In the subcontinent, this Eid, Eid-ul-Fitr, is known as ‘Choti Eid’, or the ‘Lesser Eid’. This immediately sets up a contrast with ‘Bari Eid’, or the ‘Greater Eid’, which takes place just two months and a bit later. This distinction is also known in the Arab world, but by calling ‘Bari Eid’ bari, this Eid is already disadvantaged. It is the ‘other Eid’.

‘Bari Eid’, or Eid-ul-Azha, has the advantage of having two major rituals, as both have the prayer, but it alone has a sacrifice. ‘Bari Eid’ brings all Muslims together in celebrating Hajj, which is itself a reminder of the Abrahamic sacrifice, while ‘Choti Eid’ commemorates solely the end of the fasting of Ramazan. While the Ramazan fasting is like fasting during Lent, Eid-ul-Fitr cannot be equated with Easter in any way, because while Easter marks the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, Eid marks nothing but the end of fasting. There is more of a resemblance between Christmas and Eid-ul-Azha, because while the Eid does not mark the birth of Christ, it does commemorate the Abrahamic sacrifice, which is supposed to prefigure the Crucifixion.

According to a Hadith, the Almighty has provided two holidays for Muslims, the two Eids. One of them, the latter, has a sacrifice, and is because of the compulsion to give a share of the sacrifice to the poor, it means that everyone will feast. The ‘Lesser Eid’ also means feasting, but a low-key feasting. Because even eating ordinary meals is a sort of feast. Families and friends may try to give some formality to this by arranging joint meals, but this is neither sanctioned nor forbidden by religion.

One practice that was the hallmark of both days, though now fallen into disuse, were the competitions, of both foot racing and swimming, as well as archery. Though there are some sports tournaments organised on Eid, none of these are. These sports are an indication that the Eids are not solemn religious occasions, but generalised festivity.

They begin with a prayer, which for too many is the only prayer they offer, but otherwise there is feasting and frolic. It is worth noting that when the British got around to allocating holidays, they awarded two to each religion, including their own, Christianity. They gave Christmas and Easter to Christians, and Holi and Diwali to Hindus. To Muslims, they awarded the two Eids, though where they could get away with it, they swopped Eid-ul-Fitr for Eid Miladun Nabi. This brings up one of the differences between the two Eids.

Eid-ul-Fitr begins with the sighting of the Shawwal moon, while Eid-ul-Azha is on 10 Dhul Hijja. This means that Eid-ul-Azha will be locked into place 10 days ahead, but Eid-ul-Fitr may not be declared until late. As Eid Milad also is locked into place 12 days ahead of time, as it falls on 12 Rabiul Awwal. This writer has heard of a prayer leader announcing that he had learnt that the Shawwal moon had been sighted, that he was breaking his fast, and would lead Eid prayers soon. The correct determination of Eid is important, because if it is not 01 Shawwal and Eid, it must be 30 Ramazan, and one is supposed to be fasting. Thus, fasting on 30 Shawwal carries the risk of fasting on Eid, which only Satan is supposed to do, and thus is something to be avoided.

Part of the problem is because the Hijri calendar is not the official calendar, and is in the hands of a Ruet-i-Hilal Committee. The Committee is composed of scholars of all schools of thought, and was set up just because of previous controversies, where Eid was celebrated on different days in the same city. However, since the government followed the Gregorian calendar, the Hijri calendar became a religious calendar. If it had been the calendar according to which the government paid salaries, and according to which it demanded payment of its bills, the private sector would have followed suit, and both official and private sectors would have seen a much greater interest in the change of all 12 months, not just the change from Ramazan to Shawwal.

Another difficulty has arisen because of the divergences that have developed over the moon-sighting. If the moon is not sighted on the 29th of the month (possibly because of the weather), there is no need to sight it on the 30th. There is never a 31st, and after the 30th, is always a 1st.

Presently, one factor which may also be working to bring about a multiplicity of Eids is that the moon-sighting authorities in various countries are national, not supranational. It is almost as if separate Eid must be celebrated, to prove that Muslims are divided into separate nations.

The only real solution to this issue is, perhaps, to be found in one government enforcing one date. So long as the Muslim world remains divided, Eids will be separate. Only one government would be able to impose a single calendar, particularly one which requires sightings every month, unlike the Gregorian calendar, which is solar, and requires no sightings at all, to be followed perfectly well.

Eid-ul-Fitr also has the more developed Chand Raat tradition, because Muslim housewives combine the custom of wearing new clothes on Eid with shopping for the season. Because Eid-ul-Fitr comes first, it is a bigger shopping season than Eid-ul-Azha, when budgets have to be shared between sacrificial animals and other things. Because of their distance, and because the lunar calendar means that they move around the seasons, it happens in some years that the clothes of Eid-ul-Fitr are still seasonal at Eid-ul-Azha. We are about to move into such a period, though for some years, this Eid has been in monsoonal weather, while Eid-ul-Azha has been in autumnal.

Though it would be beyond the ability of the present government to manage, the aim should be a uniformity of calendar. This might require adopting the Hijri calendar for all purposes, not just religious. It might also involve looking at the OIC initiative on moon-sighting, and the government using diplomatic efforts to make other governments agree to follow. The prospect of a unified Eid has escaped once again, with Waziristan seeing Eid observed on Thursday. Imran Khan’s effort bore fruit in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, but only for Pakistan. However, while Pakistan may be celebrating Eid on Friday, the Arab world is celebrating the day before, as usual. True, it is a start, but it has not gone far enough.

The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.