Turkey's state-run Presidency of Religious Affairs (DİB) and a state-run scientific research agency signed a deal yesterday to set up a facility to observe moon sightings used in determining prayer times. The Moon and Horizon Observation Unit (AYGÖZ) will be jointly built and run by DİB and the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK).
Speaking at a ceremony to introduce the project in the capital Ankara, DİB President Mehmet Görmez said the agreement was similar to a protocol signed between the religious authority and Istanbul-based Kandilli Observatory decades ago.
"The purpose is to end conflicts over the calendar in the Islamic world. [The DİB] exerts efforts to that extent," Görmez said, bringing up a 2016 meeting Turkey hosted on the issue.
The Hijri Calendar Union Congress held in Istanbul last May ended with a joint declaration by Muslim scholars from across the globe, agreeing to adopt a single Islamic lunar calendar.
The landmark move was particularly important regarding the observance of religious holidays and especially concerns the fasting month of Ramadan. When to observe religious holidays and prayer times has been an issue of debate among Muslim scholars for years.
This is especially the case for the observation of Kurban Bayram, known as Eid al-Adha in Arabic or the "Festival of Sacrifice," and the culmination of the annual hajj pilgrimage.
Differences stem from various scholarly interpretations of Islamic law regarding the sighting of the new moon on which the date is based. Specific acts of worship such as fasting may be considered invalid if observed at different times.
Though the declaration does not mean a definitive end to disagreement over a single calendar as the debate is still not resolved in each Muslim country, the congress was hailed as an important first step.
Mehmet Görmez said in yesterday's meeting that they aim to share the data from observation through AYGÖZ with "Muslim brothers in the world" in order to prevent calendar conflicts. "The eventual purpose is to make it accessible to everyone using a cellphone so that they can see for themselves the accuracy of sightings. We will build the most advanced observatory where both astronomy and fiqh scholars [of the DİB] will work with TÜBİTAK's academics and experts. Hopefully, this will end the debate by providing moment-by-moment data covering the entire world, giving people access to sighting of the moon anywhere, anytime," he said. He said the project was also an exemplary step to end the misperception that religion and science cannot function together. "As Muslims, if we can't even agree upon on prayer times, if we can't celebrate our festivals together, then it's not unusual that we are in conflict over social matters," he added.