The men who sight the moon

Finding Ramadan with the Muslim 'maankykers' of Africa's southern coast.

moon sighters
Crescent Observers Society members scan the sky over Cape Town [File: Rodger Bosch/AFP]
Crescent Observers Society members scan the sky over Cape Town [File: Rodger Bosch/AFP]

Cape Town, South Africa - The digital clock on Shaykh Safwaan Sasman’s smartphone turns 18.59, and the 32-year-old looks up. Beside him, a dozen other men in thobes and matching black puffer jackets embroidered with the words "Crescent Observers" stand in silence, staring at the sky.

A splash of orangey-red streaks across the horizon, announcing the dusk. Below, the Atlantic laps the coastline; a midweek stream of joggers and cyclists shuffle across Cape Town’s Sea Point promenade; and families relax while children play on the grass.

In the 37 minutes between the sun setting and the moon slipping below the horizon, the maankykers (Afrikaans for moon sighters) of South Africa’s Crescent Observers Society are on the clock - working to spot the crescent and announce whether the first day of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan will begin.

For more than 70 years, maankykers have stood in this same spot, anchoring their gaze to a fixed star on the horizon, before scanning the skies around it.

“See with the naked eye,” says Imam Yusuf Pandy, a slight, bespectacled 82-year-old in a pristine white thobe, black coat and Palestinian keffiyeh draped around his head. He explains the classical Islamic view of the Sunnah, or prophetic tradition, of announcing the start of the next month. “Not with a telescope, but it must be with the eye,” says the oldest and longest-serving active member of the group.

Pandy was chairperson of the all-voluntary maankykers for over 40 years, before handing the position over to Sasman in 2020 and assuming a more honourary role as president. But he has not slowed down, still spending weeks analysing the maps and astronomical data he has neatly stored in files in his home in Lansdowne, before travelling 19km (12 miles) to Three Anchor Bay on the day of the sighting to watch the sky for himself.

A photo of Imam Yusuf Pandy sitting in a chair.
Imam Yusuf Pandy, the president of the Crescent Observers Society, at his home in Lansdowne, Cape Town [Barry Christianson/ Al Jazeera]

The number of maankykers varies, with men joining up, and occasionally leaving, at different times. Currently, about 30 active members are split between four main viewing sites across the Western Cape. Every month, dutifully and consistently, they venture out - “literally come rain or shine”, says Sasman - even amid COVID lockdowns, controversy about whether or not a moon was seen, or intercommunity squabbles about the ideal way to do their job.

His eyes still on the horizon, Sasman furrows his brow beneath half-rim glasses, seeing more than just a striking sunset. “There is a thick haze on the horizon so it’s going to be a little bit challenging ...” he trails off, adjusting the Kashmiri shawl on his shoulders and briefly scrolling through his phone.

Nearby, Moulana Abdul Khaliq Allie of the Muslim Judicial Council (MJC), the body in Cape Town responsible for ensuring a moon sighting is Sharia or Islamic-law compliant, gets updates from other parts of the country. “Nationally, they haven’t seen anything,” he tells Sasman, “but they have seen in the neighbouring countries.”

Behind them, a man sounds the adhan, or Muslim call to prayer, and dozens of families who arrived to witness the sighting remove their shoes, place their prayer mats on the grass and face northeast towards Mecca.

The maankykers, some with prayer mats under their arms to use once their main task is done, inch forward to give the congregation more room - their focus never leaving the sky.

“We have 37 minutes, three minutes have passed. At 7.36, we must be done,” Sasman, who in his day job works as a Sharia compliance auditor for the MJC’s Halaal Trust, reminds the others, before picking up his mobile phone to call the captain of the second viewing site at a nearby vantage point on Signal Hill.

A photo of a group of people standing.
Shaykh Sasman, third from right, Imam Pandy and other maankykers look for the moon [Barry Christianson/Al Jazeera]
Shaykh Sasman, Imam Pandy and other maankykers look for the moon [Barry Christianson/Al Jazeera]

Islam follows a lunar calendar. The rotation of the moon around the Earth determines the start and end of each month - which lasts between 29 and 30 days.

