In Pakistan, not over the moon

By Reuters Staff
September 25, 2009

By Zeeshan Haider

Pakistan is battling Taliban militants, trying to patch up relations with old rival India and struggling to revive a limping economy but another issue has preoccupied the country over recent days: the sighting of the moon that markes the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

A row erupted when the Eid al Fitr holiday that follows Ramadan was celebrated in several parts of North West Frontier Province (NWFP) on Sunday, a day ahead of the rest of the country. Many Pakistanis say that violated a spirit of harmony and unity that should mark one of the
most important events of the Islamic calender.

Some clerics in NWFP announced on Saturday evening that the crescent moon, which marks the end of a month in Islam’s lunar calender, had been sighted, meaning Ramadan was over and Eid would be celebrated the next day. But a government-appointed body of clerics responsible for
moon-sighting rejected the announcement, citing reports from the Meteorological Department that said the moon could not be seen on Saturday.

Clerics in  NWFP, a religiously conservative region on the Afghan border dominated by ethnic Pashtuns, have called Eid early before but this time the politicians jumped into the fray. The Awami National Party (ANP), a secular party ruling NWFP which is also part of the federal coalition, backed the clerics from its province who called Eid early.

Analysts say the ANP’s stand could be a aimed at winning the support of conservative Pashtuns.

Some ANP ministers exchanged barbs with Mufti Muneeb-ur-Rehman, the head of the federal government’s moon-sighting committee, and called for his removal.

Minister for Railways and senior ANP leader Bashir Ahmed Bilour described Rehman as a “remnant” of Pervez Musharraf, the former military ruler who stepped down as president last year after ruling the country for nine years, and said he should be replaced by Mufti Shahbuddin Popalzai, a hardline cleric from NWFP who called Eid early.

Rehman responded by saying Bilour was trying to stoke religious tension by promoting the conservative Popalzai.

“By demanding that Popalzai be made chairman of the Reut-e-Hilal (moon-sighting) Committee, Bilour is paving the way for Talibanisation in other parts of the country,” the News newspaper
quoted Rehman as saying.

Both Bilour and Rehman later toned down their rhetoric.

Bilour apologised for some of his remarks while Rehman said he would not oppose Popalzai’s appointment as a member of the central moon-sighting committee.

But debate is still raging in the media, amid calls for the federal government to take steps to ensure unity on religious questions.

“I have a simple suggestion to permanently end the annual moon-sighting controversy: a compulsory course in astronomy for all members of the Reut-e-Hilal Committee as well as those clerics who think that the moon should appear in Pakistan on the same day as in Saudi Arabia,”
Shakir Laskhani said in a letter published in the News newspaper on Thursday.

The daily said in an editorial headlined “Moon madness” scientific methods should be employed when sighting the moon.

“The time has come to find rationality”.

[Reuters pictures of Lahore's Badshahi mosque and sighting of the moon in Malaysia]

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