By Joanna Sugden for The Wall Street Journal
Muslims start the month-long daytime fast of Ramadan Friday. But not in India.
While most of the world’s Muslims look to Saudi Arabia or follow astronomical calculations to determine when the new moon of the ninth lunar month has arrived – marking the start of Ramadan – India follows the declaration of its own Central Moon Sighting Committee.
“Geographical differences mean we are a day behind Saudi Arabia in terms of lunar months, so we are expecting to start on Saturday,” says Syed Tariq Bukhari, a member of the committee and general secretary of the advisory council at Old Delhi’s Jama Masjid, one of the country’s most important mosques.
At sunset Friday, the 29th day of the eighth lunar month, 21 senior leaders from Delhi’s mosques will meet to decide whether the new moon has been sighted. In the Muslim calendar, months are either 29 or 30 days long.
“It is very difficult to spot a new moon, particularly on the 29th day of the month because it appears for a very short time and is a very thin sliver,” Mr. Bukhari said, adding that the best time to spot a new moon is half an hour before sunset.
“If naturally we are not able to see it because it’s cloudy then we coordinate with the other committees of other cities who have similar geographic circumstances,” Mr. Bukhari said.
The committee then waits for a Shahadah or Islamic witness who has seen the new moon. “The appearance of the witness should be according to Sharia law, which means having a beard and his neighbors should know him as a dependable person as far as being a witness is concerned,” Mr. Bukhari added.
If no credible Islamic witness comes forward, the committee waits until between 80 and 90 other witness statements on sightings are collected by moon sighting committees across the country. Then it declares the start of Ramadan.
If the moon isn’t sighted at all in the last days of the lunar month, the committee waits until the first day of the ninth lunar month – which this year is on Sunday – to declare that Ramadan has begun. It announces the start of the fast via the media, to the government and over loud speakers from mosques.
Zasarul Islam Khan, president of the All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat, an umbrella body for Muslim organizations, says the timing of Ramadan should always be based on local sightings of the moon.
“Outside the Subcontinent they are following Saudi Arabia, which is technically wrong. The scholars say that you should wait to see the new moon physically before starting Ramadan,” he told India Real Time.
Mosques in the southern Indian state of Kerala go by Saudi Arabian timings because they have close links with the Middle East, according to Mr. Bukhari. Those in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir go by Pakistan’s declaration as they are more geographically in line with the country, he adds.
The Fiqh Council of North America, which rules on matters of Islamic jurisprudence, says Muslims should follow precise astrological calculations to decide the start of the fast.
In sunlight hours during Ramadan, Muslims refrain from food, water, sex, smoking and oral medicine in order to bring desire under self-control and to focus on prayer and Allah.
This year, the fast coincides with the London Olympics, so Muslim athletes will have to decide whether to observe it and risk a dent in their performance or exempt themselves and carry out the fast once they finish the competition.
Maher Abu Rmeileh, a Palestinian Judo champion who is competing at the Games, told the BBC that he would not be observing Ramadan this year. “Scholars recommended me not to fast and said that I represented my nation not just myself, so once I return from the games I will have to make up for it,” he said.
Such a clash only happens once every 44 years and the International Olympic Committee has said it will look into the possibility of avoiding such a conflict in future, once London 2012 is over.
People exempt from fasting include pregnant women, children who haven’t reached puberty, menstruating women, breast-feeding women, the elderly, travelers and the chronically ill.
Mr. Khan said those who are sick or elderly are allowed to give to charity instead of fasting. If they are determined to observe Ramadan, they should consult their doctor, he added.
Joanna Sugden is freelance journalist living in Delhi. Before coming to India in 2011 she spent four-and-a-half years as a reporter at The Times of London, covering religion and education. You can follow her on Twitter @jhsugden.