In Saudi Arabia and other Muslim-majority countries, moon sighters - often with the help of a telescope - deliver important testimony to the judicial authorities who then announce the date. Many other countries choose to follow Saudi, the birthplace of Islam, while others use astronomical observations or lunar calendars that are calculated far in advance.

But in the tiny communities of Muslims along the southern tip of Africa, the original tradition of moon sighting without the help of any tools or ocular aids remains intact.

“We follow the hadith of Rasul sallallahu alayhi wa sallam [the Prophet Muhammad]. We see the moon, we fast; we see the moon, break your fast,” Imam Pandy tells Al Jazeera the day before the moon sighting. “And it isn’t just for Ramadan. It goes from [the first Islamic month of] Muharram right up until [the last Islamic month] Dhul Hijjah.”

Sitting at his mahogany dining table, framed photos of his family, a replica of the Kaaba door, and a certificate of recognition from the Crescent Observers adorning a mantle along one wall, he’s gentle and soft-spoken as he unpacks memories of decades with the maankykers. As well as being president, he has spent 53 years as the religious leader of the Mowbray Mosque, and before reaching retirement age, he worked for the Cape Town railways. But his true passion is clear in the pair of heavy file folders on the table titled "Crescent Observers Society of South Africa (Die Maankykers van Suid Afrika)", filled with maps, lunar calendars, news clippings, photos and records of the past 70-plus years.

Even before that, moon sighting in some form or another always took place.

A photo of a neighborhood with colourful buildings and people walking across the street.
People walk along the streets of Bo-Kaap, not far from the first mosque ever built in South Africa [Barry Christianson/Al Jazeera]

Islam first came to South Africa in the 1600s when enslaved people and prisoners from countries including Indonesia and Malaysia were brought to the Cape by the Dutch who had landed there. Auwal Masjid, the first mosque in the country dating back to 1794, is still open in Bo-Kaap, a historically Muslim area just a few kilometres from where the maankykers still gather in central Cape Town.

“The early ‘maankykers’ formed a loose alliance, and by some unspoken rule, assumed their watching duties from the same observation vantage points [that are used today],” according to the MJC. “Each had a responsibility to report his observations to the imam of his congregation.”

There was always “general consensus that the moon had to be sighted since the time of Islam taking root in Cape Town,” Sasman says, sitting beside Pandy. But only after the Crescent Observers Society emerged in 1946 was there a “formalised society” with the objective of sighting the moon.

In provinces across the country, other structured groupings of moon sighters have since emerged. But the maankykers of the Cape hold the distinction of being the oldest formation of its kind. They are also one of the most consulted, partly due to their reputation for decades of “meticulous record keeping, meticulous honesty, meticulous witnessing”, Sasman says.

As in decades past, on the 29th of every Islamic month, the maankykers gather at the four designated viewing spots marked years ago - Three Anchor Bay, Signal Hill, Bakoven and Stellenbosch.

When the sighting of the crescent moon is confirmed, the appointed arbitrator, called a hakim, is informed in order to verify the witnessing before the MJC communicates the message nationally. In the event of non-sighting, the hakim liaises with other moon-sighting committees in South Africa and issues a ruling, the MJC says.

In a practical sense, almost nothing about the way moon sighting happens has changed since the Society first began, Pandy says proudly. His profound hope is that nothing ever does.

A photo of a group of people sitting in a grassy area in a park with several other people walking around.
Signal Hill is seen in the distance, behind people gathering at Three Anchor Bay [Barry Christianson/ Al Jazeera]
Signal Hill is seen in the distance, behind people gathering at Three Anchor Bay [Barry Christianson/ Al Jazeera]

Seven kilometres (4.3 miles) from Three Anchor Bay, beyond the hotels and beach apartments overlooking Sea Point, a winding mountain road leads to Signal Hill, which towers over the city, 340m above sea level.

On the night of the moon sighting, maankyker Ismail Raban readies his small team. “We have a little bit more advantage of sighting the moon from there because from Three Anchor Bay they look at eye level and they have the mist on the horizon; whereas we are looking over the mist from the top down.”

