Ramadan Mubarak!

“Whoever witnesses the crescent of the month, he must fast the month.” [Al Baqarah, 2:185]

Wish your Muslim friends a blessed Ramadan today.  Then ask them whether they are fasting starting today or tomorrow.  Prepare to be fascinated by their answer.

Why?  Because the official start of Ramadan is a subject of mass theological, scientific, and geographic debate.  The best Mormon analog I’ve come up with so far is our spirited conversations about the nuances of the Word of Wisdom.

moon wars

I’m no Muslim theology expert, so I apologize if I get anything wrong (and I readily welcome correction).  But essentially, the month of Ramadan starts with a new moon — on the first night that a sliver of a waxing crescent is visible.  This is one reason a symbol of Islam is the crescent moon with a star.


Various hadith expound upon this “visibility” requirement.  They feature iterations of the following:  “Do not fast until you have sighted it (the new moon) and do not break fast, until you have sighted it (the new moon of Shawwal), and if the sky is cloudy for you, then complete it (thirty days).”

In other words, if it’s cloudy or the moon sliver is too thin to see, Ramadan is pushed back a day.

This delay happened yesterday.  Maybe.  Depending on spirited theological arguments.

Why?  Because at least the following alternate interpretations of a “visible” crescent exist:

  • The moon must be visible to a naked eye in Mecca / on the Arabian peninsula.
  • The moon must be visible to a naked eye on your continent.
  • The moon must be visible to a naked eye in your country.
  • The moon must be visible to a naked eye within the region of your city/mosque.
  • Due to scientific advancements, a moon visible not quite with a naked eye but with a telescope counts.
  • Due to scientific advancements (largely thanks to the incredible work of various Arabian empires), astronomers now know with exactitude when the new moon begins regardless of visibility.  The moon need not be literally visible, so long as it would be visible if there weren’t clouds.

There does appear to be universal agreement that every person does not need to see the moon for themselves — they can rely on the testimony of a designated excellent eyesight individual, or an astronomer, in their community.

Nevertheless, the result of the above theological debate is an annual day of mild chaos and meme-wars.

Late last night and into this morning, the Twitter and Facebook feeds of my Muslim friends were full of humorous dithering about whether to fast today or not — most reports from around the world, including Arabia, are of no sighting last night.  There were heavy storms on the East Coast of America blocking the sky, but one mosque in California saw a moon sliver with a telescope.  Thus, some of my colleagues started fasting today, but most did not.

“I follow science, which is blessed by Allah,”  teased one.  “Relying on human eyes and cloud cover is double-edged — it also means Ramadan does not end if clouds cover the next new moon.  If there are storms for a week, next thing you know, I’ll basically be a Christian because I’ll have fasted for 40 days!”

Regardless of the position your Muslim friends take, asking the question will make for an insightful conversation.  Then offer them peace and blessings — regardless of their Ramadan start date, the sign of interfaith well-wishes and respect will be appreciated.

If you want to go above and beyond, many Mormon and interfaith groups in cities around the country host iftar (nightly break-the-fast) dinners for their Muslim neighbors each year — I encourage you to offer to help cook and serve.



  1. Kristin Brown says:

    A fun debate. Thanks for the write up. As for me, 24 hours is about all I can handle.

  2. My son was disappointed Ramadan didn’t start today since school starts thirty minutes later and ends an hour early during Ramadan. But tomorrow, we’re sleeping in. I did check for the moon a few minutes ago, but it’s far too hazy here in Riyadh to see anything at the horizon.

    I remember one time when we were living in a different, much more secular Muslim country. Few people fast for Ramadan/Orozo there, but Eid al-Fitr/Orozo Ait is a big holiday for Muslims in the country. Eid was expected on the same date as Independence Day, and the first day of school was the day afterward so trying to fit all three very different events in was complicated. Often the date for Eid is set in advance in that country rather than dithering over a precise moon sighting, but that year the state-appointed Grand Mufti said he would wait until two nights before Independence Day to announce Eid. Not surprisingly, he said he saw the moon that night even though it was scientifally impossible and Eid was the next day, with Independence Day the next day and First Bell following it. But some mosques in the town were were living in waited a day for Eid since most people don’t care much about Independence Day outside the capital.

    That’s a long story for a comment, but there you go.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for the fascinating recounting of the debates over the moon and when Ramadan begins. As a boyhood astronomy geek I found this fun.

    And just to show thee is nothing new under the BCC sun, your work “Mubarak” ( = “Blessed”) makes an appearance in this old post of mine:


    Amira’s comment reminds me of one time where I put my foot in my mouth. Our ward was doing a holiday dinner of some sort, and this woman I knew brought her husband, who was Muslim. Ramadan had just ended, and so me being polite and trying to make small talk I asked him how his Eid had gone. Unfortunately, at that time (long ago) I had only seen the word in writing, I had never actually heard it, so I pronounced it Ayd (which made sense to me, because I majored in Latin in college). He looked at me for a moment as if I had bugs running out of my ears, and then I saw a glimmer of recognition, and it was that moment I learned it is actually pronounced Eeed. I of course was embarrassed, but he took it in good stride, and I was happy to learn something important that as a word nerd I should have known already.

  4. Carolyn says:

    Kevin: I’ve mispronounced so many words at CAIR it’s laughable. Biggest one is a colleague finally sat me down two weeks ago and said I need to change how I say “Muslim.”

    “Americans add a z. There’s no z,” she explained. “When Muslims hear our religion with a Z we interpret it as someone who doesn’t really care about us, but you obviously care about us, so you need to correct your pronunciation.”

    So protip for the rest of you: It’s “Muss – lim” not “Muzz-lim” and “Iss – lam” not “Iz-lam”

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Great tip, Carolyn. Yeah, in that kind of situation we just need to be humble and willing to learn.

  6. Um…. they do know that we can see THROUGH clouds now, right?

    Between polarized light filters, specific frequencies of Infrared and Microwave, light amplification and enhancement software… there are several different proven technologies which can easily detect solar radiation bouncing off the lunar surface, regardless of whether clouds are in the way or not.

  7. D Christian Harrison says:

    Just remember: it’s like Boyss-ee not Boyz-ee. ;-)

  8. Swisster says:

    This reminds me of an episode of Little Mosque on the Prarie. Has anyone watched that series?

%d bloggers like this: