Astronomy EssentialsHuman World

When does Ramadan begin in 2019?

Crescent moon viewed beside minaret tower of a mosque against deep twilight sky.
Traditionally, the first sighting of a young moon marks the beginning of Ramadan. Image via Emirates 24/7.

The Islamic holy month of Ramadan falls at a different time each year because the Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar, based on the moon’s natural cycles. That’s why there isn’t a fixed date for Ramadan, which is the ninth month in this calendar, traditionally determined by an actual sighting of a crescent moon by the UAE’s moon-sighting committee. May 4, 2019, is the date of new moon, that is, a moon most directly between the Earth and sun for this month. New moon comes at 22:45 UTC on May 4; translate UTC to your time. That exact time of new moon makes the coming young moon sighting for the Middle East relatively clear; a young moon will be visible through telescopes and binoculars on May 5. Therefore, 2019’s Ramadan will most likely begin on May 6.

Will anyone on Earth be able to see the moon on May 5 with the eye alone? Yes. Possibly. But not from Europe or the Middle East, and likely not from the eastern half of North America. The chances are best for those for those living at longitudes farther and farther west in North or Central America, or on islands in the Pacific. The farther west you are on May 5, the more time will have passed on your clock since the instant of new moon. Thus, because the moon orbits Earth continuously, the moon will have had more time to move away from our line of sight to the sun, on the sky’s dome.

Young moon
View larger. Congratulations to Dustin Guy of Seattle, Washington, USA, who caught the young moon after sunset May 5, 2019. Thank you Dustin!

In other words, the farther west you are, the longer after sunset the moon will set and the darker your sky will be. For those reasons, the farther west you are on May 5, the more likely it is you’ll be able to see a young crescent in the western twilight sky after sunset with the eye alone.

Very thin crescent moon in orange twilight over sea and hill.
Jv Noriega caught a very young moon in March 2014, over the West Philippine Sea. Notice it’s set against a background of bright twilight.

Let’s consider the youngest moon that can be seen with the eye alone. By youngest I mean closest to new moon.

A longstanding, though somewhat doubtful, record for youngest moon seen with the eye was held by two British housemaids, said to have seen the moon 14 3/4 hours after new moon, in the year 1916. That story has been around for over 100 years. Is it true? Who knows?

A more reliable record was achieved by well-known writer, photographer, and naturalist Stephen James O’Meara in May 1990. He saw a young crescent with the unaided eye 15 hours and 32 minutes after new moon. Stephen had amazing eyesight when he was younger; he saw a number of noteworthy astronomical sights. Click here to read more about the youngest moons it’s possible to see.

I haven’t heard of anyone besting Stephen’s record, so let’s assume 15 hours and 32 minutes is the record for the youngest moon.

Will it be possible to see a young moon after sunset on May 5 from the Middle East? With the eye alone, probably not, but with optical aid, maybe. Let’s use Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as an example. Dubai is four hours ahead of UTC. New moon is 22:45 UTC on May 4; so the new moon comes at 02:45 a.m. on May 5 in Dubai. At sunset that evening (6:51 p.m.), as seen from Dubai, the moon will be about 18 hours old. I’ve seen an 18-hour-old moon with the eye alone – once, in all my 40-plus years of stargazing – under extremely pristine conditions, from the catwalk of a major astronomical observatory. It was very ghostly and hard to see! But I did see it without optical aid. It can be done, and springtime is the best time of year to do it (because, in spring, young moons are more directly above the sunset, instead of to one side of it).

The best place to attempt to catch sight of the young moon on May 5 with the unaided eye will be an island in the Pacific Ocean. Honolulu, Hawaii, for example, is 10 hours behind UTC. So new moon happens on May 4 at 12:45 p.m. for Honolulu. The next day, May 5, the sun sets at 6:58 p.m. On that evening, after sunset, the moon will be about 30 hours old and fairly easily visible.

As you go west from Hawaii to the International Date Line, the potential for a young moon sighting on May 5 continues to get better. It gets better still when you cross the International Date Line, into, say, Asia. From much of Asia on May 6, the young moon will be possible to see.

And – as Earth spins under the sky, and the moon moves in orbit, putting distance between itself and our line of sight to the sun – the moon will get easier and easier to see. It should be possible to see the moon from India or the Middle East on May 6, assuming you have excellent sky conditions.

Very thin crescent moon against black sky.
This young moon – June 2016 – marked a beginning of Ramadan. Abdulmajeed Alshatti took this photo from Kuwait.

Ramadan, for observant Muslims, is a time of fasting, prayer and charitable giving. Here is a beautiful poem about Ramadan, by Rumi, a 13th-century Persian poet and mystic:

O moon-faced Beloved,
the month of Ramadan has arrived
Cover the table
and open the path of praise.
O fickle busybody,
it’s time to change your ways.
Can you see the one who’s selling the halvah
how long will it be the halvah you desire?
Just a glimpse of the halvah-maker
has made you so sweet even honey says,
“I’ll put myself beneath your feet, like soil;
I’ll worship at your shrine.”
Your chick frets within the egg
with all your eating and choking.
Break out of your shell that your wings may grow.
Let yourself fly.
The lips of the Master are parched
from calling the Beloved.
The sound of your call resounds
through the horn of your empty belly.
Let nothing be inside of you.
Be empty: give your lips to the lips of the reed.
When like a reed you fill with His breath,
then you’ll taste sweetness.
Sweetness is hidden in the Breath
that fills the reed.
– Rumi

Perspective view with multi-domed mosque in background and long lines of men kneeling.
Men praying during Ramadan – a time of fasting, prayer and charitable giving – at the Blue Mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan.

Bottom line: The Islamic holy month begins with the sighting of a young crescent moon. New moon is May 4, 2019. The young crescent moon in the west after sunset should be possible to see with binoculars and telescopes on May 5, although those in far-western North America and islands in the Pacific might see the May 5 moon with the eye alone. The young crescent moon in the west after sunset should become visible to the eye alone for all of us on Earth (assuming clear skies) on May 6.

May 3, 2019
Astronomy Essentials

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