The controversy over lunar calendar | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, October 11, 2008 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, October 11, 2008

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The controversy over lunar calendar

THE moon has been the inspiration for romance and poetry. Since time immemorial, it has played an important part in our daily lives. It has also been the basis for the lunar calendar which comprises of the moon arising and setting twelve times every year. That in turn, has influenced the evolving of festivals in different religions -- particularly in Hinduism, in Buddhism and also in Islam. In fact, in Islam, the moon is the principal determinant in the fixing of dates when the holy month of Ramadan will start, when the Eid ul Fitr will be celebrated and when the rituals of performing Hajj will be initiated. Fasting and the performance of Hajj have that added significance given their integral and central nature for Muslims.
Our country is unique in more ways than one. We tend to consider ourselves as a Muslim majority moderate country and tend to identify on the international political scene with all the Islamic causes and goals. We are a member of the Organization of the Islamic Conference and have consistently upheld many common areas of interest including the need to advance research in science and technology and their impact on development. We have been driven in this regard by our belief that there is need to expand the perimeters of our knowledge.
My reflections today have been necessitated by our recent experience of distinguishing and setting ourselves apart from the mainstream of the Islamic Ummah. I am referring here to the manner in which we, like past years, again started the month of Ramadan later than others, and observed the Eid ul Fitr after hundreds of millions of Muslims had finished observing the same festival one or two days ahead of us. This included countries geographically situated to the east as well to the west of Bangladesh. It was the same story when it came to directions north or south of Bangladesh. From that point of view, our moon sighting committee, once again, was able to isolate us successfully from the rest of the world. It has since been claimed by some charged with the of sighting the Moon, that they were unable to clearly see it and that there was no reliable report from anyone in Bangladesh in this regard.
The absurdity of this exercise was driven home further with electronic media coverage of hundreds of thousands of pious Muslims performing the rituals and prayers in the Holy Ka'ba and elsewhere. One can understand if there is a difference of one day, given the moon's appearance on the horizon at different times in the course of twenty-four hours. However, delay in observing an important religious occasion or continuing fasting when others are celebrating Eid must give us cause for thought.
Frankly, I have had disagreement with some, over this subject, for many years. I have differed with many conservative elements within Islamic theology over the question of definition of Ummah. I have a simple approach. The Ummah includes every Muslim wherever he might be residing. God did not create geographical borders. Politics did.
I am reminded in this context of a comment made by my father in 1977 when we had a similar disagreement over the observance of Eid. He pointed out that during the time of undivided British India, if the new moon was sighted in Peshawar, in the northern tip of the then India, the sighting would be acknowledged and Ramadan would start in Calcutta. He then pointed out that politics subsequently interfered with religion. After 1947 and the partition of India into Pakistan and India, moon sighted in the territory of either country no longer acted as a determinant for starting the month of Ramadan or celebrating Eid ul Fitr. He then observed that after 1971 and the emergence of independent Bangladesh, the dynamics changed once again. Moon sighting in Pakistani territory was no longer relevant or valid for Bangladesh.
I am now forced to wonder whether our learned Ulemas have noticed a quiet revolution that is slowly gaining ground in our country. It started in Comilla. However, this time, it was manifest in several villages in different administrative districts and many tens of thousands of Muslims in different towns and cities decided not to follow the dictates of the official Islamic scholars and our Ministry of Religious Affairs sitting in Dhaka. Most of these pious Muslims observed the requirements of fasting and the celebration of Eid ul Fitr simultaneously, on the same day, that it was being observed in Makkah, Saudi Arabia. In doing so, these Bangladeshis were reflecting the course of action that is being followed by Indonesia and Muslims living in many countries in the West, including the UK, Europe and the USA. This is a movement that is gradually growing and is not considered as an innovation that can be condemned on religious grounds.
I am reminded in this regard of my own personal efforts in trying to solve the problem of agreeing on a unified approach to the lunar calendar during my tenure as Head of the Department of Science and Technology and Political Affairs in the Secretariat of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Jeddah (OIC) sixteen years ago.
A special Committee was set up by the then Secretary General of the OIC to try and reach an acceptable compromise on two issues. The first related to the hours and timing of fasting for Muslims residing in the extreme northern and southern hemispheres. This was necessitated because in the summer or in the winter, these geographical regions had extremely long or very short daylight hours (which affected the hours of fasting). After lengthy debates, participated by Islamic scholars from several Islamic countries from Asia, Africa, Europe and North America and representatives from the Islamic Foundation for Science, Technology and Development and the Commission for Science and Technology (two important institutions within the OIC matrix), it was generally agreed that those living in the extreme regions, both in the northern as well as the southern hemispheres, could follow, if they so wanted, the timings that would apply for the residents of Makkah, Saudi Arabia. This was a great movement forward.
The other issue related to agreeing on one lunar calendar. Scientists and religious scholars respected for their expertise in tradition could not find a compromise. The sectarian divide -- of Shiah and Sunni -- particularly from Syria and Pakistan also did not help. The definition of what represents a community or the Ummah could not be resolved. I remember pointing out that in the early seventh century, more than one thousand and four hundred years ago, when our Prophet (pbuh) urged his followers, the early Muslims, to observe the religious functions dependent on the sighting of the moon, he had meant the entire Ummah and not those residing within a particular political territory. Ultra-conservatives, opposed such an idea. We are still facing the same hurdle towards the unified observance of an important part of our religious existence.
This approach is particularly disappointing, given the fact that in the contemporary world, amazing advances have been made in science, technology and astronomy. We can literally predict to the second, not only the visibility of the moon but also its location over geographical territory at any given point of the time.
This time round, except for very few (including Bangladesh), most of the Muslim countries have tried to follow a lunar calendar that was consistent with what has transpired in Makkah. We are definitely in the minority.
I think that time has come for the authorities of this country to take this matter seriously. The next elected government should request the OIC to set up a special committee towards this end. If we cannot even agree on dates when to perform Hajj, or offer prayers related to the observance of Ramadan or celebrate the Eid ul Fitr and Eid ul Azha, how can we claim that we are an indivisible community sharing a belief and way of life revealed to us so many centuries ago?
We have to resolve this issue and soon. Further delay will definitely increase the divide within our own community in Bangladesh. In the long run, unless we are careful, it will also destabilize the observance of faith and its traditions among our younger citizens in the future.

Muhammad Zamir is a former Secretary and Ambassador and can be reached at mzamir@dhaka.net

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