Sighting of Ramadan crescent: When religion meets astronomy

Sighting of Ramadan crescent: When religion meets astronomy
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Saudi Arabia’s Supreme Court calls on Muslims to look for the crescent moon signaling the start of Ramadan and, if they sight it, to inform the nearest court. (Supplied photo)
Sighting of Ramadan crescent: When religion meets astronomy
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Saudi Arabia’s Supreme Court calls on Muslims to look for the crescent moon signaling the start of Ramadan and, if they sight it, to inform the nearest court. (Supplied photo)
Updated 07 May 2019

Sighting of Ramadan crescent: When religion meets astronomy

Sighting of Ramadan crescent: When religion meets astronomy
  • Small number of Saudi astronomers is surprising given the Kingdom’s role in moon-sighting
  • The start of Ramadan is determined by the lunar calendar which, unlike the Gregorian calendar, follows a 29- or 30-day cycle determined by the cycle of the moon.

RIYADH: Last week the Saudi Supreme Court called on all Muslims to look for the crescent moon signaling the start of Ramadan. On Saturday observers said that there was no sight of the crescent, meaning many Muslims around the world will begin fasting on Monday.

“The viewing of the crescent is a sensitive matter, because it is tied to both religion and astronomy,” Dr. Ayman Kordi, from the physics and astronomy department at King Saud University (KSU), told Arab News. 

“The crescent observer cannot be refuted. He is to be trusted, because it is a gift from Allah. So, from a scientific point of view, when mistakes are made we call them illusions.”

Kordi’s love of astronomy started by accident in 1984. He was at university, studying physics, when a miscalculation of the Ramadan crescent moon meant he and his Muslim colleagues fasted for 28 days.

“That year we were surprised that Ramadan was only 28 days. A huge error was made. We fasted, and Eid Al-Fitr came, but it stuck with me. It was still on my mind, that error.”

The start of Ramadan is determined by the lunar calendar which, unlike the Gregorian calendar, follows a 29- or 30-day cycle determined by the cycle of the moon.

Muslims anticipate the end of Shaaban, the month preceding Ramadan, by watching for the absence or presence of the crescent moon, which indicates the continuation of Shaaban or the beginning of Ramadan.

Sighting of the Ramadan crescent can be achieved through three methods: Telescopes and binoculars, astronomy, or the naked eye.

The 1984 miscalculation led to Kordi developing a passion for astronomy and, three years later, he joined King Saud University (KSU) as a lecturer.

He spent time under the guidance of Harvard astronomy graduate and KSU lecturer Dr. Salah-AlDeen Ibrahim. “I studied astronomy with him and taught students at the same time and, from then on, learned the conditions of sighting the crescent and other astronomy matters.”

It was during this period that Kordi and Ibrahim met the crescent observer in Sudair who had miscalculated Ramadan in 1984, to get a clearer picture of what happened.

“What did you see?” Kordi asked the observer.

“I saw two points (on the moon), one on the bottom and the other on the top,” the observer replied, and he believed that they were the two points of the crescent.

Kordi explained that this was a rare phenomenon to see with the naked eye and could be mistaken for the crescent. Yet there are certain conditions that need to be in place for there to be a crescent moon. 

In addition, it cannot be seen during the beginning of the Hijri month, only in the middle of it.

They used a program from the International Astronomical Union to accurately sight the crescent and the months in the Hijri calendar. “When we used the program and calculated back to that time, we later discovered that the two points he saw were the planets Mercury and Venus. From that time, we knew there were some mistakes, but the problem was the Umm Al-Qurra calendar.”




Dr. Ayman Kordi 

Kordi had written a paper on how Umm Al-Qurra made mistakes in sighting the Hijri months through the crescent. But now, after meticulous calculations and sightings, he began work on another paper which charted its accuracy.

He explained that the calendar used to be based on the new moon, but not anymore. “Now the Umm Al-Qurra calendar has made no mistakes for 18 years and we are aligned with its Hijri months. It might seem like the sighting of the crescent is a simple matter, but lots of science goes behind it even when witnessing it with the naked eye. Dust and haze can affect the actual sighting, it is what we call an illusion.”

