CAIRO - Differences on the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan are forcing Muslim minorities across Europe to turn to modern astronomy to help determine the first day of the fasting month.
"In the modern world, especially in the West, people can't decide on the fly to start or end the holy month at 10 p.m. the night before," Nidhal Guessoum, an Algerian-born astrophysicist, told Reuters.
Muslims have always differed on the beginning of the dawn-to-dust fasting month of Ramadan.
While one group of scholars sees that Muslims in other regions and countries are to follow the same moon sighting as long as these countries share one part of the night, another states that Muslims everywhere should abide by the lunar calendar of Saudi Arabia.
A third, however, disputes both views, arguing that the authority in charge of ascertaining the sighting of the moon in a given country announces the sighting of the new moon, then Muslims in the country should all abide by this.
This usually causes confusion among Muslims, particularly in the West, on observing the dawn-to-dusk fasting and celebrating the `Eid Al-Fitr, which marks the end of fasting.
Frustrated by this confusion, Muslim leaders across Europe are increasingly turning to modern astronomy to help solve the problem.
Astrophysicists like Guessoum, a physics professor at the American University of Sharjah, can now calculate exactly when the new moon will appear in the sky around the world.
That removes the problems the traditional sighting method has with clouds, pollution, ambient light in cities and false sightings of the hard-to-discern sliver in the sky.
This month, the Ramadan moon will first be visible in South America on July 19, then in most areas except northern Europe and Canada on the 20th and finally almost everywhere on the 21st.
Because of this delay, Guessoum would split the world into East, where most Muslim countries are, and West, essentially the Americas.
If the crescent could be sighted anywhere in a region, Ramadan would begin in that whole area the next morning.
Other Muslim scientists propose that as soon as astronomical calculations show the crescent could be seen anywhere in the world, Ramadan would begin everywhere the next day.
Turkey introduced this method decades ago and Muslims in the old Ottoman lands in the Balkans and in Germany, where most Muslims are of Turkish origin, follow this.
Ankara has already declared July 20th the start of Ramadan.
France, which has Europe's largest Muslim minority with mostly Arab roots, usually copies what Saudi Arabia decides.
But theological differences, ethnic divisions and the sheer weight of tradition are still holding up progress in using modern technology to decide the start of Ramadan.
"It's a bit confusing," Usama Hasan, senior researcher at the Quilliam Foundation in London, told Reuters.
"If they can't see the moon in Britain, they'll follow what's happening 'back home.' There's a lot of ignorance of the science."
This year, the Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe and the European Council on Fatwa and Research stepped up the campaign to use only astronomical calculations to determine the start of Ramadan and `Eid.
The Council declared last week that scientific calculations are fully acceptable according to Islamic Shari`ah and announced on Monday that Ramadan would start this year on July 20th.
Mohammed Moussaoui, president of the French Muslim Council (CFCM), said French Muslim organizations would most probably agree on this method later this year and apply it from 2013.
There are suggestions in France that some Christian holidays be replaced by Muslim and Jewish days, in respect for those minorities, but Paris needs fixed dates well ahead of time.
"Most Muslims want a calendar based on these calculations so they can organize things in advance," Moussaoui told Reuters.
But not everybody may agree.
The two European groups backing this harmonization are mostly ethnic Arab. Muslims of other backgrounds, especially from the Subcontinent, might be reluctant to follow them.
"I don't expect Britain to follow for a number of years," Guessoum said.
Ramadan is the holiest month in Islamic calendar.
In Ramadan, adult Muslims, save the sick and those traveling, abstain from food, drink, smoking and sex between dawn and sunset.
Muslims dedicate their time during the holy month to be closer to Allah through prayers, self-restraint and good deeds.
It is customary for Muslims to spend part of the days during Ramadan studying the Noble Qur'an.Many men perform i`tikaf (spiritual retreat), spending the last 10 days of the month exclusively in the mosque.