Every year, the leadership of the Muslim community in Ghana holds a Ramadan Conference in advance of the annual Ramadan fasting. This year's conference was scheduled to have taken place in Accra, at the Abossey Okai Central Mosque from September 17 to 18. As in the past, this year's conference was made into quite a big event. The Office of the National Chief Imam announced the conference date. Regional and district delegates from across the country would be in attendance alongside Regional Imams, Chief Imams and Regional Hilal (Crescent Sighting) Committee members. A planning committee was set up to primarily raise funds and mobilize volunteers to host delegates. A media relations sub-committee was also established, and a call was made to the general public to make donations toward the event.
Bravo to the leadership of the Muslim community for sustaining this annual event. Here is a demonstration of community spirit and self-reliance. In a country where Muslims tend to be marginalized, this asserting of self is great for pride, publicity, visibility and profile raising of Muslims as equal members of the society. Definitely, the conference is also an opportunity for the Muslim hierarchy to fellowship and brush up on religious knowledge. However, there is considerable opportunity to achieve even more with the conference. The purpose and scope of the event can be broadened to add more value.
Adding More Value
The stated purpose has always been "to determine the date of commencement of this year's Ramadan fasting". This singular purpose does not do justice to the importance of such a big event. Certainly, the general Muslim community in Ghana has lesser socio-economic development than others. Considerable value will be added if the scope of the conference is broadened to include a strategy component to consider secular community development issues alongside those of religious practice. Each year's conference may adopt a crucial community development issue as a theme or focus, alongside the standing Ramadan business. Such a strategy session might explore Muslim development initiatives in such areas as literacy and education, entrepreneurship, economic development, health, marriage and family, and good citizenship. In this regard, the forum could also have a workshop component to train trainers with messages of better civic responsibility to be preached to Muslims across the nation, during and outside Ramadan.
Inwardly, the conference could consider possibilities such as how to better organize and manage Muslims as one community or organization, and explore effective structures and styles to inform, involve and engage Muslims in community and national development. Elements of to consider would include decentralization, networking, the use of information and communication technology, as well as self-reliance and volunteering. Outwardly, possibilities to explore would include innovative lobbying, advocacy, publicity, public education, fundraising and how to access private and government services and resources to help improve the lives of Ghanaian Muslims.
Ramadan component can be improved
The primary business of determining the start of Ramadan is an important one, and deserves a closer look. As pointed out, this should be only one aspect of the total business of the conference rather than the sole purpose of it, and it should not be about deciding or “determining” the start of Ramadan. It is really not up to any body or gathering anywhere to determine politically or bureaucratically when Ramadan month and fasting commence. This is predetermined. Simply, Ramadan starts when the new Ramadan moon is sighted, or rationally should be sighted in the absence actual sighting. The real issue then has to do with moon sighting, and what is really needed is a component moon-sighting workshop targeted to members of the Hilal Committee and its network. Since moon sighting is more science and art than it is theoretical or discursive, resource person or persons for such workshop need not be an Islamic religious scholar! The rationale for this position follows.
Basic knowledge of astronomy, i.e. moon astronomy, is crucial in moon sighting, since the potential for error is extremely high otherwise. You have to know what are likely days, what time of the day, and where in the sky or horizon to look for the new crescent. In the past, mistakes have been made. For example, in 2003 in the middle of the final day of fasting, announcement was made that the new moon of Shawal (Id-l-fitr) had been sighted earlier on at 4:00 a.m. at Sege in the Volta Region. Muslims were thus asked to break their fast and prepare to celebrate Eid-ul Fitr the next day. This situation shouldn't have arisen, for a crescent moon seen at dawn in the eastern sky has to be the old, dying (waning) moon. A new crescent is rather observed at sunset in the western horizon.