The psychological aspect comes from these illusions of a crescent moon: Muslims know beforehand the new month is coming and believe they have seen the crescent.

There have been plenty of instances in the past where different Muslim countries have seen the crescent and — based on their sighting — declared it to be Ramadan or Eid.

“The world is round and therefore it is natural that there are differences in moon sightings,” said Kordi.

The astronomy lecturer said that most Muslim countries have settled on Saudi Arabia’s sighting for a unified Ramadan fasting and Eid Al-Fitr. “Since the countries have agreed on a Hajj date. I believe the countries have agreed on the Umm Al-Qura calendar, because it’s from Makkah and it’s extremely accurate. Saudi Arabia is a big country with a very small number of astronomers, you can count them on one hand.”

It is perhaps a surprise that astronomy does not enjoy more prominence in the Kingdom as a career choice or even as an academic option, given the country’s pivotal global role in moon-sighting and the importance of astronomy in Islamic culture. Muslim scientists invented the astrolabe, which is the basis of astronomy teaching worldwide.

The small number of Saudi astronomers can be attributed to a lack of jobs, insufficient encouragement and no clear career path. The Bachelor’s in astronomy at KSU stopped 20 years ago and is instead offered in combination with physics. People are more likely to adopt astronomy as a hobby than as a profession.

Kordi has an all-female class of five students who have a Bachelor’s in physics and are now studying for their Master’s in astronomy. “These ladies are a treasure, and we want to invest in them for the future of astronomy in Saudi Arabia,” he said. The start of Ramadan is determined by the lunar calendar which, unlike the Gregorian calendar, follows a 29- or 30-day cycle determined by the cycle of the moon. 


Saudi showjumpers riding high

Saudi showjumpers riding high
With SR130,000 ($34,600) in cash prizes, the three-day competition, held without spectators due to the coronavirus restrictions, has been organized by the Saudi Arabian Equestrian Federation (SAEF) in partnership with the Ministry of National Guard and the Diriyah Gate Development Authority. (AN photos by Huda Bashatah)
Updated 2 min 50 sec ago

Saudi showjumpers riding high

Saudi showjumpers riding high
  • Elite riders saddle up for $34,600 National Guard Ministry cup at Jeddah Trio Ranch

JEDDAH: The Saudi National Guard Ministry’s showjumping cup competition kicked off on Thursday at the Jeddah Trio Ranch, with Abdullah Al-Sharbatly and Dalma Malhas leading a top-class equestrian lineup.

With SR130,000 ($34,600) in cash prizes, the three-day competition, held without spectators due to the coronavirus restrictions, has been organized by the Saudi Arabian Equestrian Federation (SAEF) in partnership with the Ministry of National Guard and the Diriyah Gate Development Authority.
The competition consists of nine rounds, with three rounds each day. About 130 horses were registered in the competition. The fences were set at 1.15m for the small grade where about 80 riders competed on the first day.
Almost 40 equestrians took part in the 1.20m-1.25m medium grade. Another 20 competitors battled in the 1.30m-1.35m grade on the first day of competition.
“We have seven competitions under the names of seven ministries. After good international and Olympic results, support has doubled for equestrian sports, particularly showjumping,” a member of the SAEF technical committee, Ali Al-Sahli, told Arab News.
One rider, Naif Al-Sudairi, said that equestrianism in Saudi Arabia is making rapid advances on many levels.
“With Saudi Vision 2030, we now have more tournaments in all regions of the country, and the competition has heated up,” he told Arab News. “This can motivate the riders to improve and show our best in the run-up to international competitions.”
He added that he is looking forward to representing Saudi Arabia in the global equestrian events.

