I wrote this for last years Ramadhan issue of the Muslim Link, and it was very well received around the city. Here it is again.
At nearly every Islamic conference and halaqah in North America, Muslim scholars and activists have pondered over what defines the "North American Muslim culture". For as long as there have been pockets of believers throughout the New World, there have been discussions on how North American culture would influence Muslim belief and practice. Some believed, and still believe, that they simply aren't compatible; they adopt one, and ridicule the other. Others have gone to great lengths to integrate the cultures completely, compromising both. The vast majority of us, torn between two worlds, feel that there is no single answer; North American Muslims form a microcosm of the entire Muslim world, and each community offers a different perspective.
There is one thing, however, that can be considered a largely "North American" practice. It didn't come from any Islamic texts, nor did we inherit it from our ancestral countries. It has become a defining trait of nearly every masjid and Islamic organization in Canada and the US, and has spawned more discussion and debate than nearly any other aspect of Islamic practice. That salient characteristic is, of course, the moonfighting.
Around three times a year, debate erupts as to whether the new moon has been sighted, and if so, by whom, and when, and how, and, of course, what does moonsighting.com say about it? One follows the local sighting, another follows the Saudi sighting, while others argue that this era calls for relying on technology. And every year, cities are divided, masjids bicker, and even members of one family will often celebrate Eid on different days. With the variations at both the beginning and end of Ramadhan, some cities boast three separate days of Eid prayer.
Differences of opinion are part of the Ummah, and nowhere is that more prevalent than in the mosques of the West, where different traditions and backgrounds come together, and often clash. What makes the moon sighting issue so much more prominent is that it involves a communal act of worship at a very large scale. There are a number of accepted schools of jurisprudence that encourage slight variations in prayer and other Islamic rulings, but those variations don't usually expose themselves beyond individual discussion. And when they do, most will agree to disagree, recognizing that the history of Islamic scholarship not only tolerated such variation, but encouraged it within the parameters of Shariah. Essentially, the practice of one worshipper should not affect the worship of another.
The beginning of Ramadhan and the days of Eid are community celebrations, which reach every Muslim household. Even those Muslims who would not normally frequent the mosques or participate in community activities get caught up in the excitement, and race toward the first rows in Tarawih prayers. Ramadhan is, in many ways, the most uniting act of worship for the vast majority of Muslims in this part of the world, even with the disagreements on the number of raka'ats in Tarawih and the precise time that a white thread appears distinct from a black one. As an event of such magnitude, any disagreement puts the entire community at odds. Each moonsighting interpretation spawns it's own camp within each city, each one calling for "unity". Of course, unity for each camp means that everyone else follow their way.
It is not for an article such as this to argue which is the correct opinion. Scholars have debated the issue already at length with no solid agreement, and it is unlikely that epiphany will strike anytime soon. What can be discussed, however, is where the differences arise, and how we as a community should deal with them.
As with most differences in the science of Islamic jurisprudence, variations arise based on the interpretations of different scholars on the verses of Quran and Hadith pertaining to a given topic. Typically, the same source verses and hadith are being used to arrive at the various rulings. On issues where there is no specific verses or hadith, scholars would infer the rulings based on similar topics, and by way of analogy, come to a conclusion. The reliability of the narrator is also considered in the case of hadith, and scholars assessed this reliability in different ways. Thus, even with a single verse of Quran or a single passage from the Hadith, dozens of interpretations could arise.
In the case of the crescent birth, the verses of Quran do not explicitly stipulate whether the crescent moon of Makkah should be sought, or whether it should be seen wherever one lives. The Quran does elaborate on the number of witnesses required to establish a reliable account, however. This requirement has played into a number of controversies in recent memory, including a case here in Ottawa a couple of years ago. It is generally accepted that a single witness is not sufficient to establish a reliable account, but scholars differ as to whether this is applicable in every case.
Other variables play into the debate. In the past, scholars debated whether the sighting had to occur at ground level, or if it was permissible to seek the crescent from the top of a mountain where there would be increased visibility. Weather also factored into their positions; should one just employ a "best guess" approach when there is no chance of seeing the moon through the clouds? With modern technology, there are even more variables. For example, would seeing the moon through a telescope constitute a valid sighting? Would a reported sighting that contradicted astronomical calculations be acceptable? Rather than simplify the issue, modern technology has only made the debate more difficult.
With so many factors playing into the decision, it is surprising that we differ only by a day or two. We all hope and pray that we unify on a single day, but that's an extremely challenging proposition with all the cards in play. In the mean time, our job is to accept the conflicting opinions without resorting to pointless bickering. It should be noted that scholars, in their disagreements, did not let those disagreements incite hatred or comtempt. Harbouring contempt against fellow Muslims is a far greater crime than starting Ramadhan a day early.
Thus, in the days approaching Ramadhan, we should find out what position will be taken by our local mosque. We should use our local mosque as our basis, as this is the place we will most likely be praying our Tarawih prayers on a daily basis, so we should be synchronized with them. At the end of the month, we should stick with that mosque, and follow their Shawwal sighting. One should not follow one opinion to begin the month and another to complete it, lest one fall into the trap of taking rulings at their convenience. Furthermore, we should encourage others to do the same, even if they follow a different opinion than our own. I recall an incident in university where a group of friends celebrating Eid forced another Muslim to eat on what he believed to be the last day of Ramadhan; such incidents should be avoided completely, lest someone end up fasting only 28 days. We can not let ourselves be the cause of spoiling the Ramadhan of another.
Allah has blessed us with Ramadhan as a means of forgiveness and seeking His Mercy. We should not let our pride take away from this month by forcing our opinions on others. We will be doing more to promote unity by allowing others the freedom to follow what they believe, rather than force everyone into celebrating Eid on a single day.
Ironically, our hopes of unity may best be served by embracing disagreement.