Interview- Pray Now or Pray Later (Toronto Star Story- Aug. 2009)

Muslim communities across the GTA are preparing to start the holy month of fasting and prayer. But is it tomorrow, Saturday or Sunday? Well-meaning strides in science have only deepened the gulf between theories on when the lunar month truly begins.

Published On Thu Aug 20 2009
Noor Javed, Staff Reporter

It is known as the pre-Ramadan headache. But for Muslims in Toronto, the ailment has nothing to do with anxiety around fasting from sunrise to sunset in the coming days.

Instead, it is caused by confusion that every year precedes the month of fasting, prayer and self-reflection, which starts this weekend.

It’s from simply trying to answer the question: When does the month officially start?

“It’s a not an easy question to answer,” said Taha Ghayyur, coordinator of the Muslim information portal, which attempts to sort out the details for the community.

“This year, it is pretty much between Friday or Saturday … and for some in Toronto, it could also be Sunday,” he said.

Traditionally, some Muslims in Toronto have literally looked to the skies on the eve of Ramadan – the month the Qur’an was revealed – for signs of the new moon to determine when the holy month begins.

Another group, mostly from the Arab world, used global moon sighting, and start fasting at the same time as Muslims in Saudi Arabia.

But in recent years, scholars in North America introduced a new idea to use scientific astronomical calculations to predetermine the first day of Ramadan. When introduced in 2006 by the Fiqh Council of North America, an organization that forms legal opinions on Islam, it was meant to unify the community.

It ended up doing the opposite.

“It has added to the confusion,” said Ghayyur. “Since most people see all three as Islamically correct, now people have too many options in a way.”

Many in the community say that within the issue of moon sighting is a deeper debate, one between those trying to find ways to modernize Islamic traditions within the bounds of Islam, and those struggling to hold fast to tradition.

The Islamic calendar follows the lunar cycle over a period of 12 months, with each month lasting 29 or 30 days. The length of the month can only be determined when the new moon is born, and according to some, when it is first seen, or when science determines it has appeared.

In 2006, the Fiqh Council and numerous scholars decided that scientific calculations were an Islamically valid method of predicting a moon sighting.

The decision was made with the hope that predetermining the day for Ramadan and for Eid, the holiday marking the end of the month, would make it easier for Muslims to plan ahead, and eventually use the consensus to leverage governments for a statutory holiday.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way.

“I think people have just agreed to disagree,” said Ahmed Kutty, the imam at the Islamic Institute of Toronto, which follows the Fiqh Council decision.

The group calculated weeks ago that Ramadan will begin Saturday.

The strides toward science sparked outrage from groups who felt this new, scientific method was challenging a tradition that had been around for more than 1,400 years.

“We follow the tradition of the Prophet in that we sight the moon to declare the first of the month, this is the way it has always been done,” said Yunus Pandor, a coordinator with the Hilal Committee of Metropolitan Toronto and Vicinity.

The group, made up of more than 75 local mosques, both Sunni and Shia, will gather tomorrow night at a local mosque to determine whether the first day of Ramadan is Saturday or Sunday.

They will look for the moon locally, and also get reports of moon sighting from the local boundaries, stretching west to Chicago, and south to the Caribbean.

Pandor said tomorrow’s local forecast is cloudy.

The group doesn’t completely discount astronomical calculations either, he said. “We use astronomical calculation as a support, but not as a means, to decide.

“We have to see the moon.”

Acceptance of the new method came only after years of internal debates, arguments and theological discussions.

For some, it has even meant division within their family.

“One year, my parents and I started fasting on different days,” said Mississauga resident Yaseen Poonah. “But I realized that it wasn’t the same enjoyment in the month.”

That is how most people end up deciding, said Poonah. They either seek consensus with their family or friends, or go with what their local mosque is doing.

Or they just hope that despite the differing opinions, Ramadan still ends up starting on the same day.

“There is always a chance that the moon will be seen Friday,” said Poonah. “That way almost everyone will start Saturday.”

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