By Daniel Pearl Fellow Kiran Nazish
JERSEY CITY — The four men stood in the fading dusk on Sunday evening at Liberty State Park here, craning their eyes over an expanse of the Hudson River, toward the west, where the sun had set about 10 minutes earlier, and they were now straining in vain to spot a sliver of the moon on the horizon.
This was no group of amateur astronomers. Instead, these men, who passed a small telescope back and forth and juggled a stream of calls coming in on their cellphones from around the New York region and across the country, were participating in an ancient religious practice: the sighting of the crescent moon to signal the start of Eid al-Fitr, one of Islam’s most sacred holidays that celebrates the end of the holy month of fasting for Ramadan.
“It’s quite cloudy; let me try to check,” said Tariq Khan, who works at the Muslim Federation of New Jersey, an area mosque, flipping back his checkered scarf and taking charge of the telescope from another man. After some fiddling and squinting, Mr. Khan found no trace of the moon.
Mr. Khan and the other men are members of the New York regional committee of a North American Muslim organization called Rooyat-e-Hilal, which translates from Arabic into “moon sighting.” Unbeknown to many, Muslims around the world often differ — usually by a day or two — on when they commence the celebration of Eid because they rely on different sources for the sighting of the moon.
In the United States, many Muslims simply look to the Islamic Society of North America, a Muslim umbrella organization based in Indiana. The group establishes a preset lunar calendar, including the start and end of Ramadan, based on certain calculations. Others adhere to when the moon is officially seen in the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, or when it is spotted in their home countries.
Believing that the Quran calls for an actual sighting of the moon with the naked eye — not some calculations that establish the sacred holidays in advance — Mufti Qamar ul Hasan, a Sunni Muslim cleric in Houston, along with a cadre of other imams, decided in 1999 to establish the Rooyat-e-Hilal committee to resolve confusion among Muslims across the country over the proper dates for the sacred holidays.
“Every year we had this problem of Muslims celebrating Eid and Ramadan on different days,” Mr. Hasan said. “There was no one body that made sure the decisions were consistent.”
Despite the efforts to improve the system, the committee’s experience on Sunday showed that the process can still be complicated.
Its moon sightings were initially done exclusively out of Houston. In 2009, affiliated regional moon sighting committees were set up in the New York area, California, Texas and Toronto to provide the ruling group of clerics a bigger pool of verified sightings to ensure accuracy in the group’s decrees. In each region, the committees were to conduct their own sightings and also filter through information on sightings coming in from affiliated mosques.
The ruling committee also laid out complicated rules that need to be followed on what qualified as a verified sighting and how many verified sightings were required for a region to report that the crescent moon had officially been seen.
Because of the large numbers of Muslims in the New York area, the region quickly came to occupy a critical role in this national moon-sighting apparatus.
“We are able to gather more evidence from here due to much more participants,” said Maulana Saifun Nabi, who heads the New York regional committee. Mr. Nabi said that in many cases, the official rulings of the national committee were “dependent on witnesses from this area.”
Today, most Shia Muslims in this country still follow the Islamic Society of North America’s calendar, but many Sunni Muslims now look to the Rooyat-e-Hilal’s rulings, according to Mr. Hasan, the committee’s chairman. The overarching committee for North America now consists of about 40 clerics from the United States and Canada, with 10 permanent members who are part of a central working committee.
Most of the members of the committee gathered on a conference call at 10 p.m. on Sunday to make their ruling. The first reports from moon spotters soon began coming in from Chile and other parts of South America. At first, all of the reports were negative, but one Chilean cleric said there had been some positive sightings by people in his mosque. Mr. Hasan pressed for additional details to verify the sightings. Partially satisfied but still uncertain, he moved on to listening to additional reports from elsewhere.
Among the other regions, including San Francisco, Toronto, Florida, North Carolina and Texas, none mentioned any signs of the moon. In the New York region, initially it appeared to be more of the same. But confusion set in when a cleric from a Jersey City mosque said that he had several valid witnesses from his mosque who had spotted the moon and that he had already declared to his members the start of Eid for the following day.
An extended period of discussion over the validity of the sightings followed before Mr. Hasan decided to take a two-hour break to further investigate the matter.
Less than an hour later, an announcement was posted on the committee’s website that the clerics had come to a consensus and declared the start of Eid for Monday morning.
An article in some editions on Tuesday about local Muslims who use the sighting of the moon to determine the beginning of the Eid al-Fitr holiday misspelled, in several instances, the surname of a Houston cleric who helped establish guidelines for the process in North America. As the article noted correctly elsewhere, he is Mufti Qamar ul Hasan, not Hassan. The article also misidentified the location of a mosque where a cleric said several members had reported seeing the moon. It is in Jersey City, not New York City.