(3rd October 2005)
Mohammad A. Auwal is an associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies, California State University, Los Angeles. Currently, he is visiting Gulf University for Science and Technology in Kuwait.
I just heard from friends that Ramadan moon was sighted in Saudi Arabia. I am currently in Kuwait, which is following the Saudi lead. People have already prayed taraweeh. So we'll have the first day of Ramadan here tomorrow inshaAllah.
The idea of questioning the authorities or checking out news that comes from authorities is almost universally unthinkable in this part of the world, especially in religious matters, because of a historical process that infantilizes numerous people in the Arab/Muslim world. Infantilization characterizes not only some Arab/Muslim societies but also other third world societies that have traditional or dictatorial governance. In this process people are so spoiled (while being taken care of, mentored or treated like children) that they tend to think and behave like infants even when they become adults. I have met this sort of people almost everywhere, from classrooms and mosques to streets and shopping malls. Just as children do not question or are not allowed to question parental decisions, most Muslims in this part of the world do not or cannot take issue with the authorities decisions.
Based on the scanty information that is available at this moment, the Saudi authorities did not explain how or where they saw the moon. As we have seen in the years past, their implication is simply this: "Trust us."
The 'trust us' approach, however, is problematic as it contradicts well-established scientific evidence. Based on available information at the time of this writing, it seems that the Saudies have seen the moon again this year before anyone anywhere else in the rest of the world. But according to www.moonsighting.com a site maintained by Muslim scientists in collaboration with the Shura Council of North America, the new moon could not have been seen on October 3, 2005, anywhere east of the United States. You can see the details there. As far as people of this part of the world are concerned, the issues of scientific evidence or plausibility are irrelevant.
What frustrates me, as I explained in an article prior to the last Hajj or Eid-ul-adha, is the virtual rejection of the tradition of celebrating Ramadan and Eids based on local sighting of the moon today. Khatibs in this part of the world would invariably begin their Friday sermons by quoting the hadith that prohibits any innovations in matters of religion. But they are blind to the innovation that is being incorporated into our religion as a result of the modern communication technologies.
Since the days of the Prophet SA until recently, people in Medina, for example, began and ended fasting based on local moon sighting. People in any other countries did not get information from Mecca to begin or end fasting. Following the prophetic traditions, they relied on their own sighting of the crescent moon. To this day, Muslims in many countries of Asia and Africa make their Ramadan or Eid decisions based on local moon sighting.
Now that news travels fast across the globe, people want more and more unity. In the Arab world, they generally follow the Saudi lead in Ramadan and Eids even though this goes against the Islamic traditions of the last 14 centuries. In other parts of the world, especially in North America, Muslims get split between the local sighting of the moon and that of the Saudi leadership.
Once or twice every year, thus, the pleasures of Ramadan and Eids turn into an ineffable agony as we see decisions stemming from Saudi Arabia split Muslim communities worldwide. What further frustrates me is the reluctance of the Saudi authorities even to listen to other Muslim scholars and scientists or to explain the ways they make what appears to be indefensible decisions.
As I raised these issues personally with several people in opinion leadership positions here, they basically advised me to turn off my intellect and blindly follow the authorities. This would definitely help me avoid the pains of the first days of Ramadan and the days of the Eids, which haunt us almost every year.
But even as I try to follow their advice, I find myself in the thorns of those thoughts that remind me of the examples of our noble Prophet SA and his righteous followers that we must stand up against crowds that just report and follow whatever they hear without checking out its validity.