Moon sightings ahead of Eid in the Muslim world influenced by politics

As Muslims, we ask the same question before every Eid celebration: “Are Islamic countries going to be able to celebrate Eid on the same day this year?” Every Eid, there are some sort of disputes, disagreements concerning the sighting of the moon due to the criteria taken as a basis. Eid al-Fitr, the celebration marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan, which we observed Tuesday, was another occasion wherein unity could not be forged between countries. This was perhaps the “most paradoxic” Eid in terms of the form and commonness of disputes:

West Africa’s Mali announced that the moon of Shawwal, the tenth month of the lunar-based Islamic calendar, marking the start of Eid, was sighted Sunday, hence Eid would be celebrated Monday, June 3. Malian Muslims thus performed their Eid prayer and ate breakfast while their brethren in other regions of the Muslim world were still fasting.

Turkey, Algeria, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and the Muslims living in the Balkans and North America observed their last fast on Monday and celebrated Eid on Tuesday morning, June 4.

For Morocco, Egypt, Iran, Oman, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, Eid started Wednesday, June 5.

On the surface, it might seem as though countries’ geographic position is effective on the day they started Eid. Yet this is not the case. For example, there is a two-day difference between Morocco and Mali, which are on the same longitude. While the Arabian peninsula celebrated Eid on Tuesday, Egypt and Iran, which are on separate sides of the peninsula, celebrated it on the same day. In the Gulf, Oman chose to celebrate on a different day than its neighbors. Meanwhile, of Central Asian republics, Turkmenistan took a different lead. This was not all. The “Eid timing” in six countries included more interesting nuances:

Sunnis in Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon celebrated Eid on Tuesday, June 4, while the Shiites in Iran celebrated Wednesday, June 5. The start of the month of Ramadan similarly differed. The Eid of minor Sunni groups taking Iran’s side for political purposes was also on Wednesday. While Eid was celebrated Wednesday, June 5 in regime-controlled areas in Syria, the opposition declared it on Tuesday, June 4, in areas under their control. Palestine and Jordan, which traditionally act in accordance with Saudi Arabia, very surprisingly chose to celebrate Eid on Wednesday, June 5, this year. The Muslims in these countries were so used to acting jointly with the other Sunni Arab countries that the Eid day decision of religious committees even led to minor protests. The biggest struggle concerning Eid occurred in Libya, which is still living under the impacts of the civil war. The mufti office in Libya first announced that Eid would be celebrated Wednesday, June 5, then on Tuesday morning, it published a statement on Facebook at the time of morning prayer saying, “It is Eid today, break your fast and go perform your Eid prayers.”

The religious background of the matter and Islamic jurisprudence behind different preferences aside, even the complicated picture above alone shows how greatly the Eid decisions in the Islamic world are impacted by political balances. “Sighting the crescent” is actually interpreted as “monopolizing the authority to make a decision on a religious matter through the moon” – with the exclusion of a few countries like Turkey trying to abide by the “crescent sighting” command together with “astronomical calculations.”

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The “Crescent Sighting Conference,” organized in Istanbul on Nov. 27-30, 1978, with the invitation of the Turkish Presidency of Religious Affairs, was a gigantic step taken in the name of forming a common calendar and adapting the Islamic command ordered in Prophet Muhammad’s traditions to sight/observe the crescent with the means to watch the movement of the sky and moon, made possible with modern technology. The religious representatives of 19 countries attended the conference organized by the- Religious Affairs President Tayyar Altıkulaç.

Participants, who declared that is is essential to see the crescent, whether it be with the naked eye or the observation methods of modern science, unanimously decided to establish a “joint calendar committee.” Turkey, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar, Iraq, Indonesia, Algeria and Bangladesh were going to appoint members to the said committee that was projected to gather every year. At the start of Shawwal and Zilhijjah, months of the Islamic lunar calendar, the crescent would be observed with the naked eye and using astronomy devices, the results would be compared, the most ideal points for observation would be determined, and finally, via joint efforts, a calendar that could be adopted by all Muslims would be developed. Also, founding departments related to astronomy at universities in the Muslim world, topics such as carrying out studies here based on the Islamic calendar, and the establishment of an observatory in Mecca would be on the agenda.

Unfortunately, you can guess the result of all these “would bes.” The revolutionary step taken in Turkey’s leadership shortly got tangled up in the tensions between member countries, as well as the evasions of countries’ own religious structures. However, this showdown, which can be seen by those who look carefully, is still going strong today.

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Looking at the current picture, it is almost impossible to visualize that Muslims were the ones that led the establishment of observatories and the progress of astronomy in world history. Since that glorious history we come across in books is not a hallucination or a fairy tale, it is an inevitable duty to contemplate deeply what we lost and why we have lost it.

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