ABU DHABI // Squinting into the setting sun, Ahmed al Muhairi scoured the horizon. Despite the heat of late afternoon sunshine on his face, he and his two colleagues yesterday kept up their vigil, peering into the pinkish haze between the sea and the sky looking for the moon.
From their perch on a rocky outcropping at the farthest point of the breakwater at Abu Dhabi's Mina Zayed, the trio stared out to sea and muttered to each other. "No moon yet," said Mr al Muhairi, 40, unpacking his telescope, "but there is still time." The three settled down on the rocks with one man unwrapping a bundle of dates, laban and water while the other two wiped the condensation from their spyglasses.
After 30 minutes of staring and discussion the sun had fully set without so much as a sliver of lunar landscape and the group decided to record the result as "no sighting". "Just because we have not seen it does not mean that someone else, somewhere else has not seen it," Mr al Muhairi said. From their understated lookout, few would guess at the responsibility that rests on their shoulders. Together with around half a dozen other such groups in the UAE, the outcome of their sky-gazing dictates whether the nation has a further 24 hours of fasting.
In line with Islamic tradition, teams of men are despatched on the 29th day of Ramadan to try to catch a glimpse of the new crescent moon, which dictates the start of the feast of Eid al Fitr. It is a tradition that dates to the origins of Islam itself. "You have to keep a close watch on the sky," said Ahmed al Murrar, 54. "The first sight of the moon can pass very quickly and can be easy to miss. Sometimes it looks as thin as a hair."
After all the sighting results are tallied, the official ruling by the UAE's Shawwal Crescent Moon Committee is no moon was visible and Ramadan continues for a further day. After the spotting has been abandoned, the group moves off the rocks and onto the flat ground before unpacking rugs and a hamper of food to formally break the fast. "It was not very likely that we were going to see the moon today," said one of the men, "but it is part of our obligation in the Quran, so we must come and look. It is part of Islam."
As technology has marched on, science is now able to tell exactly when the moon will and not be visible, but tradition still dictates that groups step out to look in person. "The moon plays a very important role in Islam," said Hasan Hariri, the head of the Dubai Astronomy Group. "The act of going out to check for the moon is not an option, regardless of technology, it is an obligation under Islam.
"Scientifically, we can determine the size and length of time that the moon will be visible and exactly where in the sky it will be found. "Even if we know it will not be visible, it is part of our religion to go and look." He added the action had cultural significance that was consistent with some of the family values emphasised during the holy month. "This is a practice which takes me back to my childhood. I can remember going out to the desert to look for the moon when I was a child with my father and grandfather.
"Now, I take my children. It is a pleasure to watch them get excited and shout out when they see the moon." There is no such giddy shouting among the official moon-spotters at Mina Zayed but the men doubtless take pleasure in the tradition. "I enjoy coming here to look for the moon," said Mr al Muhairi. "I don't just come here at Ramadan. I come here every month to look for the new moon because I sail dhows and the moon affects the tides."