By: Thalia Gigerenzer
Tonight, shortly before sunset, a small group of people will gather in Fremont's Don Edwards Park to re-enact an ancient Islamic ritual. Every year on the 29th night of Ramadan, a special committee of the Islamic Society of East Bay scans the horizon for the new moon's tiny sliver in order to declare the festival Eid al-Fitr.
According to 1,400-year-old Islamic tradition, Islamic holidays such as Ramadan and Eid cannot be declared without the physical sighting of the new moon. Ramadan is a month of fasting and self-restraint. Eid al-Fitr is the fast-breaking festival that marks the end of Ramadan.
But a small but growing number of Muslims are questioning whether this ancient tradition makes sense in areas where the climate and modern life can present great challenges to marking the holidays.
In Fremont, home to one of the Bay Area's largest and most diverse concentrations of Muslim immigrants, the issue of when to celebrate Eid has already caused quite a bit of confusion.
The new moon's crescent is only visible for a few minutes, and in places like Fremont, light pollution and fog make it about as elusive as the Cheshire cat.
It's even worse in San Francisco. Every year, Ali Sheikh, director of the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California in Oakland, goes to San Francisco's Ocean Beach to scout for the moon. But thanks to the city's famous fog, he hasn't seen the moon in four years.
In Fremont, various methods of announcing Eid have resulted in a clash of time zones.
Half of the city's mosques recently converted to a pre-fixed, scientific calendar. According to the calendar, which relies on astronomical calculations to predict the new moon, Eid will be on September 10.
Other mosques, however, including the group at Don Edwards Park, continue to depend on "local moon sighting." This method relies on an elaborate network of Muslim groups across North America, which report sightings through telephone calls, websites and Twitter.
And yet a third group of Muslims in Fremont look abroad to the homeland. They tune into satellite TV, which announces moon sightings in Afghanistan, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia or Iran. Iran frequently sends up a chartered airplane with an astronomer and cleric on board to scout for the moon.
The confusion starts at Ramadan. Aziz Omar, owner of the restaurant De Afghanan Kabob House, started Ramadan on August 11 after the moon was sighted in Kabul.
When his friends at the Pakistani restaurant next door came over that day to eat lunch, Omar asked them why they weren't fasting.
"They said Ramadan is tomorrow," Omar said, laughing. "I don't know if their moon is shining from the other side of the earth or what."
Most Muslim countries make allowances for the unpredictability of moon sightings by declaring a three-day national holiday around the time of Eid. But this uncertainty often clashes with the Western world's reliance on a common calendar, where taking a day off at the last-minute is not easy.
Tasneem Afridi, who works in a dental office in Fremont, used to spend the night before Eid checking the local mosque's voicemail for announcements. But she adopted the calendar method recently and so knows the dates of Eid and Ramadan a year ahead of time.
"These days, no one has time to wait for the moon," Afridi says.
Before adopting the calendar method, Sheikh Ibrahim Othman of the Bay Area's Muslim Community Association remembers trying to explain the unpredictable nature of Eid to his children's school teacher.
"They thought we were joking with them," Othman said.
These demands have driven many Muslims living in the Western world to turn to science. In 2006, one of the nation's largest Muslim umbrella organizations, the Islamic Society of North America, switched to a pre-fixed calendar based on astronomical calculations.
While many Muslims believe that the calendar system isn't in keeping with the Koran, Dr. Mohamad Rajabally disagrees. Rajabally, who is the president of the North American Islamic Shelter for the Abused in Palo Alto, says the tradition of science is deeply rooted in the Koran.
"In the time of the prophet, of course, people had to go out and look for the moon," said Rajabally. But today's technology allows us "to track the moon every second of every day," he said.
But the majority of Muslims in Fremont continue to battle fog and light pollution to scout for that tiny silver sliver. For Mushtaq Ahmed, President of the Islamic Society of East Bay, the moon sighting ritual is about recreating the ancient past. "You have to remember that this ritual was devised during the time of Prophet Mohammed, when there was no Internet, no Facebook," he said.
For Ali Sheikh, the ritual is about being close to nature. "You feel aware of the cycle of the earth," he said.