This piece was originally broadcast on Radio Scilly in May 2019.
A post on our COSMOS Facebook group from a London-based friend of mine prompted me this week to turn my attention, once again, to the Moon. Our last astronomy talk on St Martin’s looked at the Earth’s cultural relationship with the Moon, from dragons to werewolves, many of which mythical. And yet there are many cultures around the world for which the Moon has a very real influence.
My friend was requesting help to spot the new crescent Moon, on the evening of 5 May. As a Muslim and a keen amateur astronomer, he – and his group of friends based at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich – always look for the new crescent, to begin Islamic months.
The Moon plays a significant role in Islam, because Muslims follow a lunar calendar. Specifically they use the first appearance of the new crescent moon (after the non-visible New Moon) to determine the start of each month. The moon is thought to be a sign of God, and indeed is mentioned directly no less than 28 times in the Koran. In fact, the importance of getting the start of months correct and spotting that new Crescent, was one of the drivers for the study of astronomy across the Islamic world. And we have a LOT to thank for it! Numerous stars carry names given to them during the golden age of Islamic astronomy. Most of those in the plough, for a start (Alkaid, Megrez, Merak, Dubhe), plus Aldebaran, Deneb, Rigel, Saiph…. I could go on.
This month’s moon gazing was particularly significant, because the sighting of the new crescent determines the start of Ramadan, the most holy of Muslim months, during which followers fast from dawn to dusk.
While we don’t have a sizeable Muslim population on the islands, we are well placed to contribute scientifically to this important cultural area of astronomy; with both our dark skies and low, even horizons, chances are we’d be some of the first to spot a new crescent (far better than my friend in London, as I know from experience!). Sadly, however, the clouds didn’t play ball for us, so we had to leave crescent spotting to moon lovers in other climes. Indeed, the new crescent was not spotted anywhere in the UK, or Western Europe.
Believe it or not, particularly where Ramadan is concerned, the spotting of the new crescent can be a rather political issue in the Muslim world. Not all Islamic countries use the first sighting of the crescent Moon to signal the start of the month. Saudi Arabia (which has few official astronomers) has been accused of fixing the start of each month and has been criticised for its perceived ‘control’ of the Muslim calendar.
Many Muslim countries now follow the lead of the Saudis to set their dates, having veered away from raw astronomy into political allegiance. Those following the local moon in the UK started Ramadan on Tuesday 7 May, whereas those Muslims who follow the Saudi-led calendar started a day earlier, as the Saudi determined Ramadan to begin on 6 May. Bring back the astronomers, some say.
The Moon will be growing in size as the crescent waxes towards Full Moon on 18 May. Now is a good chance to grab those binoculars and cast your eyes up onto that celestial body that continues to have a hold over us earthlings.