The 57-year-old - who runs a catering company as a day job - joined the maankykers in 1988, and spent the early years sighting from the main location before volunteering to go up the hill. He’s been sighting from this site for 15 to 20 years and says though the phone signal is bad, the view is “fantastic”.

The site is popular with tourists, too, who come up the hill for their own view of the sunset over Cape Town, Table Mountain and the vast Atlantic Ocean - but sometimes find maankykers instead.

On the day of the sighting, German and British tourists look on in curiosity as the handful of maankykers prepare.

“What are you doing here?” one asks Raban.

“We're looking at the crescent."

“The crescent; what is a crescent?”

“The moon. But this is the newborn moon.”

Raban shares the predicted location and outlines their method of sighting: “We will see it at sunset, a couple of minutes after sunset, and we're looking at that direction where the sun has set,” he points west, “that’s where the moon will set.

Children on the promenade in Cape Town's Sea Point
Children look up to see if they can sight the moon [Barry Christianson/Al Jazeera]

“But before we can find the moon we need to find the star - which will be Jupiter, the brightest star. And when we have the star, you draw an imaginary line from the star to the sun and, along that line, guideline, is where the moon should appear.”

Intrigued, the tourists are keen to stay and watch; and go and ask their driver to wait.

At 18.59 Raban stands on the “roof” of the viewing site. He can hear the sound of the adhan from a mosque in Bo-Kaap, but up on Signal Hill, it’s not yet time for the sunset prayer or the moon sighting. There’s a “three minute lag before sighting the moon” because the sun sets three minutes later in their specific location, he explains.

At 19.02, their own sky watch begins, as they scan over the misty haze to see what they can find.

A couple of minutes later, Raban’s phone rings. It’s Sasman, calling to check in from Three Anchor Bay.

“How are things going there?” the chairperson asks. “It will take a while as we are a few minutes behind,” Raban reminds him. “Remember to put any updates you have on the [shared WhatsApp] group,” the younger man says before hanging up to check in with the other sites.

Sasman is depending heavily on the sighters on Signal Hill. Because of its vantage point above the city, it’s the last place in Cape Town to see the moon set below the horizon, and often the last hope of sighting a crescent on days when the weather is bad.

“We’re the last [watchtower],” says Raban. “The very last. The very, very last.”

A photo of Imam Yusuf Pandy standing.
Imam Pandy is the longest-serving active member of the maankykers [Barry Christianson/Al Jazeera]
Imam Pandy is the longest-serving active member of the maankykers [Barry Christianson/Al Jazeera]

The maankykers are proud of tradition, and the fact that the core rituals of what they do have remained unchanged since the first Muslims landed at the Cape.

“People at the Royal Observatory and at the Planetarium, they marvel at the fact that for almost 300 years we've done this particular exercise without any formal qualifications, formal verification, but the accuracy is almost at 100 percent,” Sasman says.

None of the active maankykers have formal qualifications in astronomy and, according to Raban, most aren’t particularly interested in that aspect of it. The group all have other day jobs - ranging from religious ministers to IT specialists, businessmen and even a former city council official.

The reason they took up the voluntary moon sighting mantle is because of faith, duty and community.

But over the years, they have incorporated more formal astronomical learnings into what they do. The group attends annual training at the South African Astronomical Observatory and the Cape Town Planetarium, while maps and apps that calculate the date and time of the birth of the moon help them plan the sightings in advance.

Men use their smartphones to photograph the sky at a moon sighting in Cape Town
Two men take photos of the sky as they wait to hear whether the moon has been sighted [Barry Christianson/Al Jazeera]

The maankykers also thank technology for other reasons.

“We didn't have telephones, nothing,” Pandy says about the early days of moon sighting. “We had a flare”. The others laugh, while the elder explains that once the moon was sighted and confirmed, a maankyker would notify a messenger whose job it was to light the flare. “So the flare goes up, and everyone says ‘OK, the moon has been sighted’.” But the flare ended up confusing others who thought it could be someone in distress. So the maankykers adjusted their methods and started using fireworks, “sky rockets” as Pandy calls them. After city officials stopped that, the maankykers took up walkie-talkies. “But then that interfered with the ships, so it was also stopped.”

