Observers in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, use binoculars and telescopes on June 3 to observe the new crescent moon marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan and the coming of the Eid al-Fitr holiday. (Feriq Ferec/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The Middle East is Divided over Eid al-Fitr

Political disputes within Arab and Muslim states have spread to the dates of religious holidays

Division and ridicule are sweeping through the Islamic world because of disputes over the dates of Eid al-Fitr − the “Festival of Breaking the Fast” – which ends Ramadan, the holy month of fasting.

Hasan Nafaa, an Egyptian political analyst who teaches at al-Azhar University in Cairo, confirmed to The Media Line that Islamic countries have always differed on setting the first day of Eid al-Fitr, sometimes providing different interpretations of the Hadith (Traditions) of the Prophet Mohammad.

“What’s new this year is the fact that groups within some countries disagreed on the date of Eid al-Fitr,” he said.

Nafaa pointed out that these groups decided on the date based on their political positions and parties and whether they were Sunni or Shi’ite.

“In Yemen, the government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi [a Sunni] announced Tuesday as the first day of Eid, while the [rebel Shi’ite] Houthis said tomorrow [Wednesday] is the end of the month of Ramadan,” he elaborated. “The situation is the same in Syria.”

Nafaa urged Muslims to put aside political divisions when determining the dates of Eid.

“What’s happening is called the politicization of religion,” he explained, “and it’s being practiced by the ruling systems in the Arab countries.”

The Gulf Arab states (the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain) as well as Algeria and Lebanon announced that Tuesday would be the first day of Eid, while Egypt, Syria, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Libya said it would be on Wednesday.

The Royal Court of Saudi Arabia announced that Tuesday was the first day, confirming that the crescent moon of the new month of Shawwal had been sighted on Monday evening.

Hijri months end if the new moon is sighted by local religious authorities after sunset on the 29th day; otherwise they end after 30 days. Eid al-Fitr celebrates the conclusion of 29 or 30 days of dawn-to-sunset fasting during Ramadan. The Eid falls on the first day of Shawwal, the Hijri (Islamic) month that follows Ramadan.

“The difference lies in seeing the crescent,” Muhammad Hussein, the mufti of Jerusalem, told The Media Line.

Hussein explained that, based on Islamic law, the crescent must be seen on the evening before Eid.

“We have three locations in Palestine to determine it: in Hebron, Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, but the crescent didn’t show up. Therefore, we couldn’t announce Tuesday as the first day of Eid al-Fitr,” he said.

Hussein clarified that telescopes help in monitoring the moon but stated that original Islamic law says it must be seen by the naked eye.

“Anyhow, the Prophet Mohammad commanded us that if the crescent isn’t clearly seen [after 29 days], to fast [a full] 30 days in any case,” he said.

Mohamed Odeh, director of the International Astronomy Center, said in a statement that all of the astronomical institutions and 30 specialists from 14 countries agreed that observing the moon wasn’t possible on Monday “by any means, from Australia, Asia, Africa and Europe, which means that Wednesday will be the first day of Eid al-Fitr from the point of view of astronomical observation.”

Odeh stressed that the center was “not authorized to officially declare the feast” and that his mission was to explain the subject of astronomy and “clarify the scientific facts about the sighting of the crescent moon.”

Dahoud Tarawe, head of the Palestinian Astronomical Society, explained to The Media Line that countries always differed in determining the first day of the Hijri month, based on seeing the crescent moon in their locations.

“The countries that saw the crescent after sunset declared Tuesday the first day of Eid, while the countries that couldn’t see the crescent declared it to be Wednesday,” he said.

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