Caught Between the Moon, Iran and Saudi Arabia: Muslims Divided Over Ramadan's End

Saudi Arabia announced the sighting of the crescent moon, marking the start of Eid al-Fitr, but some disagree ■ Worshipers in Israel and the Palestinian territories are celebrating on Wednesday

A supporter of Hizb-ut Tahrir party gestures as Palestinian security forces detain the party members who try to perform Eid al-Fitr prayer, Hebron, June 4, 2019.
Mussa Qawasma/Reuters

Controversy brewed Monday night over when exactly the Muslim holy month of Ramadan ends and Eid al-Fitr begins. Religious leaders in different countries were divided over the dates, causing widespread confusion across the Muslim world, including in a number of communities in Israel.

Ramadan begins and ends with the sighting of the first crescent moon the day after the new moon. Even though the exact date can be scientifically determined years in advance, Muslim communities wait for visual confirmation from religious leaders. Without spotting the crescent moon, the month of Shawwal, whose beginning marks the three-day-long Eid al-Fitr holiday, cannot formally begin.

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For decades, Saudi Arabia's Supreme Court has formally announced the end of Ramadan and the beginning Eid al-Fitr via the king's bureau. Saudi Arabia announced that they successfully spotted the crescent moon at the end of the daily fast on Monday evening, ending the holy month and designating Tuesday as the first day of Eid al-Fitr. Announcements of the end of Ramadan followed in most of the Gulf states, as well as in Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and Algeria.

However, public figures in Israel and in some Arab states, as well as in social media discourse, claimed that the Saudi declaration was not based on religious considerations alone: Iran had already announced by Monday afternoon that the holiday will begin on Wednesday. The Saudis, commentators said, deliberately announced the holiday's start on Tuesday in order not to adopt their arch-foe's assessment.

Muslim worshippers perform Eid al-Fitr prayers at the Suleymaniye mosque in Istabbul, Turkey, June 4, 2019.
AFP

In an unusual move, Jordan and Egypt did not follow in lockstep. They announced that the crescent moon was not visible, meaning that Tuesday marks the end of the holiday and that Eid al-Fitr falls on Wednesday instead. Malaysia, Syria, Sudan, Indonesia, Libya and Tunisia took the same position. 

Confusion also reigned in the Palestinian territories and Israel's Muslim communities, who usually mark the holiday according to Saudi Arabia's declaration. A number of mosques announced the beginning of the holiday on Monday night, starting a commotion between those who did and did not accept Saudi Arabia's declaration.     

Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Sheikh Muhammad Ahmad Hussein formally announced that the crescent moon could not be seen from the three stations in Jerusalem, Hebron and the Lower Galilee city of Arabeh. His position was supported by the council of Imams in Israel, which called on the imams who had already announced the beginning of the holiday to recant.

Members of Palestinian security forces confront with supporters of Hizb-ut Tahrir party who try to perform Eid al-Fitr prayer, Hebron, June 4, 2019.
Mussa Qawasma/Reuters
Lebanese security forces stand guard as Muslim worshippers perform Eid al-Fitr prayers outside the Mohammad al-Amin mosque in downtown Beirut, June 4, 2019.
Anwar Amro/AA/AFP

A number of West Bank mosques declared that the holiday had already began on Tuesday, and Palestinian police prevented one Hebron mosque from doing the same. The police claimed that the Council of Palestinian Muftis's position is binding, and that local religious leaders cannot decide for themselves on the matter.

Hussein explained in a conversation with Nazareth's Radio al-Shams on Tuesday morning that according to Islamic law and the Prophet Muhammad's statements, there must be visual confirmation of the crescent moon before Ramadan can end. According to the mufti, it is possible that the moon was visible in some countries and not others, and that he believes that political considerations and Saudi Arabia and Iran's rivalry are not the source of the controversy.

Muslim worshipers attend Eid al-Fitr prayer at the Uganda National Mosque in Kampala, Uganda, June 4, 2019.
Badru Katumba/AFP