How to determine the beginning of Ramadan comes into question each year at the beginning of this holy month within both the Muslim community as well as the community at large. How do Muslims determine the beginning of Ramadan and why is it that we may differ on the starting day?
While all Muslims agree that Ramadan is the ninth month of the lunar calendar and the moon is the main factor of starting the month, the actual sighting of the moon is a point of division. Muslims are divided into two major groups. One of which, chooses to take literally what Prophet Muhammad said when he stated: Observe fast on sighting it (the new moon) and break (fast) on sighting it (the new moon), but if the sky is cloudy for you, then complete the number (of thirty) and the other look to what they believe was Prophet Muhammad’s intent in the statement above. Supporting their view by the following statement of Prophet Muhammad: We are an illiterate nation; we neither write, nor know accounts. The month is like this and this, i.e. sometimes of 29 days and sometimes of thirty days.
Their conclusion is that Prophet Muhammad was mindful of his people, at a time without technology where many were illiterate, and he opted to make it easy for them. Using what they believed to be his intent led them to welcome technology to make it easy for people and in their view seeing the actual moon is not a requirement but rather an assurance that the moon can be seen which is a situation that can be determined through astronomical calculations.
Those who follow the latter opinion (myself included), also point to the use of technology in Muslims daily lives regarding prayer. In the time of the Prophet the way of determining prayer times was by the location of the sun and the measurement of shadows. Currently worldwide Muslims use apps and computer programs when determining the suns position in fulfilling the requirement to pray 5 times a day at specific intervals. By the same measure using technology in determining the moons position can be acceptable.
In its statement, the Fiqh (Jurists) Council of North America (FCNA) as well as the European Council of Fatwa (Religious Ruling) and Research (ECFR) said the following:
Scientific astronomical calculations inform us of the timing of true sighting of the crescent in a definitive way in advance. They can never contradict a true sighting of crescent. The theory that different locations mean different dates is irrelevant since the Prophet’s address is expressed in general terms: “Observe fasting, when seeing it and break fasting, when seeing it.” Agreed upon also the Prophet, peace be upon him, says: “The day of fasting is the day you fast and the day of breaking the fast is the day you break your fast and the day of sacrifice is the day you offer your sacrificial animals.”
Islamically, fasting according to either position is acceptable.