Saudi Arabia has gotten itself into trouble by mistakenly jumping the gun this Ramadan. The Muslim holy month of Ramadan officially ends each year, and the celebratory festival of Eid al-Fitr begins, when the slim crescent of a new moon is spotted in the sky, per the Prophet Muhammad’s instructions. Whereas Muslim communities once relied on local committees of star-gazers known as the Hilal to announce the new moon, countless mosques and Muslims worldwide now follow the Saudi authorities’ decision on when the celebrations can begin.
Last week the Saudis declared the end of Ramadan after reportedly sighting the crescent moon on Monday, prompting millions of Muslims to end their month of fasting. Since then, however, Saudi and Egyptian astronomers have proclaimed their doubt that a new moon could possibly have been seen on that date because it had eclipsed before sunset, suggesting that what the Saudi authorities spotted was the planet Saturn.
The accusation that the Hilal mistakenly took the moon for Saturn outraged Saudi scholars, who began preaching against the naysayers and even threatened to take legal action. According to the Saudi-based Arab News, during last Friday’s sermon, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah Al-Asheikh called the doubtful astronomers “motivated and deviated people with foul mouths,” adding that they “should be silenced.”
According to the state-run Fars News Agency out of Iran, Saudi government officials have since apologized and said they would pay Kaffarah – a payment made to atone for breaking the fast during Ramadan – for the entire Saudi population. And of course, the Iranians couldn’t leave the story alone without adding a jab to their long-time competitor, stating that Iran announces “the new crescent only on the basis of frequent sightings by the people.”
Mistakes certainly happen, although this time it may cost the Saudis their status as the caller of the end of Ramadan.