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Is Saudi Arabia getting Eid wrong? Meet the British Muslim on a moon mission Open in fullscreen

Taufiq Wan

Is Saudi Arabia getting Eid wrong? Meet the British Muslim on a moon mission

Londoner Imad Ahmed wants to revive the Islamic tradition of celestial observation [NCS]

Date of publication: 8 August, 2019

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Has Saudi Arabia been faking lunar sightings ahead of Eid and Ramadan? This British Muslim is one of a growing number who think so.
A moon war is raging in the Muslim world, with many gripped in a divisive debate over Earth's closest celestial body. At the centre of the matter lies one crucial question – has Saudi Arabia been faking its sightings of the moon?

For Muslims, whose religious calendars are based on the moon's cycles, this is no small matter. The sighting of the moon's new crescent indicates the start of each month of the Islamic calendar, and in turn the dates of Muslim religious festivities.

In the West, disagreements between those who follow Saudi moonsighting announcements and those who prefer more local reports have resulted in neighbouring mosques beginning the Ramadan fast separately, as well as the odd phenomena of members the same household celebrating eid on different days.

Now, with the festival of Eid al-Adha on the horizon, the moon wars have been in full swing.

Eid on Sunday or Monday?

Among Arab states, there has been disagreement about the date of Eid al-Adha, with Saudi Arabia having announced it for August 11, while Omani and Moroccan authorities have declared it would be the day after.

Imad Ahmed says Saudi Arabia's reports are not credible
[NCS]

In the United Kingdom, meanwhile, a movement of amateur astronomers is challenging Saudi Arabia's 'fake' moonsighting announcements. Among them is Imad Ahmed, founder of the New Crescent Society - a group dedicated to reviving the Islamic tradition of celestial observation.

"The problem in particular with Saudi Arabia is that all year round, they don't do moonsightings. They use the Umm al-Qura calendar which is based on calculations, but that often means that their calendar is one day ahead of those based on physical sightings of the moon," Imad explains.

"So when they do carry out moonsightings, or claim to do so, they end up doing it one day early. Sometimes - and there are many instances in history of this - Saudi Arabia has even claimed the moon has been sighted when it was in fact below the horizon. We know that's not possible from our data and this is a cause for alarm."

Saudi Arabia has even claimed the moon has been sighted when it was in fact below the horizon. We know that's not possible from our data and this is a cause for alarm

Armed with this information, the East Londoner has travelled across the UK to promote the idea that British Muslims should carry out their own moonsightings and stop relying on foreign authorities - including Saudi Arabia.

Growing momentum 

Moonsighting groups are springing up across the UK [NCS]

Up and down Britain, it seems many are in agreement with Imad, eager to gather at local vantage points to sight the moon for themselves.

"The response has been incredible – we have been contacted by people up and down the country who are enthusiastic about taking back control of the Islamic Calendar in the UK," Imad told The New Arab.

"People don't want to outsource this incredible tradition – they want to enjoy being part of a shared heritage, where they can teach their children astronomy and to enjoy nature. We have more people contacting us to help them sight the moon than we can logistically manage right now!"

As a result of The New Crescent Society's work, much of which is promoted through its Facebook page of around 8,000 followers, Muslims across Britain have set up monthly moonsighting events to gather at local hills, fields and even in London's iconic Shard tower to see if they can spot the crescent moon.

In conjunction with the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, The New Crescent Society has also held regular 'Astronomy and Islam' events, where members of the public can learn about the history of Islamic astronomy and how to sight the moon's new crescent themselves.

As part of this cooperation, the Royal Observatory held its first ever live moonsighting streamed on Facebook to mark the beginning of Ramadan in 2018.

Now with Eid al-Adha on the horizon, the New Crescent Society has compiled a growing list of over 300 British mosques that have declared that they will be following local moonsighting reports. According to local sightings, Eid will be on Monday in Britain.

Imad believes that breaking away from Saudi moonsightings will encourage unity among British Muslims, both with each other and with the universe around them.

"By establishing local moonsightings, people learn more about astronomy, more about Muslim heritage and become better connected to nature. This would bring the community together," Imad told The New Arab.

"It doesn't matter if youre Sunni, Shia, Arab, Iranian, Brelwi, Deobandi or a white British convert - there would be one thing we can agree upon: Did we see the moon or not?"

It doesn’t matter if youre Sunni, Shia, Arab, Iranian, Brelwi, Deobandi or a white British convert - there would be one thing we can agree upon: Did we see the moon or not?

Eroding Saudi influence?

The growth of local moonsighting groups in Britain comes at a time of worldwide disillusionment in Saudi Arabia as a moral and religious authority. Riyadh's involvement in Yemen's brutal war, which has been dubbed by the UN as the world's worst humanitarian crisis, has greatly undermined the state's credibility among Muslims.

The New Crescent Society has worked with the Royal
Observatory 
in Greenwich to promote 
amateur astronomy [NCS]

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's crackdown on dissent in the ultra conservative kingdom has also swept up popular clerics and religious figures - one of whom is facing death for simply calling for unity between rival Muslim states.

While the majority of the world's Muslims have never fully bought into Saudi Arabia's petrodollar-backed propogation of Wahhabism, one religious matter which many still defer authority to the kingdom over is moonsightings. However, if this changes, it is likely that Saudi Arabia will lose even more influence over the religious affairs of Muslims outside of the kingdom.

"If Muslims find about the problems of following a foreign moonsighting, especially when they [Saudi Arabia] mix calculations with moonsightings and seem to get reports when we know the moon is not visible, will have many asking 'why should we follow that country?'" Imad says.

For him, it is high time that British Muslims held their own moonsightings and took control of their own Islamic calendar.

"For many Muslims living in the UK – the penny has dropped. It is now irrefutable that Saudi Arabia's moonsightings are not credible," Imad told The New Arab in response to Saudi Arabia's latest controversial moonsighting report. 

"At New Crescent Society we would urge people to stay away from controversy, and rather than blaming Saudi Arabia, focus on building moonsighting systems here in the UK. Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, South Africa and Morocco all do their own moonsightings – so it's time we did too!"


Taufiq Wan is a journalist at The New Arab.

Follow him on Twitter: @taufiq_wan

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