| Children greet each other on Id at Jama Masjid in Delhi on Tuesday. Picture by Prem Singh
Bhopal, Oct. 24: A day of confusion has followed a night of suspense and anticipation in several areas of the country, when local muftis were coerced into declaring or postponing Id following disputes over sighting of the moon.
One group of Shias in Allahabad decided to celebrate Id today and another tomorrow.
Barely 210 km away in Lucknow, Shias observed the 30th day of the Ramazan fast while the Deobandis celebrated Id over kebab and sewaiyan. The Barelvi sect stayed away.
Government offices and schools in some states were not sure when to call the Id holiday, and even the Union cabinet shuffle came under a cloud.
But while Imam Syed Ahmed Bukhari dithered over declaring Id in the capital, President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam cleared the air by letting it be known that he had no problems swearing in ministers.
Authorities like the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, Imarat-e-Sharia, Majlis-Ahle-Hadith and the Shahi Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid were ignored by some muftis and qazis from the small towns, who insisted on sighting the moon with their own eyes.
Muslim scholars said much of the problem was that in India, unlike most of the Islamic countries, moon-sighting and festival dates are not determined by the government. Large parts of West Asia, Europe and North America, on the other hand, follow the Saudi dates.
In Bhopal, qazi Abdul Lateef waited well past midnight before declaring that Id would be celebrated on Wednesday. His stand was accepted but almost every face at the city’s Taj-ul-Masajid and Moti Masjid was grumpy.
“Our qazi sahib was misled,” an imam said.
Bhopal’s qaziat (department that interprets the Sharia) officials said there is debate over how to calculate the beginning of the month of Ramazan (or indeed any month).
The traditional method, mentioned in the Quran and followed by the Prophet, is to look at the sky and sight with the naked eye the slight crescent moon (hilal) that marks the beginning of a month.
A particular hilal sighting at night marks the next day out as the first day of Ramazan. At the end of the month, when the hilal is sighted again, Id-ul-Fitr begins.
Any practising Muslim can go to the local qazi and testify he had sighted the moon. But the qazi is supposed to crosscheck and cross-examine the claimant.
This seemingly simple method poses several problems. What if people in one area sight the moon but those in another don’t' Is it okay for them to start and end the fast on different days' What if one location is overcast and the moon is not visible'
Over the years, the clergy have worked out boundaries, demarcating what they consider acceptable territories of regional or zonal moon-sighting. For instance, the Lucknow-based Firangi Mahal school of theology would accept the moon sighted in Patna but not Nagpur.
Pro-changers wonder why the clergy bother to look for the moon when they can astronomically calculate when the new moon is born, and thus when the crescent should be visible' It would eliminate human error. But orthodox Muslims do not find this acceptable.
The prevailing opinion among Shias, Sunnis, Deobandis and Barelvis is that one should commit to a local, physical moon-sighting. Thus, the exact day of the beginning of Ramazan or Id is not known until the night before.
A section feels that the faithful across the globe should follow the moon-sighting in Saudi Arabia (a practice in the US, the UK and other parts of the world where Muslims are minorities). But for a large number of sects and sub-sects, Saudi Arabia’s primacy is unacceptable due to political and sectarian reasons.
Some smaller groups of Muslims in India, like the Bohras, follow the Egyptian Fatimid Calendar that has dates of all festivals earmarked well in advance.