France's Muslim leaders have agreed to end almost 1,400 years of Islamic tradition and use modern astronomy to determine the start of the holy month of Ramadan and other Islamic holidays.
The French Muslim Council (CFCM) voted on Thursday to start using astronomical calculations to set the date rather than relying on the naked eye to sight the new crescent moon.
Ramadan traditionally begins the morning after the sighting, which has in the past been delayed by a day or even two by weather.
Council President Mohammad Moussaoui said the old method played havoc with French Muslims' schedules for work, school and festivities. France's five million Muslims are the largest Islamic minority in Europe.
“Now all this will be simplified,'' he said, and promptly announced the Ramadan fast would begin on July 9 this year.
Turkey began using scientific calculations to set the start of Ramadan decades ago. Muslims in Germany, who are mostly of Turkish origin, and those in Bosnia also use this method.
Muslim minorities elsewhere in Europe often start Ramadan according to its beginning in their countries of origin, or in Saudi Arabia. That can lead to different ethnic groups starting it on different days, even in the same country.
“This is historic. Now all Muslims in France can start Ramadan on the same day,'' said Lyon Muslim leader Azzedine Gaci.
Muslim scientists have been arguing for using astronomy to determine Islamic dates for years, especially now that globalized communications make it increasingly awkward for different countries to start Ramadan on different days.
Complicating the calculations, the Islamic lunar calendar is 10 to 11 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar developed in Europe, so the dates for Ramadan fall a week and a half earlier as each year in the western calendar passes.
Moussaoui said French Muslims were not planning to ask for their holidays to be included in the national calendar.
“It would be more important for us that they are taken into consideration, that's all,'' he said.