Fatih Özyurt points out that Muslims of all colors and creeds leave their differences behind after the advent of Ramadan in his neighborhood. “We have Pakistanis, Arabs, Iranians and members of many other communities contributing to the free meals we offer at the Bergen Mosque and Cultural Center [in Cliffside Park, New Jersey] throughout Ramadan,” he said, adding, “This is the true spirit of Ramadan which unfortunately is missing at its advent.”

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