They even got help from a Muslim doctor who lived in a beach apartment nearby. For years, maankykers would knock on his door and ask to use his phone before checking with other provinces and eventually making a call on whether a new moon was sighted.

With the invention of the mobile phone came relief. “When cellphones came in, you can talk now, to Johannesburg and Durban and Port Elizabeth,” Pandy says, noting that instantaneous reports from every maaankyker in their WhatsApp chat group as well as calls and messages to moon sighters around the country and the wider Southern Africa region, have made things faster and more efficient.

On his dining table, Pandy pores over old photos and news clippings from past years.

In one of the clippings, from the Cape Argus in 1995, he’s a much younger man speaking into a walkie-talkie, but with the familiar backdrop of the buildings near Three Anchor Bay in the distance behind him. In the photo beside it, Omar Gabier, who served as president while Pandy was chairman, is shown giving the call to prayer.

A photo of Imam Yusuf Pandy looking through an album.
Imam Pandy pages through a file of newspaper clippings pertaining to the moon sightings collected over a few decades [Barry Christianson/Al Jazeera]

The photos are a testament to the brotherhood of maankykers and a heritage that has been passed from one generation to the next, sharing rituals, learnings and traditions with each other.

“I can still remember my first moon sighting,” Pandy says, recalling that it was 70 years ago.

The first time he joined the maankykers was at Three Anchor Bay, where he still sights the moon today. He remembers the chairman at the time, Imam Moegamat Bassier, guiding him. “He said basically ‘You just stand here’, and he showed me. I didn't have knowledge of sighting but he showed me where the sun set, where the moon set, and from there onwards, we went to learn at the Observatory, Planetarium, I can still remember.”

As the oldest active maankyker, Pandy is now considered the foremost expert in the craft, gently and kindly passing his knowledge on to the next generation, starting with Sasman, who is 50 years his junior.

The younger maankyker - who first attended a moon sighting as a 12-year-old with his grandfather - acknowledges the sense of mentorship and learning at the heart of what they do.

“I want to give credence to the fact that our predecessors have instilled in all of us a sense of duty and a sense of devotion to Islam in its entirety,” Sasman says. “If it wasn't that our predecessors were very meticulous in wanting to practice as best as possible, things of this nature would have fallen by the wayside years ago.”

A photo of people standing in front of the sea, watching the sunset.
People photograph the sky just after sunset [Barry Christianson/Al Jazeera]
People photograph the sky just after sunset [Barry Christianson/Al Jazeera]

At Three Anchor Bay, the watercolour sky is a stunning display of mauve, lilac and dusky blue. Jupiter now shines brightly in the evening sky and the maankykers have it in sight. But the crescent remains elusive.

At 13 minutes in, Sasman makes more check-in calls to the three other viewing sites. “We are still observing, we haven’t had any news yet. From your side?” he asks the captain of the Stellenbosch site.

“We are depending heavily on Signal Hill now … They have something but no confirmation yet,” he says minutes later, after confirming that the last two sites haven’t sighted anything yet.

Around them, the crowd finishes up their Maghrib prayer, and noise levels pick up.

Someone in the core group of maankykers says: “Nothing yet. We are still waiting. It’s very hazy here so we still have another 17, 18 minutes to go.”

A photo of people sitting on a patch of green with someone praying in the middle.
Muslims perform the Maghrib sunset prayer at Three Anchor Bay [Barry Christianson/ Al Jazeera]

A minute later, Sasman, speaking in Afrikaans, notes the “baie strekte glow” (very strong glow) still making it hard to see.

“Just remember that we cannot just declare,” Pandy says, reminding the group that they need to wait until the full allotted duration has passed.

With nine minutes to go, Sasman answers a call. It’s Stellenbosch. “Nog niks” (Still nothing), he tells them. “Nog agt minute, en dan se ons wat ons se” (Another eight minutes, and then we say what we say).

