The French Muslim Council has decided to overhaul nearly 1,400 years of Islamic tradition and rely on modern astronomy to determine the first day of the holy month of Ramadan. The country’s Muslim communities now join just a handful of other countries, such as Turkey and Bosnia, in coordinating Ramadan according to scientific calculations.
So what has been the religious and political debate surrounding the timing of Ramadan amongst the world’s Muslim communities?
Firstly a little background; according to the Quran, Muhammad first received his revelations from God via the Archangel Gabriel in the ninth month of the Muslim lunar calendar known as Ramadan. Therefore, during this month Muslims around the globe show their devotion by fasting from dawn to sunset and spending more time in spiritual reflection.
Traditionally, the start of Ramadan begins the next day after sighting the crescent Moon, which typically occurs a day or so after the astronomical new moon when we see no Moon at all. However, although astronomical calculations can predict when the moon should be visible, Muslims still tend to follow the method mentioned in the Quran of sighting the slight crescent moon with the naked eye.
Due to various factors, including different geographical locations and cloudy weather conditions, there have been discrepencies determining when Ramadan takes place, and as science writer Edwin Cartlidge explains:
“Because visibility is very dependent on local atmospheric conditions, religious officials in different countries—relying on eye-witness observations from volunteers—often disagree on the exact moment, sometimes by as much as 3 or 4 days. It’s a recipe for international confusion.”
For France’s five million Muslims who have now embraced a more systematic method based on astronomical calculations, however, this year the holy fasting month will start on July 9th. The new rule also paves the way for Muslims to ask that their holidays be included in France’s national calendar.