Featured, History

How Ramadan times were calculated in the Ottoman era


This has been reproduced from Daily Sabah

During the tenure of Şeyhülislam Musa Kazım Efendi in the Second Constitutional Period (II Meşrutiyet), the Qadi of Istanbul and a fatwa consultant (fetva emini) came on the 28th day of the month of Ramadan to inform that a witness sighted the new crescent moon, marking the end of Ramadan.

Enraged by this, the Şeyhülislam replied, “Do not accept the testimony of that man. Otherwise, history would note that Musa Kazım reduced Ramadan to 28 days during his tenure as Şeyhülislam,” and refused to confirm the next day as Eid al-Fitr (Festival of Breaking the Fast).

During Ottoman times, when Ramadan would begin and end was not determined, as it is today.

Since astronomy was not as advanced as it is now, people used to watch the sky in open areas and waited for the emergence of the new moon in order to determine the beginning of Ramadan. Nesimi Yazıcı has extensively researched the “Rüy’et-i Hilal Meselesi” (the issue of sighting the crescent) during Ottoman times.

Start of Ramadan

People, particularly state officials, used to take great pains to spot the new crescent moon marking the beginning of Ramadan and embarked on short trips for this purpose.

In keeping with an old tradition, Ramadan and religious holidays used to begin upon “sighting the crescent” (Rüyet-i Hilal). According to the Hijri calendar used during the Ottoman times, the beginning of months was marked by the sighting of the new moon. Since the moon orbits the Earth in 29.5 days, months used to last sometimes 29 and sometimes 30 days.

At the end of the month of Sha’ban, astrologers (müneccim) responsible for making calendars would inform the officials when Ramadan would begin. But the date specified by astrologers would not be necessarily observed.

The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said in a hadith, “Do not fast till you see the new moon, and when you see it again, celebrate the holiday. If the sky is cloudy, calculate it as 30 days.” Ramadan would begin upon the sighting of the crescent moon by certain citizens or by functionaries sent to places like Bolu, Bursa and Edirne, which stand at a high altitude.

Sighting the crescent would not be enough in itself as witnesses were also required. Those who saw the crescent used to go to the court with their witnesses and notify the officials. Witnessing by two persons was required in such cases.

If the persons proved to be right after an investigation of the issue and if the beginning or the end of Ramadan – hence the commencement of Eid al-Fitr – were declared, the messengers and their witnesses would be given a hefty reward.

The same was true for the end of Ramadan as well. If the crescent was not sighted during the 29th day of Ramadan, the month would be accepted as lasting 30 days and the holiday would begin the next day. This was called “tekmil-i selasin.”

It was the duty of the Qadi of Istanbul to determine the beginning and the end of Ramadan, and the date of “Laylat al-Qadr.”

People authorized by the Qadi used to watch for the crescent especially on minarets. After the sighting of the crescent moon, they used to go to the qadi along with their witnesses for a formal investigation.

Those who sighted the crescent used to say, “I saw the crescent at such an hour. Tonight, marks the beginning of Ramadan. I personally attest that,” and when the issue was decided after the testimonies of witnesses, the month of Ramadan would begin.

All these works used to be conducted in secrecy, with extreme caution to prevent possible leaks.

During these proceedings, mahya (Islamic message lettering) makers would announce the beginning of Ramadan to the people who used to wait outside the court. After the determination of the beginning of Ramadan in this way, the sultan would be notified through the office of the grand vizier or prime ministry.

Upon the sultan’s approval, people would be informed that the beginning of Ramadan had been determined in compliance with “hükm-ü şeri” (canonical laws).

Burning of lamps on minarets meant the announcement to the public.

When the crescent could not be sighted at the end of the month of Sha’ban due to cloudy skies, the situation would become a bit more complicated. In this case, Ramadan would begin at a date specified by the state.

With the beginning of Ramadan, all mosques and shrines, and particularly minarets, used to be illuminated.

Debates over beginning and end

In some years, interesting incidents took place regarding the determination of the beginning and end of Ramadan. Problems arose over the determination of the beginning of Ramadan in 1812. In his book “Letaif-i Enderun,” Hafız Hızır İlyas Ağa narrates such an incident as follows: “There arose debates about whether the new moon rose or not. Those fasting criticized those who were not fasting. Some people said, ‘Nobody in the city saw hilal-i şehr’ (the crescent moon of the month). People like Sofu Tiryaki Mehmed Ağa from the palace valued tobacco and coffee above everything unless they see the crescent with their own eyes. But when it turned out a day later that Ramadan really started on that day, they screamed ‘Alas!'”

From time to time, unusual situations arose as to the beginning of Ramadan. In his “Ramadan Talks” (“Ramazan Sohbetleri”), Kamil Miras tells of such an event. During a year when Ramadan lasted 29 days, an interesting incident took place when the author was at the mansion of Şeyhülislam Musa Kazım Efendi. When they were having the fast-breaking dinner, the Qadi of Istanbul came with the fetva emini to inform that a witness saw the “Şevval Hilali” (new crescent of the month Shawwal), marking the end of Ramadan. In this case, Ramadan would last only 29 days. Enraged by this, the Şeyhülislam replied, “Do not accept the testimony of that man. Otherwise, history would note that Musa Kazım reduced Ramadan to 28 days during his tenure as Şeyhülislam,” and refused to confirm the next day as Eid al-Fitr, ordering people to fast instead.

Measures taken for Ramadan

What the state put particular emphasis on during Ramadan was to ensure that people would not have troubles and to prevent possible food shortages and hikes in food prices. Prices of foods to be sold during Ramadan were set by the state and officials used to conduct inspections to prevent sellers from demanding higher prices.

The two foodstuffs under the tightest control were bread and meat. The state used to specify and announce to bakeries how the bread, simit and bun sold during Ramadan would be baked and what they would contain.

Samples of bread to be sold during Ramadan used to be presented to the sultan and after his approval, bakers were ordered to prepare bread according to the samples. Again, their prices were also announced to the bakers toward the end of the month of Sha’ban.

Meat, another important foodstuff, was also subject to strict regulations.

In order to meet the increasing demand for meat during Ramadan and prevent shortages, sheep were brought to Istanbul, especially from Thrace.

When the prices of foodstuffs needed to be raised, price increases would be delayed until the end of Ramadan. Roads and sidewalks around the Bayezid, Süleymaniye, Sultanahmet, Eyüp and Hagia Sophia mosques, which used to be frequented by people during Ramadan, were repaired in advance.

Since sultans used to walk around frequently during Ramadan to inspect how their subjects lived, their routes were given special importance and maintenance and repair works were carried out there.