The crowd edges closer to the maankykers, almost enclosing them on three sides. People chat, others share snacks, or post updates on social media, while almost everyone watches the maankykers who still patiently watch the sky.

Three little girls, six-year-old twins Kania and Amra, and their five-year-old sister, Nisha, play in the grass near the crowd watching the maankykers. “This is our first year coming as a family, and we wanted to start a new tradition of coming to see,” their mother Raziah Matthews tells Al Jazeera. “The kids are young and they are actually reading a book, something about Ramadan, and they saw [the moon sighting] in the story, so we thought ‘OK, let’s go’.”

Matthews grew up in Cape Town, and says she probably attended moon sightings as a child even though she doesn’t remember them clearly. “I like this tradition because it keeps the community together. Look, we all came out in masses. So that’s what it’s about, it’s about the spirit of Ramadan.”

A photo of people sitting in the road eating on blankets and tables.
Crowds gather in Bo-Kaap during the first week of Ramadan [Barry Christianson/ Al Jazeera]
Crowds gather in Bo-Kaap during the first week of Ramadan [Barry Christianson/ Al Jazeera]

Crowds of community members have always gathered to watch the maankykers. In years past, some Eid moon sightings attracted a couple of thousand people, the group says.

Now with speed, smartphones and social media, the message of whether there has been a moon comes within minutes. But the advances have brought challenges, too.

While it is the maankykers’ mandate to sight the moon, and then filter the message up the appropriate channels before it is authenticated and an official announcement is made, there are times when non-members observing the sightings have had something to say.

“A few years ago, someone actually said ‘What's that over there?’ and everyone turned around and was like ‘There is the moon!’,” Sasman remembers.

He chuckles ruefully while bemoaning the confusion it created. “It caused such chaos that people came with messages out of Johannesburg saying that people saw the moon in Cape Town, and people in Cape Town saying they saw the moon in Johannesburg - just because of one person saying that out loud.”

A photo of a group of people.
Shaykh Sasman looks out at the horizon at Three Anchor Bay [Barry Christianson/ Al Jazeera]

The false moon turned out to be a light from a passing cargo ship that was shining at the same time as the moon.

“It was on the 29th night of Ramadan, and so the announcement now has to be made whether we go for another day of Ramadan or is it Eid? It went to such an extent that the waqt (time) of Isha had come and it was already an hour after Isha when we could make the announcement,” Sasman says.

And it may not always be an innocent mistake. Sasman remembers one fake sighting: “Some individuals indicated that they sighted the moon, but we were confident that it could not have been sighted. So the MJC, whose responsibility it is to make that announcement, they took up the challenge of verification.”

The MJC consulted with the local religious leaders, and looked at the data before confirming that there was no possible way the moon was sighted, Sasman explains.

“To their amazement they found that the individuals who were mentioned to have sighted, all three of them had passed away or were people who were dead; and two were people who don't really know what they've seen and who were standing on a roof somewhere.”

A photo of the tops of colourful buildings.
Bo-Kaap is a historically Muslim area in the shadow of Table Mountain and Lion’s Head [Barry Christianson/ Al Jazeera]
Bo-Kaap is a historically Muslim area in the shadow of Table Mountain and Lion’s Head [Barry Christianson/ Al Jazeera]

Some argue there is an easier way to avoid the confusion and misunderstandings entirely - by changing the way things are done. Imam Abdul Rashied Omar leads the congregation at the Claremont Main Road Mosque in Cape Town.

He argues in favour of using astronomical calculations - data that is determined years in advance - to set the date when a new Islamic month begins. “There's nothing in the Sharia that prevents us from using astronomical calculations to establish the beginning of the lunar month,” he says from Indiana in the United States where he is also an associate professor of Islamic Studies and Peacebuilding.

Since the 1980s, his mosque in Cape Town has championed this scientific approach, and although they have not formally implemented it - preferring to give congregants a choice in which method they want to follow, instead of imposing on them - they believe in educating people about the benefits.

Every time there is a controversy, “people begin to lose confidence in the local ulama (Muslim scholars) and we get more people who will then consider and read more about it, and become convinced and follow the astronomical calculations,” he says.