First day
In the small round on the first day of the competition, Khaled Al-Hady came first with 20 points. His horse, Doberlina Van de Kapel, came second with 18 points. Mohammed Hassan Al-Hadi was ranked third with 16 points, while Princess Al-Anoud Al-Saud secured fourth place with 14 points, and Waleed Al-Ghamdi was fifth with 12 points. Faisal Al-Ouda and Abdul Aziz Al-Hamazani came sixth and seventh, respectively.
In the medium class, Mohammed Al-Malki topped the ranking with 30 points followed by Khalid Al-Mobty, who collected 28 points. Badr Al-Fard came third with 26 points, and Abdullah Al-Sheikh was fourth with 24 points. Ahmed Bakarman came fifth with 22 points.

HIGHLIGHTS

• The competition consists of nine rounds, with three rounds each day.

• The fences were set at 1.15m for the small grade where about 80 riders competed on the first day.

• Almost 40 equestrians took part in the 1.20m-1.25m medium grade.

• Another 20 competitors battled in the 1.30m-1.35m grade on the first day of competition.

Malhas, who secured an individual bronze at the 2010 Youth Olympic Games in Singapore, after completing the round in 38 seconds without a single penalty, came ninth with 14 points. She is also the first Saudi female equestrian to take part in the individual hurdles at the 2018 World Equestrian Championship held in the US city of Tryon.


In the big round, Al-Sharbatly, who won the individual silver medal at the 2010 FEI World Equestrian Games, came first with 40 points, followed by Abed Sanosy with 38 points. Fahad Al-Ghamdi was third with 36 points, while Badr Al-Fard was fourth with 34 points, and Talal Al-Juaid came fifth with 32 points. Sultan Al-Qarza’e and Khaled Al-Mobty came sixth and seventh, respectively.

Riders’ journey
Muneer Al-Ayoubi, who has been riding for over 20 years, told Arab News that showjumping requires understanding between rider and horse.
“I have been participating in showjumping (activities) for more than two years. It is the most difficult type of horse-riding activities,” he said. “Unlike horse racing and endurance riding, contestants have to keep training their horses. The rider and the horse should appear as if they were one soul.”
Arwa Mutabagani, owner and managing director of Jeddah Trio Ranch, said that they have riders of different levels from all over Saudi Arabia.
Speaking about the preparation to host the competition, Mutabagani said: “The horses arrive a couple of days before the competition, so we have to be ready. On-site, we have 150 horses participating, so we have different locations to host all these numbers. We made the warm-up arena ready for the riders to prepare their horses for the show.”
An Italian equestrian expert was brought in to handle the timing and ensure there are no complaints, she said. Mutabagani said that she is training a number of female riders to become champions. Family support is essential in this type of sport, she added.
“To reach a top position, dedication, family and team support, and sacrifices are all elements that should go together. You also have to have a good instructor, a good horse, and you have to have the right competition that can help you move to higher levels,” she said.
She mentioned her daughter, Dalma Malhas, as an example, saying: “When she was competing, she was young and spent weekends at the shows and not with her peers. So, you have to sacrifice being a normal teenager to reach the top.”
Meanwhile, Mohrah Faisal, a female equestrian who took part in the small round, said that she is grateful to SAEF for supporting female riders. “We did not have such an opportunity in the past. Now I hope I can represent the Kingdom at the Olympics.”
She said that her family believed in her passion for equestrianism once they saw her succeeding in many local competitions.
Wafa Hasson, another Saudi female rider, said she competed in the UAE two years ago after SAEF gave women riders the green light, which helped them improve.
Female riders are still looking for opportunities to learn. “I want to go as far as I can. I don’t really have a limit, I just want to see what I can achieve and I will do my best to achieve it.”
Ghalia Al-Musa, another participant, said that she has been riding for 13 years, and her mother is still her biggest supporter.
“SAEF allowed female riders to compete along with male riders in 2019, and it was good news for all female riders. In the same year, SAEF selected the best female riders to represent Saudi Arabia in the Arab Women Sports Tournament in Sharjah, UAE. We came second as a team and I came fourth as an individual,” she told Arab News.
Al-Musa also hopes to represent Saudi Arabia in international events, including the Olympics.
Heavy rain in Jeddah on Friday forced the organizing committee of the National Guard showjumping cup to combine the second and third day of competition on Saturday (10 a.m. to 11 p.m.) when the competition will come  to an end.