What do religious authorities look for the night before Ramadan?

Religious authorities look to the sky to find out when Islam's holy fasting month shall begin

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Religious authorities will cast their eyes upward for a sighting of the moon to find out whether Islam’s holy fasting month of Ramadan begins on Monday or Tuesday.

The Islamic calendar directly follows the lunar cycle, meaning that each month is comprised of 29-30 days rather than 28 or 31.

This can be understood more clearly when compared to the Western Gregorian calendar, where the Islamic calendar shifts backward each year, so each Islamic New Year begins a few days earlier every year.

Due to these shifts, the Islamic calendar lacks specificity and precise dates. It depends on when the new crescent moon appears and is seen by two reliable witnesses.

This, however, can lead to different start dates for the new month, due to some countries witnessing the new moon before others.

This is why Eid is often celebrated on different days in different locations. Only religious scholars, bodies and governments have the right to proclaim the exact date of Eid and other religious holidays.

The beginning of Ramadan has traditionally been based on “hilal” sightings, which is the traditional method mentioned in the Quran and followed by the Prophet Muhammad.

It dictates that one is to look to the sky and visibly see the slight crescent moon, referred to as hilal, which marks the beginning of the month. If one sees the hilal at night, the next day is the first day of Ramadan.

Scholars believe that people who observe the fast should base the start of Ramadan on hilal sightings in their own country.

In those places where the sun does not set at all, one must observe the times of the nearest place where it does.

However, this leads to confusion over which city to follow, so most people in that situation observe the times of Mecca, since that is the place to which the Quran’s verses originally referred.

As Ramadan moves on, the moon “grows” into different phases. The second phase is the half moon, followed by the gibbous and then the full moon, which marks the halfway point of Ramadan.

The moon then moves backward through the phases until reaching hilal again, meaning that Ramadan has ended and the Festival of Fast-Breaking (Eid al-fitr) begins.

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