Ramadan 2019: How the moon sighting committee signals the start of the holy month

The start of Ramadan will be marked by a new crescent moon

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Ramadan is almost upon us in the UAE – and those tasked with announcing the start of the holy month for 2019 will soon be looking to the skies for answers.

Astronomers are predicting Monday, May 6, will be the first day of the ninth month of the Hijri calendar and the beginning of Ramadan this year.

However, the job of officially calling the start – as well as the end of Ramadan – will be down to the Moon Sighting Committee, which will search for the new crescent moon.

So how will its members do this? The National explains the process.

Why does a moon sighting committee announce the start of Ramadan?

The Islamic calendar is determined by moon phases, which are either 29 or 30 days long. So the presence of a new moon signals the start of a new month in the Islamic calendar.

The committee will begin searching for the new crescent moon after Maghrib prayers on the 29th day of Sha’ban, the Islamic month preceding Ramadan. If it cannot be seen, or is known using calculations to not be in the sky, it is considered to be the 30th day of the month.

But if the new crescent is spotted, Ramadan begins the following day. The process is repeated again to mark the end of the holy month and the first day of Shawwal, the 10th month. However, searching for the new crescent can be a little tricky, because it is usually faint and is only seen for about 20 minutes.

Does the new moon have to be seen with the naked eye?

According to tradition, Ramadan begins the morning after the new moon is seen. But Ramadan is sometimes called based on calculations alone, such as when hot and hazy weather prevents stargazers from seeing the moon with the naked eye.

This can often happen in the summer months, according to astronomers, as was in the case in 2013. Calculations are likely to form the basis of the decision again this year.

This is because the new crescent is expected to form on Sunday, May 5 at 2.46am UAE time, meaning it will not be seen after Maghrib prayer until the evening of May 6, which is predicted to be the first day of Ramadan.

When is the committee formed?

A few days before the start of Ramadan. Last year its members included the president of the Federal Supreme Court Yousif Saeed Al Abri, acting undersecretary of the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department, Dr Farooq Hamadeh, and the religious counsellor of the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince’s Court, Mohammed Jowan Al Muhairi.

The Abu Dhabi Judicial Department will decide when the holy month begins based on the findings of the committee and make the announcement via Wam, the UAE's news agency.

How will the committee’s members look for the moon?

By using a combination of their own sight with technology and tools, such as a smartphone, to double-check the moon’s location and a telescope and binoculars to nail it down. Interestingly, astronomers do not always prefer a telescope for the job, as it shows only a tiny fraction of the sky. Binoculars, they say, give a much wider field of view.

Do all Muslim countries call Ramadan on the same day?

No. Traditionally Oman’s religious authority calls Ramadan independently of the rest of the Gulf, while the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia observe the holy month on the same dates.

Saudi Arabia leads the way in calling the start and end of the holy month, but each country has its own committee to confirm the presence of the new moon.

This article was first published April 26, 2019

Read more: all you need to know about the holy month in the UAE