Technology Changes Muslim Tradition of Moonspotting

December 26, 2000

Source: The Boston Globe

On December 26, 2000, The Boston Globe reported on a tradition known as moonspotting, during which Muslims, "since the days of Muhammed,...scan the sky for the slender crescent of a new moon that signals an end to the fasting of Ramadan." Ramadan marks the period when the Koran was supposed to have been revealed to the prophet Muhammed. "It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the end of Ramadan to Muslims. After a month in which Muslims do not eat, drink, or have sex from sunup to sundown, the new moon signals successful completion of a spiritual test, and is followed the next day by a holiday, called Eid al-Fitr, which is celebrated with prayer, feasting, and gift-giving." The uncertainty of spotting a new moon on a given day creates a "certain giddy anticipation," but it makes it "hard to plan a day off from school or work without knowing exactly which day." Scientists say, however, that in the last few years the tradition has become unnecessary because "they have perfected a combination of positional astronomy and atmospheric science to predict when the new moon will become visible from any spot on earth." Some scientists are suggesting that Muslims replace moonspotting with a printed calendar, or, if they must continue moonspotting, that "they use high-powered telescopes or airplanes with trained observers to make the process more predictable, and increase the chance that immigrant Muslims will celebrate holidays here on the same day as their relatives elsewhere in the world." Imad-ad-dean Ahmad, a researcher at a Muslim think tank in Maryland, says that many Muslims have already "given up the practice of moonsighting in favor of calling a mosque hotline, logging on to one of several moonsighting Web sites, or waiting for an e-mail alert." Ahmad does not regret the loss of the tradition of moonsighting because many Muslims had begun doing it as individuals instead of as a community in America anyway. "In some countries, particularly those that are chronically cloudy, Islamic authorities have already accepted scientific evidence for declaring the end of Ramadan."