Genuine mistakes such as this are frequently made the world over, where sincere and trustworthy Muslims even at the right time of day mistake a number of objects for the new crescent. Such objects include helicopters, air-planes and satellites that sometimes reflect sunlight in unusual ways; a piece of c-shaped thin streak of cloud; a jet-smoke; the planet Venus; or even a small piece of hair stuck to eye-glasses. It is therefore important that when someone claims they sighted the moon, the person must be interviewed by knowledgeable Hilal Committee members to establish possibility and authenticity. There are certain days and times in the lunar cycle when the moon is simply not in the sky, or may actually be in the sky but has not reached the critical 17-23 hours after birth (conjunction) to become visible.
Reliance on Science and Technology
Fortunately, today determining what days to look for the moon is made easer through astronomy. In most ordinary (i.e. Gregorian) calendars, key phases of the moon are marked – new moon, first quarter, full moon, and last quarter – and can be relied on to guide actual moon sighting. However some Muslims may not agree with this reliance on science and technology. It must be pointed out that Islam decries ignorance, and the Prophet Muhammed is reported to have proclaimed "seek knowledge even if it means going as far as China". Indeed, Muslim scholars were pioneers in all areas of science and mathematics including astronomy. Space will not allow a more detailed discussion of this historical fact. It would probably suffice to point out that Muslims nowadays mostly rely on technology to go to Mecca, rather than travel on foot, horsebacks or camel backs as before. Also, notable Muslim countries such as Jordan have national astronomical societies that advice on moon sighting for Islamic purposes.
The moon phases marked in calendars are non-partisan and have been determined apolitically through astronomy, and are quite accurate. It is the same science and technology that have accurately predicted lunar and solar eclipses in modern times. It's reasonable to rely on them to narrow down days of sighting possibilities, and then use the naked eye to pinpoint or confirm sighting date. The probable day to look for the new crescent is the one marked down for “new moon”, and the day after. It is important to note that "new moon" on the calendar is not synonymous with “new crescent”. “New moon” is an astronomical term that refers to a period of time between old and new moon, when the moon does not reflect any light from the sun and is therefore not visible at all. The new crescent is usually visible at sunset the next day after “new moon”. This year's case provides excellent example further down.
The same moon information printed on Gregorian calendars may also found on the internet, such as the website of the Data Services of Astronomical Department of the U.S. Naval Observatory, and that of renowned Muslim astronomer Shaukat who consults for the Islamic Society of North America.
When Does Ramadan Start?
This is the Muslim year 1426. According to astronomical information available from the cited and other sources, the birth of this year's Ramadan moon is on Monday October 3, 2005 at 10:28 Universal Time. However the crescent will be too young and invisible to the naked eye even in a clear sky, and will be in the sky in Ghana for just nine minutes after sunset. On October 4, it will be visible in most of the world including the whole of Africa; in Ghana it will be in the western sky for approximately 50 minutes after sunset. Accordingly, the first day of Ramadan for Ghana, the whole of Africa and most of the world will be on Wednesday, October 5, 2005. Also, the moon is currently in the Southern Hemisphere in its orbiting of the Earth, therefore in sighting the crescent, one should look toward west-southwest, i.e. to the left hand side of where the sun has set. This information conforms to data specific to Ghana as checked by this author.
For Id-l-Fitr, the new moon will be born on November 2 at 1:24 a.m. Ghana time (Universal Time). Again, this crescent will be too young to see with the naked eye. However it will be visible the next day November 3 when it will be 40 hours old after birth. Therefore, Id-l-Fitr will be on November 4. What this means is that this year's fasting will be 30 solid days, from Wednesday October 5 to Friday November 3, inclusive. It would not be helpful to try to fast one day less.
As mentioned, this years Ramadan provides excellent example in using the calendar to aid to moon sighting. Note that "new moon" (i.e. birth of Ramadan moon) is on October 3rd, crescent is visible on 4th, and fasting commences on the 5th. Similarly, Shawwal (Id-I-fitr) moon birth or "new moon" is on November 2nd, crescent is visible on 3rd, and Id is on 4th.
To conclude, more value can be added to the Ghana Annual Ramadan Conference by broadening the conference scope to include matters of socioeconomic development of Muslims, as well as improving the main religious component with moon sighting education and training. Blessed and rewarding Ramadan wishes to Muslims in Ghana and the world over. By Ali Maigida Toronto, Canada Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.