Omar says the approach most ulama have towards the lunar calendar in South Africa - only accepting sightings from within one's own country - needs to be “decolonised”.

“Who created these borders?” he asks, reminding that the boundary lines are a product of colonialism and not Islamic law. “If the moon was sighted in Mozambique, Maputo is closer to Durban than Cape Town is to Durban. So on what basis from the Sharia point of view are you not accepting a crescent moon sighting by trustworthy Muslims from Maputo if you're living in Durban, but you are accepting one from Cape Town?” he asks.

An aerial view of groups of people sitting around chairs, tables and blankets, eating and drinking.
On roads in Bo-Kaap, people bring food to share and have iftar together [Barry Christianson/Al Jazeera]

It’s the essence of the Sunnah that Muslims should follow, he feels. “The essence of it is that we Muslims should follow a lunar calendar, which is different from the solar calendar. How you determine whether the moon has gone right around the Earth could be different than the very practical method the prophet used of waiting until he could see the crescent rising above the horizon."

But Omar believes that the more reasonable method will eventually triumph, citing the example of how Muslims determine the time of the five daily prayers.

“The prophet didn't have a watch so he put a stick in the ground then he saw the shadow. That's the only method he had of calculating the time of the late afternoon (Asr) prayer.”

“It took generations for Muslims to move from that practical manner in which the prophet did it, to using a watch,” he says. “So, ​​exactly the same, the prophet didn't have the calculations that we have available for a formal, practical method of sighting the crescent. But now, today, when we can calculate that the moon has completed its cycle around the Earth and the crescent has risen above the horizon exactly, why should we not adopt it?”

Omar says there's "a growing movement" in favour of adopting the astronomical approach, which is "small but gathering pace".

But he also understands how moon sighting, as a social and cultural event, is “a big deal” to Muslim communities in Cape Town, one that creates community solidarity, and that will be tough to give up.

Faldela Tolker is a local tour guide in Bo-Kaap, and lives in a purple house down the road from the oldest mosque in South Africa. The 57-year-old’s neighbourhood comes alive in Ramadan, with street iftars on the road set up in between rows of iconic colourful houses. The community also gathers before Ramadan and Eid, joining the maankykers to welcome the new moon.

A photo of a large crowd of people with colourful buildings in the background.
People in Bo-Kaap get together to break fast during Ramadan [Barry Christianson/Al Jazeera]

“I think some mosques in Cape Town are more interested in doing the sighting the astronomical way, but most people are still keen to do it the old way - and me too!” she says.

“I'm sure that will never happen [that people stop sighting the moon], because it's something that has been going on for years and years and years. Even in the 1600s people also sighted the moon - 1600, 1700 - for the same reason that we are doing it now,” Tolker says. “So I don't think that is the one thing that they would change and just go with the normal astronomical calendar.”

At the moon sighting in Three Anchor Bay, Farouk Perumal, an IT specialist, agrees. “This is a Capetonian tradition,” he says. “According to the hadith, the moon has to be sighted with the naked eye to start the first day of Ramadan. This is the Sunnah way of doing it,” he says. “It will never die.”

Sasman says that there are “some factions” within the community who say the moon sightings are unnecessary in this day and age. “We've had physical fights, where people actually fought and became violent over the idea of moon sighting or not.”

For Raban, it’s not about using one method or the other, but about both. “We do calculate [using astronomical data],” he says. “But to justify the calculation, we go sight it, like you go into a lab. You cannot test something and only have the theory but practically you don't know what you're doing - so basically we do the theory and then, for the practical, we go sight the moon.”

In some ways it’s a fact-checking exercise for Sasman - going out with the calculations on hand to prove that the moon really is there. But he adds: “More importantly we use this [astronomical] information … so that should anyone want to question any of the members on 'How do you know that the moon was here?', we would have the other necessary information to be able to back up our argument.

“Prior to that, people had to go on the word of someone else. So where this system is still a widely accepted and Islamic principle, the evidence is something that our deen (faith) encourages us to have - so we follow that idea of having evidence and being able to back up our argument with sufficient proof,” he says.

