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Muslim Astonomers In Action

An unintentionally hilarious article in the WaPo entitled, "Religion and Science Blend in a Centuries-Old Ritual"

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.


The 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference even proposed to launch a satellite to monitor the moon for Ramadan.

Science has also allowed precise tracking of the moon and the sun, allowing astronomers to know in advance that the crescent moon starting Ramadan will be visible in the Middle East no sooner than Sunday.

In the parking lot and in most of the Middle East, technology deferred to religion. Astronomers went through the motions, at least, of looking for the crescent.

"It's a matter of Islamic law we have to be here. But it's 100 percent sure we're not going to see it today," Faleh Mohammed, head of one of Egypt's government astronomy institute, told the al-Jazeera reporter.

A rumor went through the crowd that Libya had announced the start of Ramadan -- different countries often pick different days for the start and squabble over each other's decisions.

Mohammed scoffed. "What do they see in Libya that we don't see with our telescopes?" he asked.

Mohammed Yousuf, an astronomer in his eighth year of moon-watch duty, rose from another telescope.

The last time a member of a moon-watch committee thought he had spotted a crescent moon at this point in the lunar month was in 1991, Yousuf said. Other members of the committee were able to convince the man he had seen light glancing off a bird's wings, and error was averted, Yousuf said.

Even in Muhammad's time, Yousuf recounted, a man who believed he had spotted the crescent moon was about to announce Ramadan to the world -- until a friend leaned in and removed a stray eyelash from the man's eye.

At the next telescope over, astronomer Ahmed Mohem Fathi grumbled at Cairo's pollution, thick enough to veil any moon.

By 6 p.m., Mohammed was speeding off, rushing toward a news conference in Cairo with some of Egypt's top religious and government officials to announce the findings.

The word of Egypt's grand mufti, Ali Gomaa, would be: No moon Saturday, therefore the moon's appearance Sunday was inevitable, and Ramadan would start Monday.

Egyptian radio and television carried the grand mufti's announcement live. For many of Cairo's 16 million people, the joint broadcasts were a jolting reminder that Ramadan almost was upon them.

Traffic slowed to gridlock in a half-hour. Families rushed to buy food for the first of the month's lavish meals and aid baskets...

Month of fasting...with lavish feasts. No contradiction here. This is Islam.