"Ramadan Mubarak!" My aunt called from Bangladesh, "we started our Ramadan from yesterday. How about you?"
"Well," I answered, "we started it from today ..."
"Hmm." I could imagine her raising an eyebrow across the transatlantic phone conversation. "H (her son - my cousin - who also lives in Toronto) started it yesterday. Did you miss one?"
Ofcourse we missed one, her son obviously was on the dot. Given that this was H's first year in Canada, we will excuse aunty's confusion. Yes, the media talks about the 'Muslim voice' and 'Muslim street' and the 'Muslim world ' as if we are one homogeneous entity, yet we in the same city cannot decide on the dates of our holiest days!
There are three schools of thought. The first one says since we follow Saudi calendar for the Hajj (i.e. the pilgrimage is performed in Mecca when it's time for Hajj according to the lunar calendar in Saudi) so we should follow Saudi time for Ramadan.
There are two problems with this school of thought. First, we don't pray when it's the time for prayers in Mecca. Though it would be very convenient to pray Fajr (our dawn prayer) in the evening, we pray when it's time to pray locally. Hajj we do according to Saudi times because we are there in Mecca when we do the Hajj.
The second problem is that the Saudi government is not sincere when it comes to their lunar sighting. They shift around the dates of the calendars according to their whim. Last year, Hajj fell on a Friday. Suddenly the Saudi government was petrified - Hajj on Friday is special, so there would be more people than usual and it would be a nightmare for the security forces. Suddenly, two 80-year-old men "appeared". They claimed they had "seen" the new moon of the Hajj month one day than previously thought. So the Saudi government declared it "believed" them, and shifted the day of Hajj to one day before - i.e. Thursday. Now two 80-year-old guys cannot see enough to tie their own shoelaces, and they can see the moon?
Personally I have seen that most of the minority of the mosques in Toronto that follow Saudi timing are Arab-centric mosques who want to celebrate at the same time as their families back on home.
The second school of thought is the one favoured by ISNA, who decide on astronomical calculations to predict the Islamic calendar. According to them, moon sighting is the means to an end. They point to prayer timings as an example. For example, in the times of the Prophet the time for Asr was when the length of the shadow of a stick is twice the length of the stick. No one does that anymore, we use calculations and clocks to say the time of Asr today, for example, is 6.13 pm. Similarly, one shouldn't have to physically sight the moon nowadays, we can use the calculations. Given this reasoning, ISNA has published the lunar calendar for the next two years (2006, 2007).
There is one problem with this though. There is a clear Hadith that says the Prophet's verdict in case of cloudy nights (when it would be impossible to see the moon even though it should be there by calculations) is to continue the month to it's 30th day.
The third school of thought is the orthodox school of thought. Every 29th day of the lunar month, people go and look for the new moon. If it is sighted, then the next day is the first day of the next month, else the next day is the 30th day of this month, following which the next month starts. Muslims have been using this rule for the last 1400 years.
My own personal opinion as a laymen is that following Saudi timing is complete bogus. The Saudis themselves are not honest brokers of the lunar calendar, relying on the Saudi government is fallacious. The ISNA suggestion should be debated at length by clerics around the world. When people first suggested using clocks and timings for prayers there was opposition as well. If found sound by the majority of the ulema, it should be adopted and we can have a Global Calendar. However, it should also be noted that ISNA is not consistent in its methodologies - it used different rulings last time around.
I personally favour the orthodox method, for now. It's agreed to by majority of the Muslims, mosques and ulema - and according to the prophet the Ummah will not agree on an error. Since the majority of the Muslims follow the orthodox method for now, this is how we should as well.
Not to mention that the date of Sunday as day 1 of Ramadan implies Eid will most likely be on a Monday - which is really convenient as a long weekend.
The same time, last year.