Moonstruck: The Politics of Ramadan

Calculating the dates of Ramadan is an annual debate in the Middle East, and politics is never far from the equation.

A few years ago, as Ramadan came to a close, an Iraqi family in Samarra set out for their cousins’ home for a much-anticipated Eid al-Fitr feast. Upon arrival, they found only half of their family was celebrating Eid. Half was still fasting, insisting the month of Ramadan still had one day to go. Calculating the dates of Ramadan is an annual debate in the Middle East, and politics, sectarianism, and ethnicity are never far from the equation.

The month of Ramadan, which starts at the end of this week, begins and ends with the appearance of the new moon. Yet, there is no single Islamic authority to proclaim moon sightings. Sightings vary by place, skies can be overcast, and some argue between the merits of physical observation and astronomical calculation. Saudi Arabia’s allies tend to abide by the edicts of the Kingdom’s religious authorities, while Iran issues its own proclamations. A few outliers like Morocco and Oman prize their moonsighting autonomy.

It is not only states that use Ramadan to flex their credentials. From the secular Syrian opposition council to the jihadi-salafi leadership of the Islamic State group, actors have used fasting schedules as a symbol of authority. In Shi’ite communities, different independent scholars hold great sway as well.

Even within families, consensus is often elusive. Sometimes some relatives will heed local authorities, while others follow Mecca or one of the Shi`ite seminaries. American Muslims are at the forefront of an effort to embrace scientific calculation. Ramadan is a time of community, but getting everyone around the same table can be more complicated than meets the eye.

This piece is a part of Mezze, a monthly short article series spotlighting societal trends across the region. It originally appeared in the Middle East Program's monthly newsletter, Middle East Notes and Comment. For more information and to receive our mailings, please contact the Middle East Program.