Did Muslims miscall end of Ramadan fast?

Saudi astronomers threatened for casting doubt on moon sighting; Saturn mistaken for crescent moon indicating end of holy month.

Iftar dinner 311 (photo credit: Yossef Avi Yair Engel/Beit Hanassi)
Iftar dinner 311
(photo credit: Yossef Avi Yair Engel/Beit Hanassi)
The Muslim world is in turmoil over the possibility that it may have misread the skies and mistaken Saturn for the moon when it declared Ramadan and its daily fasting over last week, causing the devout to starting feast a day early.
Sighting of the new moon crescent has always been difficult and a special Hilal panel, or moon-sighting committee, receives testimonies from veteran Muslim moon gazers that in fact the lunar month is over. Religious authorities in Saudi Arabia declared Ramadan ended last Monday August 29 and the three-day Id al-Fitr festivities could begin.
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Many nations follow the rulings from Saudi Arabia, but not all of the Muslim world accepted this year’s decision. In Indonesia, there was such doubt that the astronomers and Muslim bodies extended the Ramadan fast for another day and didn’t celebrate the Id until sundown Tuesday.
Saudi and Egyptian astronomers, too, questioned the veracity of the moon sighting and issued a statement saying there was no way it could have been sighted last Monday because it had eclipsed before sunset. If they saw anything, it was the planet Saturn and not the moon, the astronomers said.
In Saudi Arabia, conservative religious scholars were so galled that their veracity had been questioned they threatened to take legal action for creating the uncertainty, the Saudi-based Arab News reported.
Loai Ghazawi, specialist in Islamic law at Hebron University in the West Bank, said he was skeptical of the astronomers’ claims about the lunar miscall. But, he said, if it were true, then Muslims would be required to fast an additional day.
“If this is true, then it is the first time in my lifetime that I have heard of such a mistake. And if they made a mistake, then we would have to add another day of fasting,” Ghazawi told The Media Line.
Ghazawi said that while Saudi Arabia doesn’t officially announce the start or end of Ramadan, most countries follow its lead because the country is home to the holy cities of Mecca and Media.
“But if any country sees the moon crescent then they can declare it on their own,” he said.
Hatem Auda, director of the National Institute for Astronomical and Geophysical Research in Egypt, said astronomical calculations by scientists of the institute noted that the first day of the Id was Wednesday, August 31, making Tuesday, August 30 the last day of Ramadan.
Eminent Saudi astronomers Khaled Al-Zaaq drew the wrath of Saudi clerics for casting doubt that the moon gazers had actually seen anything last Monday.
Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah Al-Asheikh in his Friday sermon in Riyadh described those who doubted the moon sighting as trying to impose their opinions on the nation and were "motivated and deviated people with foul mouths that cast doubt on our religion and should be silenced,” Arab News reported.
Muhammad Al-Araifi, well-known Islamic preacher, was quoted by Al-Madina newspaper as saying the astronomers basing their calculations on astronomy should apologize to the public rather than insisting on sticking to their erroneous stand.
The Iranian Fars news agency also played up the confusion, saying the problematic Hilal-sighting had caused Muslims to commit the sin of celebrating the Id al-Fitr when they should have been fasting for the last day of Ramadan.
“The Jeddah Astronomy Society had said that people actually saw the planet Saturn and not the crescent moon that marks the beginning of the Islamic month of Shawwal,” the government-controlled agency reported.
“Saudi government officials have reportedly apologized to their nation and said that they would pay Kaffarah for the entire Saudi nation,” the news agency said, referring to the money paid as expiation for breaking the fast during the holy month of Ramadan. The claim could not be immediately verified.
Egyptian authorities have upheld the initial Saudi ruling. Grand Mufti Nasr Farid Wasel was quoted in the daily Al Masry Al Youm that the sighting was correct, and that Tuesday was the first day of Id. “Spreading such doubts only harms Islam,” he said.