The Moon-Sighting Committee Doth Decree
The Moon Sighting Committee looks a lot like I would think a moon-sighting committee might look.
Eid Mubarak, friends! Our homecoming happily coincided with the end of Ramadan and a short holiday for my husband. Last night in Saudi Arabia, the Moon-sighting committee doth decree that yesterday was the end of Ramadan, and today marks the first day of Eid Al Fitr. A “moon-sighting committee,” doesn’t that sound far out?! This breaking news reminded me of last summer. My husband landed here in Abu Dhabi this time last year, almost to the day. Our new home seemed so exotic and strange from the great distance we were apart. I was still in the states finalizing the move out of the house we sold, crashing in friend’s homes and saying our goodbyes. Meanwhile each night, I was hearing 1,001 tales of Abu Dhabi and, man, were they strange! My husband got here at the tail end of Ramadan, which we are in right now. Even before I arrived, our family was beginning to learn a lesson that will benefit each of us greatly throughout the rest of our lives. There are some things in this world we may never be able to fully understand or control. It might be the simplest lesson of all, but one of the hardest to learn.
My husband had just begun his new job, and I remember him recounting an enigmatic incident that occurred as he was leaving the office his first or second day of work. This story has stuck with me for 365 days. I am still trying to understand it. As he was walking out the door, a lady at the front desk called after him,
“Mr. Robert, Mr. Robert! Wait!” No one knew him yet and very little actual work occurs during Ramadan, so he was taken aback and turned to her with a bewildered “What Me?” sort of expression on his face.
“Mr. Robert,” she continued with an excited smile, “we may not work tomorrow.” He returned her smile and responded,
“That’s nice. Why? And, when you say ‘may’ what does that mean?” She said,
“Tomorrow may be the Eid al Fitr: the end of Ramadan. We will know only tonight when the moon comes out.”
If I know my husband, his engineer mind could not possibly comprehend the numinous quality of this statement. Nor could he accept the idea that he may or may not work tomorrow with relation to any aspect of the moon. I can only attempt to recollect the dialogue thereafter.
“Well, no. That’s ok. My family is not here, and I don’t really know anyone yet. I am happy to work. I think I may come in tomorrow no matter what happens with the moon. Is that all right?” Aghast, the young lady replied,
“No, sir. You cannot work. No one will work, if it’s the end of Ramadan. We will celebrate a joyous day tomorrow, Insha’Allah.” She replied passionately. “If only the moon is just right, there is no work, only food and party.”
I can imagine my husband’s head cocked just so trying to process this information presented, not to offend her or Islam, but still make it fundamentally clear that this made no sense to him. In the end, I bet he just rolled with it—he can do that sometimes—jet lag helps a lot. The prospect of a day lying in couldn’t have sounded bad to him just then either, and he replied,
“Okay, so how will I know?” His acceptance of this good fortune must have relieved her. After all, who doesn’t want a day off? She beamed,
“I will call you when the moon comes out, okay, Mr. Robert? I will tell you.”
What the moon did tell last night.
She clasped her hands together at her fait accompli (getting an engineer to grasp a matter that both requires a leap of faith and is antithetical to reason) and darted off. I guess she was responsible for making certain that the newbie didn’t show up the next morning to locked office doors because no one had bothered to tell him about exactly how the moon came out–sucker. Last summer, I thought she was probably the pious sort who actually believed in the whole “moon thing,” but, having been here a year, I know that, more likely, she waited until the announcement of the moon’s orientation to first call my husband and then to go out and party. Who can blame her? An impromptu week off is worthy of a celebration, right?!
One year in, I can honestly say I still don’t understand this aspect of Islam. I am still quietly wondering to myself why they don’t understand that for hundreds of years we have been able to predict the moon’s orientation. I wonder what they do if the night happens to be cloudy. Exactly who makes up this moon-sighting committee, and how does one qualify to be in it? All I know is that this aspect of Islam is steeped in tradition. It doesn’t really add up if you examine it logically. If you scratched its surface you could find a lot of flaws, but the same would be true for its counterparts: Judaism and Christianity—all three are riddled with inconsistencies if you attempt to regard them as a scientist, fact-checker or historian. It’s better to assume the role of a tourist with regard to a religion that is not your own. You will never fully get it; It’s not yours to critique. It is yours to marvel at its beauty: poetically and spiritually, but ignore its deficiencies. I am no closer to having a greater depth of understanding about the traditional culture at large here, but I can grasp the bigger picture. The UAE is a country careening towards the future at a breakneck pace, while simultaneously trying to hit the breaks and retain traditions; a challenging balance, if not an impossible one to strike. I was not here for much of Ramadan, but it was thought provoking to catch the end of it. I cannot even fathom the act of fasting for even one day, let alone 30! I cannot imagine the amount of piety it must take to perform this ritual. The moon-sighting committee will serve as a reminder to me about the virtue of tolerance. There are things numinous and things spiritual that will not make absolute sense to us as we walk through life, especially if we take the opportunity to travel. We must accept these aspects of different cultures because they are dear to our neighbors, because we are all human, and because we are all better for attempting to understand what makes each other tick rather than assume postures of superiority, difference or of conflict. We must learn about and honor what is important to our fellow world-dwellers because it creates a culture of peace.
Here is a brief explanation of this tradition for anyone interested. I did learn that moon-sighting has something to do with camels, which, of course, makes it endlessly fascinating to me. The Shawwāl (شوّال) is the tenth month of the lunar Islamic calendar. Shawwāl means to ‘lift or carry’; so named because she-camels normally would be carrying a fetus at this time of year. Moon-Sighting at Ramadan (acc. to Wikipedia):
There is a debate among the Muslim community on just how to calculate the beginning of the month of Ramadan (or indeed any month, but Ramadan takes on special importance). The traditional method, mentioned in the Qur’an and followed by the Prophet Muhammad, is to look to the sky and visibly sight the slight crescent moon (hilal) that marks the beginning of the month. If one sees the hilal at night, the next day is the first day of Ramadan and thus the first day of fasting. At the end of the month, when the community sights the hilal again, the Festival of Fast-Breaking (‘Eid al-Fitr) begins.