Religion and Science Blend in a Centuries-Old Ritual

Egyptians buy traditional lanterns at a shop in Cairo in preparation for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a time of daily fasting and nightly feasting.
Egyptians buy traditional lanterns at a shop in Cairo in preparation for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a time of daily fasting and nightly feasting. (By Amr Nabil -- Associated Press)
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By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 31, 2008

HELWAN, Egypt, Aug. 30 -- In sync with the sun and the moon, the traditions of 1,400 years and the acts of Muslims all over the world, members of one of Egypt's seven official moon-sighting committees pulled into a parking lot high on a ridge overlooking hazy Cairo at sunset Saturday.

There were government astronomers in open-neck shirts, snapping open tripods to support their telescopes. Taking a preliminary look through the scopes at Cairo's western horizon, the astronomers didn't bother to announce what they saw at first glance: nothing.

There was a 70-year-old Muslim cleric, wearing glasses of stratified thicknesses, a gauzy black robe with gold tassels and a beatific smile. Declining a look through the telescopes, the cleric, Abdul Monim al-Berri, only sat and looked on, his presence as one of Egypt's leading religious scholars giving the gathering the stamp of religious approval. "I'm the legitimacy," he said.

And there was an al-Jazeera satellite news crew, trying to go live to tell the world the news from the parking lot, but having trouble with audio.

Frustrated, the network's reporter folded her arms across her chest and rocked back on her heels in the gravel, as she stared blindly at the sky.

Together, the committee members were on a mission: to look for the crescent moon that signals the start of Ramadan, Islam's holiest month, and to tell the world whether they had seen it.

From Senegal to Saudi Arabia and beyond, moon-spotting committees scaled minaret staircases and fanned out across deserts at twilight Saturday, as Muslims have since the founding of Islam in the 7th century, to look for a sliver of white in the sky.

Word from the committees would plunge the world's more than 1 billion Muslims into Ramadan.

For religiously observant Muslims, Ramadan is four weeks of daytime fasting and nighttime feasting with family and friends, interspersed with works of charity for the poor.

"This night of witness is extremely important for we Muslims. It is the night that unifies us all," Berri said.

In the parking lot, as around the world, ancient ways met with modern advances Saturday.

The prophet Muhammad said Muslims should begin fasting when they saw the crescent moon that opens the lunar month of Ramadan. But since the 7th century, science has provided the extras -- telescopes and observatories, for example.

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