Religious authorities in the Middle East and beyond will soon begin scanning the night sky for the first glimpse of a crescent moon, heralding the start of Ramadan.
In the Islamic lunar calendar, Ramadan is preceded by the month of Shaaban. The month of fasting and spirituality begins when Moon-sighting committees convene after sunset on the 29th day of Shaaban, to look for a crescent moon, in a tradition that has run for thousands of years.
Saudi Arabia said it expected Ramadan to begin on April 12 this year, although this early prediction would still need to be confirmed by a Moon-sighting.
If the Moon is observed over the kingdom on Saturday, the holy month will begin the next day. If not, it will start on Monday, April 12.
The Muslim world typically looks to Saudi Arabia when it comes to deciding the days on which major religious events fall, including the start of Ramadan and Eid Al Fitr, which marks the end of the holy month.
However, each country is required to independently verify these dates, usually through a special committee of astronomers, court officials and advisers from Islamic authorities.
Technology and religion
Modern science and astronomy changed the way that the start of Ramadan is observed.
Telescopes used to detect distant objects in space, and radio telescopes for receiving signals from celestial objects, are commonly used to aid Moon-sighting efforts and make more accurate predictions.
The Moon might appear in the sky for a short period of time, sometimes visible only for a matter of minutes.
Observers are required to be in position during that window in a remote location that is open, free of visual pollution and preferably on high ground.
The International Astronomical Centre in Abu Dhabi set up the Islamic Crescents Observation Project, which is now used as an important reference in the Muslim world.
The centre publishes a map illustrating the regions where a crescent moon would be seen with the naked eye, a telescope and places where a moon sighting would be impossible.
This year, the centre predicted that the holy month will start on Monday, April 12, in the region, except in Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq and Turkey, where fasting will begin a day earlier.
The centre said Ramadan was likely to begin on Wednesday, April 14, in some countries that rely solely on the naked eye to observe the new moon.
In 2019, Saudi Arabia’s Supreme Court called on the public to report any sightings of the crescent moon with the naked eye.
The methodology for determining the start of Ramadan is updated regularly with religious rulings that take scientific advancements into account.
In 2015, Saudi Arabia announced it made an inaccurate calculation of the beginning of Eid Al Fitr after astronomers said observers were probably looking at Saturn rather than the new moon, causing some Muslims to break their fast a day early.
The Saudi government said it would pay Kaffarah, donations to make up for a broken fast, on behalf of the country's residents and citizens.
The crescent moon is a highly important symbol in Islam and is used in Ramadan decorations. It can often be seen hung outside homes, on Ramadan lanterns and even on gift-wrapped chocolates, dates and sweets often exchanged among family, friends and neighbours.
Ramadan is also considered a nocturnal month for Muslims who end their daily fast at sunset, then begin longer-form taraweeh prayers that are traditionally followed by social gatherings that last into the night.