Jul 24, 2011
The Muslim fasting month of Ramadan may begin on August 1 this year. Or perhaps it will not. The start of Ramadan must be determined by religious clerics observing the new moon with the naked eye. Also, Ramadan may begin in different countries on different days – because the new moon appears on different days as it orbits the earth. Islamic obsession with physically observing the new moon obscures the embarrassing truth that the accuracy of time doesn’t really matter much in Islam.
Today’s quartz watches have an accuracy of 10 to 20 seconds a year. A watch that gains or loses even a few minutes a day would be discarded, or at least sent to the jeweler for repairs. So it is remarkable that Muslims use a calendar which is out-of-sync with the solar year by eleven days a year. A wristwatch marking Muslim time would be off by 43 minutes a day!
The explanation for this phenomenal inaccuracy in keeping time is that Muslims observe a lunar year while the rest of the world observes a solar year. Long ago, observing the moon was a crude but convenient way of marking the passing of calendar months, but almost nobody was foolish enough to believe that 12 cycles of the moon constituted a full year. Long before Islam was introduced, astronomers adjusted between the lunar year and the solar year by inserting the missing days in a “thirteenth month” – a process called “intercalculation.”
But the moon is a central element of Islamic ideology. In the Quran, Allah swears by the moon (Surah 74:32). The crescent moon adorns the tops of mosques and the flags of Muslim countries. Some scholars even assert that Allah is actually the Moon God of the Meccan Quraysh tribe. Because the moon is so central to Islam, using the moon to mark time became an important religious distinction for Muslims – even if it failed to mark time accurately. So in his final address to Muslims, Muhammad made a major point of condemning the practice of intercalculation:
“Intercalculating a month is an increase in unbelief whereby the unbelievers go astray; one year they make it profane, and hallow it another, [in order] to agree with the number that God has hallowed, and so profane what God has hallowed, and hallow what God has made profane. . . The number of months with Allah is twelve: [they were] in the Book of God on the day He created the heavens and the earth.” (Al Tabari, Vol. IX, para. 1754, and Surahs 9:36 and 9:37)
The origins of Islam were basically urban, with many allusions to trade and commerce in the texts. Seasons were not as important to urban dwellers as they were to farmers. Islam had a poor understanding of agriculture, as reflected by the claim that rainfall was important for farming in Egypt (Surah 12:49) or that the moon could be used to determine the seasons (Surah 10.5). So it was probably disconcerting to Muhammad that the farmers around Medina used the Jewish intercalculated solar calendar in preference to the Muslim lunar calendar. Ultimately, Muhammad and Quran condemned that as un-Islamic.
For Muslims the calendar wasn’t used primarily for planting or harvesting crops. Rather it was used for determining when Muslims could engage in fasting, pilgrimages, and most importantly, collective jihad. Read Surah 9:36 again: “. . . And fight against those who ascribe divinity to aught beside Allah, all together – just as they fight against you, [Oh, believers] all together.”
Modern Islamic apologists extoll the virtue of the shortened year because it allows the fasting month to occur during all the seasons of the year, and thus helps Muslims experience and understand the plight of needy fellow Muslims during all seasons. There are plenty of studies, however, that show that Muslims actually consume 50% more food during Ramadan than during other months in the year. So much for experiencing poverty! Anyone who has seen farmers harvesting their crops at night by lamp-light during Ramadan -- because they physically cannot work the fields without food and water during the harvest season -- would have no sympathy for the merits of a seasonally rotating fasting season.
So this year, I hope my Muslim friends will take time to reflect on the abject failure of Islamic timekeeping to be useful for anything – whether it is knowing when to plant crops or when to schedule a major holiday. A $20 Timex watch almost 50,000 times more accurate.
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