More than 1.5 billion Muslims around the world organize their religious and cultural life according to the Muslim calendar, which is determined by phases of moon, making each month last either 29 or 30 days. Islamic years span on average between 354 and 355 days. Moon sighting is hard because the crescent of first day is very thin and seen for less than ten minutes. In Muslim countries as well as among the Muslim minorities across the world, a moon-sighting committee is set up to witness the first sighting of the crescent moon and determine the start of an Islamic month.
The sighting of the moon becomes important for at least two Islamic events, namely Ramadan and Eid ul Fitr which indispensably rely on visibility the crescent. If a new crescent moon is seen, Ramadan is declared to begin the following day. The same logic applies to Eid ul Fitr which is celebrated on the following day after the sighting of the new moon. In a Hadith narrated by Abu Huraira, Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h), making reference to new moon said: “Observe fast when you see it (the new moon) and break the fast when you see it (the new moon of Shawwal), but when (the actual position of the month is) concealed from you (on account of cloudy sky), then count thirty days.” Before the beginning of the month of Ramadan and also towards its end, people fervently await the news about the sighting of the new moon so that they know when to start fasting and when to celebrate Eid and when to send greetings to friends and family members abroad. Thus, the sighting of the crescent brings both heavenly and earthly concerns.
While in many Muslim countries the lunar calendar is determined by local sighting of the moon, there are a couple of countries and places which follow the official announcement of Saudi Arabia on the visibility of moon. A new criterion for lunar crescent visibility has been established using 737 observations, almost half of them obtained by the Islamic Crescent Observation Project (ICOP). This criterion, developed by Mohamed Odeh, is based on two variables, viz. the topocentric arc of vision and the topocentric crescent width. The new model is able to predict the visibility of the lunar crescent both for naked eye and optically aided observations. It has to be pointed out that the Muslim communities in Europe, the US, Canada and Australia have adopted the practice of starting the first day of Ramadan or setting the date for Eid ul Fitr, based on astronomical calculations of the new moon birth.
Side by side with the effervescence and suspense associated with the sighting of new moon for Ramadan and Eid, there are some folklores and local traditions that make the moment eventful. In the distant past when modern means of transport and telecommunication were inexistent, the sighting of new moon was celebrated by fielding adventurous expeditions, depending upon the topography and geographical conditions of the region. In the desert area, the daring horsemen used to ride sportingly toward the dusk’s horizon in search of new moon. In the mountainous region, people strived to climb to the highest point to have a better view of the skyline. Those living by the sea-side or the lake used to organize boat expeditions in search of the new crescent. Once sighted, the “the Night Caller” or Al-Misaharaty would stand on each street and bang his drum to announce the good news. Historians say that this tradition started from the Abbasid and Ottoman caliphates, Yet, today, this ancient practice seems to be in decline. In Arab countries, the lanterns of Ramadan were one of the most captivating features of the Ramadan traditions. People used to decorate the neighborhoods and streets with the lanterns. According to some tales, the tradition started from the Fatimid Caliph Al-Hakim bi Amr Al-Lāh, who wanted the streets to be illuminated during the nights of Ramadan. He ordered all the mosques to hang Fanous (lanterns) that could be lit by candles. Another account tells of the Fatimid Caliph’s going out into to the streets to sight the crescent moon of Ramadan, accompanied by children holding lanterns and singing Ramadan songs. In India and Pakistan, it is customary to observe Chand Raat (Night of the Moon) to celebrate the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
Today, the traditions about moon-sighting have evolved with the progress in science, technology and satellite communication. Once sighted, local news channels and mosques make announcements and Ramadan officially starts. Social media makes it possible to diffuse the news and images of new crescent in real time. People get into the spree of exchanging greetings through SMS, Face book, What’s App and phone chats to congratulate each other and make Dua for a happy and fulfilling month of fasting.
In Mauritius the sighting of the moon has its own ambiance. Even during the period of French colonization, the Muslims who were brought as lascars (sailors) observed the Ramadan despite all odds and government restrictions. The Mughal emissary, Mirza Itesa Moedin, in his travel account of 1765, narrated that he participated in iftaar in company of lascars. It cannot be confirmed whether it was a tradition among the lascars to beat drums to announce the visibility of new moon although it was customary for them to use the daff during Yamse procession – an event of such type was organized by them to welcome the envoys of Tippu Sultan in 1798. However, it can be confirmed that they used sailor’s jargons to announce the time of breaking fast during Ramadan. According to former President, Mr Cassam Uteem, the folks would watch from far distance the position of flag floating on the roof of Camp des Lascars Mosque. When the flag would be lowered, the spectators would shout “la malle mouillée !!” (the ship has anchored) and everybody would rush to break the fast. The Sepoys (soldiers in Mughal army) were exiled from British India and were imprisoned at Grand River North West. Most of them were highly skilled and learned persons. They had asked for a space to pray and the British acceded to their request. When moon was sighted, canons were fired to announce the sighting of the new moon. Until recently, the relics of the cannons were found in the yard of G.R.N.W mosque.
Since the establishment of Jummah Masjid of Port Louis in 1853, the central role of sighting the new moon and setting the Muslim calendar for the island was assumed by this mosque. At a time when there was no access to electricity, telephone and radio all over the island, the Jummah Masjid used to send emissaries to distant towns and villages at odd hours of the night to announce the sighting of the moon of Ramadan or Eid. Later on, battery-operated loudspeakers were mounted on roofs of cars, which were dispatched to various places to make the announcement. With time, the mosque was equipped with a siren to alert the sighting of moon and the time of Iftaar. The widespread penetration of radio and television throughout the island made the task of the mosque easier to broadcast the appearance of moon. Today, the rapid progress in communication technology has completely changed the folklore about the sighting of moon. The mosque has recourse to Internet, Facebook and SMS, as well as traditional medium of radio and television to diffuse the instant news about appearance of moon and other activities.
Throughout the world the sighting of the new crescent brings with it a mix of excitement, suspense, nervousness and effervescence. For the Muslims, it brings the sense of community togetherness, tying the emotional and functional parts of faith together. And when it comes to the arrival of the month of Ramadan, Muslims will be waiting for news as to the first sighting of the magical sliver in the sky. In Mauritius, the festival mood is enhanced by re-appearance of naan (a type of Turkish Ramadan bread), dates, & sultanas and by display new stocks of ittar (perfumes), Muslim dresses, headwear, mehendi and prayer rugs. But the most noticeable feature is a positive change in the behavior and life style of Muslims who not only fast, pray and give charity but also observe self-restraint, self-control and self-discipline during the month which is concluded by another sighting of moon that determines the celebration of Eid ul Fitr the following day.