Correction to This Article
The article about the start of Ramadan incorrectly said that the Muslim holiday, which is tied to the lunar calendar and thus changes every year, "will soon arrive in the fall," later than this year's summer dates. The month-long holiday will actually shift to earlier in the year.

For many Muslims, start of Ramadan stirs up centuries-old debate between science and doctrine

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 11, 2010

For American Muslims, the start of the holy month of Ramadan means reflection, fasting from sunrise to sunset, community -- and a bit of confusion.

As the Muslim population has grown in size and diversity, so has the debate about how to interpret the call to begin observing the holiday at the "sighting" of the crescent moon.

Although much of the Muslim world relies on state-sponsored religious authorities to determine when the first sliver of the moon has been spotted (and Ramadan has begun), American Muslims live in an ethnic, religious and political jumble.

Does Ramadan start when religious officials in your native country declare that a legitimate witness has seen the moon? Or when people in the holy city of Mecca do? Do you have to see it yourself? Can you rely on astronomical calculations? Or should you just go with what the imam at your mosque says?

(More: An explanation of Ramadan and when it begins)

No less is at stake than one's definition of community, source of religious authority and expression of faith (not to mention the all-important ability to plan days off from school and work).

There are dueling experts, international conferences and snippy Web exchanges about when Ramadan should begin, and each year there is a span of uncertainty that can stretch three or four days.

The debate can be so contentious that some community leaders said they would admit their preference only anonymously, fearful of taking sides in a split between progressives (who support the use of astronomical calculations) and traditionalists (who believe doctrine calls for seeing the moon with the naked eye).

Kamal Essalhi, who was preparing for Ramadan on Tuesday with his wife, Imane Zhar, at their Woodbridge home, said the politics of pinpointing Ramadan's start can be draining.

"To get away from all this confusion," said Essalhi, who attends the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, "I just go with my mosque."

Others get the word that fasting should begin by checking Web sites in their native countries. Or they employ a blend of methodologies: They use the calculations to decide which night to try to spot the moon with friends and family. Then for a final decision, they check with religious leaders at home or abroad.

But a consensus appears to be building that reflects a maturation of Muslim American institutions. More major mosques, including the Washington area's largest, the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, are citing the calculations posted by the Islamic Society of North America. The group, the largest Muslim organization on the continent, announced months ago that the moon would appear Tuesday night and that fasting therefore would begin at sunrise Wednesday.

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