Ramadan is around the corner and, despite being the holiest month for more than 1.9 billion Muslims around the world, the exact day it begins is only determined a night or two in advance.
The first day of the holy month will begin in the UAE on March 23. The official date was determined by the country's moon-sighting committee on Tuesday night.
Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, which is determined by Moon phases. This makes each month either 29 or 30 days long and is the reason for the variability as to when the month begins.
It is also why Ramadan falls 10 to 12 days earlier in the Gregorian calendar each year.
The presence of a new Moon signals the start of a new month in the Islamic calendar.
When does Ramadan begin?
Although the official start date of Ramadan must be determined by the Moon-sighting committee, astronomy centres and trackers of the Islamic calendar have a rough idea of when it should start.
This year Shaaban will last 30 days, so Ramadan will start on Thursday, March 23.
Last year, Shaaban was 29 days and Ramadan began on April 2, lasting 30 days. Eid Al Fitr, the first day of Shawwal, the 10th month, began on May 2.
The Emirates Astronomical Society, based in Abu Dhabi, expects Ramadan to begin on March 23 this year.
“It is expected the holy month ... this year will begin on Thursday, March 23 and will be for 29 days. Eid Al Fitr will be on Friday, April 21,” Ibrahim Al Jarwan, chairman of the board of directors of the society, told The National.
“Most of the Islamic and Arab countries will have Ramadan on the same day this year, but the last day of Ramadan might be different in some countries as it will be difficult in some areas to observe the Moon.”
The precise start of Ramadan and Eid Al Fitr will be confirmed a day or two before the start of the holy month by the official Moon-sighting committee.
What is the moon-sighting committee?
The Moon-sighting committee is a group of astronomers, court officials and advisers from the country's Islamic authority that is formed and typically chaired by the Minister of Justice.
They meet after maghrib, or sunset, prayers on the 29th day of Shaaban to look for the new crescent moon. If they see it, Ramadan begins the following day. If not, it will start the day after.
Each year, the exact date when Ramadan should start is only known once the new crescent is seen.
The process is repeated around the time of the next new Moon. When that is spotted, Ramadan ends and Shawwal begins.
How is the start of Ramadan determined?
According to tradition, Ramadan begins the morning after the new Moon is seen.
Sharia courts nationwide will follow up and inform the committee of any sightings, while the Lunar Calendar Committee at the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department will look for evidence and inform the Moon-sighting committee of the findings.
Moon-sighting attempts are typically held across the UAE but not all manage to spot the crescent.
Ultimately, it is the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department that makes the decision after collecting all the reports from across the country.
Sometimes, Ramadan has to be 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 expected to form the basis of the decision again this year.
The Moon-sighting committee confirms the start of Ramadan using a combination of their own sight with technology and tools, such as a smartphone, a telescope and binoculars to nail down it precise location.
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 begin Ramadan on the same day?
No. Not all countries begin Ramadan on the same day. However, there is only ever a difference of a day.
In years past, Oman’s religious authority has called Ramadan independently of the rest of the Gulf while the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia observe the holy month on the same dates.
Typically, Saudi Arabia leads the way in announcing the start and end of the holy month in the region, but each country has its own committee to confirm the presence of the new Moon.