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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

A dish to track the moon religiously

FOCUS / ISLAMIC SATELLITE

A dish to track the moon religiously

Muslim scholars and politicians have agreed to launch an Islamic satellite whose prime assignment will be to watch the moon and report precisely the beginning of each month in the Islamic lunar calendar

By ALAN DAWSON

''Ramadan began across much of the Middle East, after religious officials declared they had seen the crescent moon on Monday night.'' (News item)

As they do each year, more than a billion Muslims around the world are celebrating the Arabic calendar month of Ramadan, when they put even greater focus on Islam by fasting during daylight and by spending extra hours and effort in prayer and contemplation of their religion.

And as they do each year, some Muslims began their celebration of the month on Tuesday, while others began to fast on Wednesday.

At the end of the month, Muslims will hold the feast of Eid al-Fitr, known as Hari Raya Puasa in the South. That will be on Nov 4, except where the end of the month is Nov 3.

The Arabic calendar used in Islamic affairs _ ''Ramadan'' is the name of a month, as well as a generic term used to refer to the fast _ is lunar-based and imprecise by today's standards. Each year, there is some suspense over the actual first day of Ramadan, because the calendar does not provide the exact moment of the crescent of the new moon which marks the start of a month.

By agreement of Muslims around the world, the beginning of Ramadan is set by senior religious figures in each country. Generally, the authorities appoint several respected men to scan the heavens for a new moon. If they spot it, Ramadan begins the next morning, otherwise it is postponed for a day.

This year, the estimated beginning of Ramadan was on Oct 4. The evening before, Islamic scholars, academics or others appointed by leading clerics in virtually every country of the world went outdoors and looked for the crescent. In most Middle East countries, they spotted it, and Ramadan began on Tuesday, as expected. Elsewhere, including in Thailand and most neighbouring countries, no one saw the new moon, so Ramadan began on Wednesday.

The month always lasts 30 days, however, so everyone knows when the breaking of the fast period for Eid al-Fitr will occur _ on Nov 3 for many, on Nov 4 in Thailand.

It may seem odd to 21st century non-Muslims, but the decision on the start of Ramadan is crucial. If a mistake is made and detected by the public _ and it has happened in the past _ the Islamic authorities involved will be highly shamed and perhaps demoted in their local religious duties. In Thailand, the declaration of the beginning of Ramadan is the exclusive responsibility of the Office of the Chularatchamontri. It is typically broadcast on Muslim radio stations and TV broadcasts the evening before the expected first day.

From time to time, southern Muslims have claimed they would decide the start of Ramadan based on the decisions from Kuala Lumpur. Islamic scholars in Saudi Arabia and at leading Muslim universities have forbidden such acts but they continue.

In Nigeria last year, two leading Muslim groups declared different starting days for Ramadan. Such errors can spark fierce arguments and even bloodshed, since the rules of the Ramadan fast are based both directly on the Koran and the words of the Prophet Mohammed.

Last January, a special moon-sighting committee in Saudi Arabia outraged and confused millions of pilgrims at the Haj when members got the date wrong by an entire 24 hours for the most important part of the ritual.

To avoid this confusion, Muslim scholars, academics and politicians have agreed to launch an Islamic satellite. It will perform numerous duties in space, but its prime assignment will be to watch the moon (''image the hilal'') and report precisely the beginning of each month, and other important calendar dates including the schedule for movements during the annual Haj at Mecca.

The project and the working satellite will be the responsibility of the Organisation of Islamic Conferences, the 57-country group which essentially is a Muslim ''United Nations''. Thailand has official observer status at the OIC.

Because the decision to launch a satellite involved working intellectuals, there is little doubt it will be achieved. Because it involved politicians, it has predictably been debated, delayed and generally batted around in the interest of achieving the greatest credit for the largest number of political leaders.

For example, it seemed the satellite could not possibly be launched this year, since Malaysia is the current chairman of the OIC. The satellite has to wait until the presidency rotated back to a Middle Eastern country or emirate.

Although the OIC has carefully kept almost all details of the satellite to itself, officials have stated the bird should be launched within 15 months, and be fully functional at least by Ramadan of 2007, if not next year.

The Space Studies Centre of Cairo University is in charge of the satellite project, but it has also been burdened by the OIC with a 15-member panel of government-approved experts, advisers and instructors from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt. It is led by Ali Juma, a Saudi.

The religious edicts authority (Darul Ifta) of Egypt was charged with raising the estimated $8 million needed to build and launch the satellite from willing Islamic countries.

The satellite will be programmed to photograph information on pollution and locust invasions, among other research, for the donor countries. Just one Muslim country, Tunisia, opposed the satellite. Religious authorities in the north African country said astrological observations were sufficient.

The main impetus for better decisions on dates has come most prominently from Pakistan and India, where both Muslim leaders and the public wondered why lunar observations could not be more precise than human sightings.

There have been few complaints from Thai Muslims about the imprecision, but most are aware that cloudy weather means Ramadan will be a day later than expected.

This year, with Ramadan falling in the midst of the rainy season, most Muslims philosophically prepared for Ramadan to begin on the later date.

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