Night of Doubt, Days of Wrath

The Muslim religious calendar, following the cycles of the moon, drifts around the calendar year in a 30-year cycle; religious festivals and dates are determined by the rise of the new moon in a particular place, and modern astronomy allows it to be calculated and fixed with scientific predictability. So why, asks a journalist, does the Algerian state insist on an annual charade of pretending to look for the new moon that portends the beginning of Ramadan, and occasionally lying about it, just to keep the ‘night of doubt’ unpredictable?

To start with, and make our subject comprehensible, I should say that there are two distinct methods for determining when the lunar month begins.

a) The empirical, traditional method – by looking through a telescope for the first hint of the lunar crescent.

b) The astronomical calculation method, which simply takes into account the moment in time, ‘t’, when three celestial objects – the Earth, the Moon and the Sun – line up.

For a long time now, astronomical calculations have allowed us to calculate with spectacular precision the dates and hours of these astronomical alignments that punctuate our lives. The ancient Muslim astronomers and mathematicians – among them Al-Battani and Al-Biruni- pioneers of modern astronomy – called this alignment ‘qiran’ or ‘tarasuf.’ (…)

The important thing to realize is that, whatever method one chooses, whether it be naked-eye observation, or astronomical calculations, it is both scientifically and logically impossible to have the same lunar calendar dates for the whole Muslim world, as long as there is no fixed point, no unique geographical landmark (like Mecca or the International Date Line) that can be agreed on by all Muslim Countries as the reference.

This being Algeria, things are even more complicated due to the ambiguity of the dates for the beginning and end of the sacred month of Ramadan. The problem has become chronic, and even more than the incompetence of the regime, shows its sick obsession with making decisions in the veil of darkness, determining every detail of our lives in secrecy and ambiguity.

The sacred has thus been shrunken, like so many things in our lives, into the regime’s private domain, in this case via the Ministry of ‘Religious Affairs.’ For decades now, every year before the month of Ramadan begins, Algerians are afflicted with the repeat of this odious masquerade they call the ‘night of doubt,’ which is nothing more than an insult to the intelligence of the citizens. This ‘night of doubt,’ is generally managed by committees organized by a state that arrogantly claims the right to fix the dates for the beginning and end of the month of fasting; and the state’s decision is itself linked to the moment’s domestic or foreign circumstances, its alliances or allegiances toward the Saudi Monarchy. Sometimes they rely on the empirical method of observation, sometimes on the scientific method of calculation.

The most revolting and abject aspect of the whole charade is that we often find the regime producing false testimonies of people who are pretending to have ‘seen’ the crescent of the moon, when it is astronomically and mathematically impossible for them to have seen it.

Of course this entire political and religious flim-flammery is an integral part of a much bigger charade: the political and moral illegitimacy of a regime that never ceases to pile up an ever deeper heap of fakery.

Abdelkader Dehbi