The chairman of the Qasim Ali Khan mosque in Peshawar has little doubt why it regularly throws a spanner into the timings of Pakistan's most important religious festivals. "It is because we are experts in spotting the moon," he says.
Hamood-ur-Rehman is head of the management committee at the mid-sized mosque, which sits in a crowded bazaar in Peshawar’s old city.
It is gearing up for the fasting month of Ramadan, when Muslims avoid food from sunrise to sunset.
Precisely when it starts depends on whether the start of the Islamic lunar month can be confirmed by the sight of a slender crescent moon hanging in the sky – something Rehman claims people living in the Pashtun-dominated northwestern region near the regional capital of Peshawar are peculiarly adept at detecting.
“It is because people here are farmers who organise their whole livelihoods around the moon,” he said.
He also puts store in the region’s higher elevation and the quality of its spring water, which he says enhances eyesight, giving the locals an edge over the official committee tasked by the government with deciding when Ramadan should begin.
The mosque frequently leads to key religious festivals starting a day early for millions of people in the Pashtun northwest who follow its lead.
Whether for reasons of sharper eyes or what critics claim is sectarian disdain for some of the scholars running the official committee, the mosque’s leader, Mufti Shahabuddin Popalzai, nearly always calls Ramadan’s start and end a day early, forcing Pakistanis to choose between rival dates for marking two of the most important festivals in the Islamic calendar.
Millions of Pashtuns in the northwest who adhere to the Deobandi form of Islam practised by Popalzai follow his lead.
Last night Popalzi chaired a gathering of dozens of religious leaders at the mosque, a group that will scrutinise claims of moon sightings from the public.
“It is very confusing because in some mosques people are fasting while in others they are not,” said Rahimullah Yusufzai, a journalist in Peshawar.
“The situation at the end of Ramadan is particularly difficult because people are tired and weak and just want to celebrate Eid as soon as possible.”
Last year, the festival of Eid-ul-Adha , when animals are sacrificed, was celebrated on three dates in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, due to the long-running split between the two moon committees and the decision by the large population of Afghan refugees to follow the date decreed by the government in Kabul.
Interest in the deliberations of the Peshawar clerics is intense. Banks of video cameras from the country’s television networks crowd the mosque’s courtyard to film eyewitnesses rushing in from miles around to present their claims to have seen the crescent moon.
They are normally accompanied by their local mullah, who is expected to attest as to whether the witness is a good Muslim.
“People say we just have our own people who make the same claims every year, but 95 per cent have never given evidence before,” Rehman says.
‘Challenging the state’
Mufti Muneeb-ur-Rehman, head of the Central Ruet-e-Hilal committee, which also held deliberations, said Peshawar’s rebel moongazers were “challenging the writ of the state” and must be stopped.
“If the government is unable to stop these people setting the wrong date, then how are they able to manage the security situation and other issues under their control?”
The authorities have taken action in the past and at one point even attempted to block the religious scholars from assembling at the mosque.
This year, Pakistan’s religious affairs minister has called for the two sides to cooperate.
“This is not a problem of religion but a problem of egos,” said Tahir Ashrafi, a high-profile cleric.
“The solution is to demolish these moon committees and give it to scientists to decide.”
The Islamic calendar is a lunar system, with each month beginning at the start of a new cycle of waxing and waning by the moon.
Because it is shorter than the solar calendar, the dates of key religious festivals, such as the fasting month of Ramadan, move by about 11 days each year.
The belief that the start of the month can only really be determined if the thin crescent of the “ hilal” moon is visible has created problems for Muslim communities around the world.
The lunar cycle means dates inevitably must vary around the world, but normally by just a day.
However, cloud cover, or the difficulty of spotting the moon in some locations, can lead to different groups starting major festivals on separate days, even in the same country.
Adding to the confusion is the argument that the entire Muslim world should take its lead from the official moon-sighting decrees of Saudi Arabia, home to Islam's holiest places.
Some argue that the whole matter should be decided by astronomers who can project whether a new moon has been born, regardless of whether it can be seen from the ground.