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The Curious Business of Moon Sighting

July 16, 2015
Mansoureh Farahani
6 min read
The Curious Business of Moon Sighting
The Curious Business of Moon Sighting
The Curious Business of Moon Sighting
The Curious Business of Moon Sighting
The Curious Business of Moon Sighting

When does the holy month of Ramadan begin and end? Who decides? And why is there so much disagreement on the matter?

“Around 20 years ago, my father and I were fasting on the 29th day of Ramadan,” remembers a young Iranian man called Amir. “It was announced that Ramadan would end at noon, right in the middle of the day. I still don’t know how they could see the moon at noon.”

For many Muslims around the world, the practical implications of knowing when Ramadan ends can be frustrating. “My husband and I fast during Ramadan. But the announcement of the different dates for the end of the month is confusing,” says Marzieh from Tehran. “We don’t know how to deal with it, so we go out of the city to avoid fasting on Eid al-Fitr [the first day of the new month after Ramadan].” According to Islamic rules, Muslims can avoid fasting if they are traveling.

Determining the end of the Islamic calendar can be controversial among Islamic nations. Scholars, religious leaders and politicians can’t agree on the same date. Some believe that all Muslims should follow whatever scholars in Saudi Arabia decide, since the holy Islamic city of Mecca is there. But not everyone agrees.


The Lunar Calendar and the Crescent Moon

A lunar month lasts 29 or 30 days. According to Islamic rules for Ramadan, if a crescent moon is sighted on the 29th day of the month, then it will last 29 days. But if a crescent moon is not spotted, then the month will last for 30 days instead.

A month begins when the new crescent moon appears and is seen in the night sky; a month ends when a new moon emerges. But it is often difficult to see a crescent moon – and this is one of the main problems.

“Although sighting moons is not a new phenomenon, when Islam began, the new lunar calendar was put in place across the Middle East,” says one Iranian “crescent viewer” — part of a group that goes out to spot the all-important crescent moon. “So many Islamic scientists, including Khajeh Nasir Toosi [an astronomer and Muslim scholar who lived from 1201 to 1274], began working to predict and calculate the exact date and time of new moons.”

But seeking out the thin crescent moon is not only of interest for observant Muslims, it has become a popular hobby as well. Amateur astronomers and photographers around the world attempt to capture a young moon and hopefully break the world record for recording “the youngest moon.  Many of these amateur groups have become somewhat influential, with people turning to these groups' calculations for guidance. “There are many easy ways to calculate it”, says an Iranian amateur astronomer, a member of one of the main crescent moon-sighting groups in Iran. “Seeking out a young moon has become a fun activity in various countries since end of the twentieth century,” he says. But it is significant those with the most influence among these amateur groups have largely chosen to remain anonymous. This is probably because the Supreme Leader, his allies and other clerics are not entirely pleased with their activities.


The Supreme Leader Knows Best

In Iran, an office called Setad Istehlal, which operates under the supervision of the Supreme Leader, is responsible for announcing the beginning and end of Ramadan. According to one official Iranian crescent observer, Setad Istehlal has organized a regular program for sighting the crescent at the beginning and end of Ramadan for more than a decade. As part of this, he says, “150 equipped groups of amateur astronomers go around the country and report their observations to the office. The office collects the reports and hands them to Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, and then he announces the beginning or end of Ramadan.” 

But, even given this officialdom, not everyone in Iran agrees on the right way to determine the Ramadan period. Some scholars in Iran say it is acceptable to rely on sighting the moon with the naked eye and without using telescopes or binoculars. Some Iranian clerics say the month can be determined according to the closest place where the moon has been sighted — so if someone spots the crescent moon in Tehran, officials in Isfahan, only 450 kilometers away, will adopt the same time to commemorate the end of Ramadan. Followers of these clerics observe their calculations, despite the fact that, officially, Ayatollah Khamenei’s announcement is unrivaled.

Amateur astrologists and casual night observers are not allowed to send their observations individually to the media or speak to reporters about their findings. Even the office of sightings, which works under the supervision of Khamenei’s office, cannot report the result of observations to the public or the media. This means the only official source in Iran who can announce the start and end dates of the month is Ayatollah Khamenei.

Is it the 16 or 17th?

The Iranian astronomers groups will go out to spot the crescent moon on the 29th day – which this year falls on July 16.  So, in Iran, this year’s Ramadan should last 30 days, so Eid al-Fitr will fall on Saturday July 18.

“The crescent moon was seen in the evening of Wednesday, 17 June in different parts of Iran, so the month of Ramadan began on the 18th,” said the crescent observer with whom IranWire spoke. “The 29th day of Ramadan will be on July 16. The moon in the evening will be very young and the moon will set earlier than the sun. Thus, sighting the crescent should be really difficult, and nearly impossible. Probably we won’t receive any reports about sightings, even though the individual groups will search for the tiny moon. We assume that this Ramadan would be 30 days and will end on Friday the 17th ”.

And of course, as the official crescent observer points out, the situation could well be different from country to country, even city by city. In Iran, use of specialist equipment, including binoculars and telescopes, is usually encouraged.  


Despite scientific calculations, the moon must be visible

Despite of the age of the moon, the visibility of the new crescent depends on other factors such as moon’s angular separation from the sun (which affects how much of the moon’s surface is illuminated), the altitude of the moon, and when the moon sets.

Although experts are able to rule out the possibility of the crescent moon’s visibility, for many, it is absolutely essential that the crescent moon is seen.

“For sure, we can calculate and figure out if the crescent moon is visible or not, but the calculation is not enough. Going out and looking is the most important part of the process”, says the amateur astronomer. “Amateur astronomers have been trained in various courses, and they have been taught how to calculate and look for a crescent. To become experts, they observe around 100 crescents (100 months) and report it to the national or international offices. After that, we can call them experienced crescent observers, which means they are ready to join a group observations”.

So, although his word is law in most situations, it would appear that the Supreme Leader’s decision in the case of Ramadan is not universally upheld throughout Iran, and by all of the country’s Islamic scholars. So the confusion continues for Muslims in Iran.


Related Articles: 

Follow Ramadan Rules — or Face Arrest

What have Women MPs Done for Iranian Women?

Lashings For Ramadan's Non-Fasters

Ramadan Begins


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