The Moonsighting Men

If you happen to live in a country with the largest Muslim population in the world, you would have to have been on the moon to not realize that today – or perhaps tomorrow? – marks the first day of Ramadan. Why the questionable start date? I’ll get to that in a minute..

If you’ve been paying ANY attention to conversations around you this past week (you Ubudians, I mean), you’ll notice that many of them are peppered with comments such as these (some of which are also laced with eipthets): My pembantu is taking the whole month off because… it’s Ramadan. I have no idea when the store will re-open… it’s Ramadan. Get your electrician Ismael to get all the work done by today, because.. it’s Ramadan. That restaurant serves hallal food, so I wonder what they’ll do without their regular clientele.. it’s Ramadan. So on and so forth.

Yes, the month of fasting, long holidays, travelers from Jakarta (and elsewhere on Java) descending by the droves upon Ubud is upon us.

But what interests me even more than the predictably higher levels of noxious fumes that I will be facing on my daily walks through town is a little-known fact (perhaps?) about the setting of the first day of Ramadan: Who do you think determines the exact date and timing?

The moon-sighting committee, of course.

Yes, Virginia, there are moonsighters. And according to – which touts itself as the “1st web site predicting sighting in 3 languages (English, Urdu, and Arabic),”  The earliest reported sighting of the new crescent moon was on July 20, 2012 from Sydney Australia. It goes on to state: calculates where moonsighting is possible for every month using the criteria, developed by Khalid Shaukat. Development of the criteria took decades of research using thousands of observations from different locations collected over a period of 170 years. These calculations agree with the observations every month since 1993.

As of today, there are 323 members of the Moonsighting Committee Worldwide (MCW). They live in countries such as Russia, Luxembourg, Senegal, India and the Fiji Islands. When submitting data about their moonsightings, members are required to provide, among other details, the “Orientation of the horns of the crescent.” Imagine the importance attached to the orientation of the crescent’s horns. It baffles the mind…

The head honcho, a.k.a. Moonsighting Man is the above-mentioned Khalid Shaukat. He oversees moonsightings, calculates the visibility of the crescent moon and lectures on prayer times. All in the name of Islam. I could think of worse things the Moonsighting Man could do with his time. Gaze on.

An article about moonsighting even appeared on Washington Post’s website today. Here’s an excerpt:

In Bangladesh, Ramadan is likely to start Saturday. However, a national moon sighting committee headed by state minister for religious affairs will sit Friday evening to make an official declaration.

The committee has asked the weather office and also members of the public to report to it any sighting of the moon. They examine reports they get from all over the country before making final announcement. The weather office has already forecast that the new moon is likely to be sighted Friday evening.

It’s a curious and fascinating (though somewhat outdated and paternalistic) concept; an old boys’ club that discusses matters of the moon… rather than (exclusively) golf, cigars, women and stocks – or, in Bali, tourists, money, women and ceremonies. Indeed, it’s an idea that I might have expected to discover among the male-dominated banjars of Bali.

Perhaps the time has come… for Balinese men to store away their roosters, their bird-hunting guns, their motorbikes – and convene instead on the rooftops of their local bale banjars for moonsighting gatherings. What a sight that would be…


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