A photo of a group of people standing in a grassy area during a sunset.
The maankykers wear jackets inscribed with the words 'Crescent Observers' [Barry Christianson/ Al Jazeera]
The maankykers wear jackets inscribed with the words 'Crescent Observers' [Barry Christianson/ Al Jazeera]

It’s 19.31 at Three Anchor Bay.

“Five minutes, five minutes, five minutes,” Sasman tells the other maankykers.

In the background the MJC’s Allie shares news from the wider network that Malawi, Zimbabwe and other countries in the region have now officially sighted the moon.

“We must wait another three minutes” to accommodate for the time lag on Signal Hill, Sasman says.

The duration lapses; all the viewing sites - both in the Western Cape and across South Africa - check in. “The moon has not been sighted, and there are no other reports,” Allie tells the maankykers, “just give us a minute so we can follow our necessary consultation.”

Minutes later the TV cameras, live feeds and radio broadcasts from local Muslim media turn on, and Shaykh Irfaan Abrahams, president of MJC, says a prayer and speaks into the mic.

“On behalf of our hakim, Shaykh Ahmed Hendricks, on behalf of the president of the Crescent Observers Society, Imam Yusuf Pandy, and on behalf of the ulama of the MJC, I want to inform you that the month of Ramadan has not yet arrived.

“So the moon has not been sighted, after consultation with all the important Islamic bodies in South Africa, we all agree that the moon for Ramadan has not been sighted. So inshallah Allah Ta'ala, the first of Ramadan will be [a day later] on Friday 24 March.

“Always remember, that if we see the moon, we are happy. And if we don’t see the moon we are also happy. It’s the taqdeer (fate and will) of Allah Ta'ala,” he tells the crowd.

In closing, Imam Pandy says a final prayer, Sasman adds to it, before all the maankykers chant together in unison. And the night comes to a close, the moon now well below the horizon and a blanket of stars filling up the sky above the Atlantic.

A photo of a person in the dark with people, trees and buildings in the background.
A woman's face is lit by the light of her mobile phone, as people leave the moon sighting [Barry Christianson/ Al Jazeera]

Using its own moon sighters and methods, Saudi Arabia already announced its Ramadan date a day earlier, confirming it would begin on Thursday. Most countries followed suit, and many that proceeded with their own sighting also saw the crescent. But there is no accounting for the conditions the maankykers will encounter on the day, Sasman says.

“As the sun was setting it was a very bright red misty haze on the horizon. When it is that bright we kind of know we're going to have difficulties,” he says. “So while you do come in with a kind of understanding of the idea of what's going to happen, and you always hope for the best, ultimately it's out of our hands and whatever happens will happen.”

Sasman packs up to leave, calling out to a fellow colleague: “… I’ll be in contact with regards to next month’s sighting,” telling Al Jazeera that his planning for the sighting of the next moon begins the following morning.

“I've come to see that it's not just to come here and to look up into the sky and see something or not see something; I see how much work goes into the actual sighting,” he says.

“It's a lifelong commitment in everything we do,” Sasman shared the day prior, reflecting on the long tradition of moon sighting and the contribution of older maankykers like Pandy. “There's no idea of at some point you just take a step back; it's always a lifelong commitment - you do this until you die, not because of wanting to be recognised for name and fame or any other objective other than to be of service – entirely just to be of service in the deen of Islam.

“These are the foundations that have been laid.”

After a month of planning, come Friday, April 21, at 18.16, Sasman and his fellow maankykers will gather at the southernmost tip of Africa for exactly 48 minutes, and once again, look up.

Imam Pandy, who is spending Ramadan in Saudi Arabia, will celebrate Eid on the day of their choosing - “follow the law of the land you’re in” is his guiding principle. But even off duty, he won’t forget the moon, and will still raise his head to scan the dusky northern skies - never fully leaving his passion behind.

A photo of a large group of people watching the sun set.
Crowds gathered to sight the moon in Cape Town on March 22, 2023 [Barry Christianson/ Al Jazeera]
Crowds gathered to sight the moon in Cape Town on March 22, 2023 [Barry Christianson/ Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera