Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Perspective on Ramadan Crescent and the Pope's Speech

Religious passions have a direct bearing on our spirituality, so it is important that we evaluate these passions from time to time to steer ourselves in the right direction.

One particular issue that ignites Muslim passion is marking the beginning of Ramadan. It determines not only the day we begin fasting, but also the days we celebrate Eid-ul-Fitr, the feast of fasting, and Eid-ul-Adha, the feast of sacrifice.

Most Muslims have traditionally split between two schools of thought, one going with moon-sighting announcements from the Middle East, typically Saudi Arabia, and the other with local moon-sighting. In most cases, the former begins Ramadan a day earlier, and celebrates the two Eids also a day earlier, than the latter.

About a month ago, the Fiqh Council of North America (FCNA) announced that it would use astronomical calculations to determine the beginning of the Islamic lunar months “with the consideration of the sightability of the crescent anywhere on the globe.” The sightability criterion was for the new moon to be born before 12:00 noon GMT somewhere on the globe before the end of the night in North America.

The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) endorsed FCNA and referred interested Muslims to its Website for a “50+ page analysis and a PowerPoint presentation” for details.

The response was swift. The Islamic Shariah Council of Northern California, along with other organizations, issued a statement refuting the decision of FCNA to pre-fix the beginning of the lunar months on the basis of the said criterion, and forcefully reiterated its decision to continue with local moon-sighting.

A close reading of FCNA and the Sharia Council declarations, however, reveals a startling fact: The two groups have used the same set of core Quranic verses and sayings of the prophet to justify their respective conclusions and refute the other!

So what’s new, a cynic might ask.

What is new is that for the first time, FCNA has defined a specific astronomical calculation to mark the beginnings of lunar months, particularly the month of Ramadan. This has had the unfortunate effect of revealing more sharply than ever the latent acrimony between the two schools of thought and polarizing Muslim communities further.

Why does this particular issue arouse such passion? More importantly, can we do something about it?

I believe the heightened passion is due to a myth that has gone unchallenged for too long, which is that to begin fasting on the same day and to celebrate the two Eids together reflect Muslim unity at it best. Conversely, not doing so implies that Muslims are fragmented and disunited.

It is time we exploded this myth once and for all. Muslim unity has nothing to do with the same-day commencement of Ramadan or its same-day ending. It is a false criterion, a red herring that leads to bitter finger-pointing such as “You have sold your soul to the Saudis,” “No, you have sacrificed independent thinking on the altar of your ignorance,” and so on.

Once the myth is gone, the invectives can disappear and the stress that accompanies the start of the sacred month can be a thing of the past.

But we can also look at the issue in a more positive way. Consider this saying of the Prophet: “The differences of opinion among the learned within my community are a sign of God’s grace.” In this light, we see the two schools of thought not as a cause for anger or sorrow but as a blessing. After all, both schools consist of Muslim scholars, imams, astronomers and professionals drawn from different fields. Why not celebrate their good intentions, even if their conclusions differ?

This points to two larger problems, however: first, the inability of many Muslims to articulate their position without indulging in overheated rhetoric and second, responding to religious provocations with violence. The reaction to Pope Benedict’s “evil and inhuman” speech is only the latest of such examples.

Muslims had a right to be offended by Pope Benedict XVI quoting a 14th century Byzantine emperor’s insult of Prophet Muhammad and “his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” Many Muslim leaders and organizations responded to the Pope’s speech at the University of Regensberg in Germany on September 12 with calm dignity and accepted his subsequent expression of regret, but there were also many shrill and incendiary denunciations that were disgraceful. And there could certainly be no excuse whatsoever for the firebombing of churches in the West Bank and Gaza and the killing of the Italian nun Leonella Sgorbati in Mogadishu.

Even though we cannot control the behavior of a minority of deviants and extremists among the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims, it must never keep us from unequivocally condemning their acts of terror and bring them to justice whenever possible. Many Muslims, in fact, were quick to condemn these acts and demanded the apprehension of the perpetrators. Surely the Quranic warning that “if anyone kills an innocent human being it is as if he has killed all mankind” applies to the killers of the 65-year-old nun in Somalia.

As we transcend our polarizing passions in the month of renewal that is upon us, and as we work on improving our ability to articulate our opinions, we should also recognize that in a world of contending truths, provocations through words, cartoons, pictures or movies should be met not with violence or displays of religious chauvinism but with dialogue and decency.

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