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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; B01

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.

Even the possibility of consensus thrills some American Muslims, who attribute some of the wrangling over Ramadan's start to the split between Islam's two major denominations, Sunni and Shia, and political rivalries thousands of miles away.

"Two countries will do it on different days just to piss each other off," said Sami Muhammad Shamma, who grew up in Kuwait and lived in England before settling in Northern Virginia.

The same is true of some mosques, said Jamal Laoudi, a 39-year-old computational linguistics researcher from Morocco who lives in College Park.

"It's all political. It has nothing to do with religion," said Laoudi, who worships at different mosques in the area. "One is sponsored by the Saudis; another group doesn't like the Saudis so much, so they want to do a different time. I just listen to all sides of the argument and make my own decision."

Part of his research, he said, involves Googling terms such as "Muslims fasting today."

Community spirit

Muslims have been having versions of this debate for centuries because of the ever-shifting nature of the Islamic calendar. Tied to the phases of the moon, the calendar drifts 11 or so days each year. So although Ramadan falls in the summer this year, it will soon arrive in the spring.

At issue is the intent of Hadith, or the sayings of the prophet Muhammad, to begin Ramadan when the crescent moon is seen. That call prompts millions of Muslims around the world to take to their roofs at night as the month approaches to gaze at the heavens in what can be a powerful communal ritual.

"People here don't realize how beautiful it is to look up at the night sky," said Khalid Iqbal, a grandfather who left Pakistan 40 years ago but who still takes his family to a high place in Northern Virginia at sunset as Ramadan approaches, as he did Tuesday. "I miss that because of the excitement, of something not known. We don't have much of that today."

Although Iqbal looks for the moon, he begins his fast according to the Fiqh Council of North America, which relies on calculations and is the moon-sighting source for the Islamic Society of North America.

"The bigger issue," said Iqbal, who works at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, "is the unity of the community."

But which community?

"Do you respect the religious authority of the leadership in your own country? You can't be a Muslim in isolation," said Imam Johari Abdul-Malik of Dar Al-Hijrah.

American-born Muslims -- especially African Americans -- sometimes bristle at the notion of relying on religious authorities overseas to determine Ramadan's start.

"We always took ownership of everything. We don't look for some foreign confirmation," said Khalil Shadeed, co-founder of the Islamic Society of Southern Prince George's County. But he said that his mosque makes decisions by consensus and that if some members want to start observing Ramadan a day later or a day earlier, that's fine.

Zulfiqar Ali Shah, executive director of the Fiqh Council and author of a book about calculations, said he thinks most American Muslims rely at least in part on science. He said that conferences he attends in the Muslim world show an openness to that method as well.

"It's also a kind of change of discourse, because traditionalism requires one to be very literalist," he said.

But some community leaders don't want to hear talk of disagreement as the holy month begins.

"The point is: We're all striving to do what Allah and his messenger have asked us to do, and that's much more significant than how that came about," said Asma Hanif, chairwoman of the Washington region's Council of Muslim Organizations. "No one is wrong. Don't focus on that."

Staff writer Alison Lake contributed to this story.

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