An iftar table with a lantern, candles, Qur'an, and dates at St. Catherine University, April 5, 2023. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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The Minneapolis school board voted Tuesday to cancel classes on Friday, April 21, to allow Muslim students and staff to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan.

Sharon El-Amin, the Minneapolis school-board chair, noted that the board had voted last year to give students a day off for Eid, starting in the 2022–2023 school year. However, she said, that calendar was created with the assumption that Eid would fall over the weekend this year. In fact, she said, Eid celebrations will take place next Friday. 

The Twin Cities Muslim community heralded the calendar change last year when Minneapolis and other districts like Hopkins, Mankato, and Moorhead voted to cancel classes for Eid and some Jewish religious holidays. So for some district families, Tuesday’s school board vote brought confusion: Why the sudden calendar change with less than two weeks’ notice?

“Our best understanding at the time showed Eid al-Fitr would occur on Saturday, April 22,” read an email from Minneapolis Public Schools to parents.

In an interview, El-Amin described the date mixup as a “mistake.” The incorrect date “was based off of what was placed on Google,” she said.

Once she noticed the mistake, she said, the school board acted quickly to change the academic calendar, despite the short notice. “We wanted Muslim families to be included,” she said. “I know how important it is to my family.”

Going forward, El-Amin said, the district would make calendar decisions about Muslim holidays based on consultation with a group of Twin Cities imams. (El-Amin’s husband is an imam at a north Minneapolis mosque.) 

How can there be so much confusion about the date of a major religious holiday? Determining the correct date of Eid is a common question in Islam. And if you’re not familiar with the Islamic calendar and its workings, it can prove more complicated than you might think. 

But Twin Cities Muslim leaders say that shouldn’t deter schools from adding Eid to the calendar—and they provided some tips to make sure schools get the date right.

How is the date of Eid al-Fitr determined?

That’s the million-dollar question—and the answer depends on whom you ask.

A hadith—that is, a saying of the Prophet Muhammad—provides instructions on when Muslims should break their Ramadan fast, based on the sighting of the new crescent moon.

But different groups of Muslims interpret that directive differently, explained Abdisalam Adam. Abdisalam is a Twin Cities community leader with many roles: Cedar–Riverside imam, Fridley school board member, and St. Paul assistant principal. He has also helped advise school leaders in Columbia Heights and Shakopee on how to incorporate Eid into their calendars.

Some Muslims rely on a global sighting from another country like Saudi Arabia. Moon sighters wait for sunset and then look to the sky to see if they can spot the first sliver of the new moon. The Judicial High Court in Saudi Arabia determines the date of Eid based on testimonies from Muslims who have spotted the moon. Because of the time difference, that means Minnesota Muslims who rely on the global moon sighting—including much of the local Somali and Oromo community—confirm the precise date of Eid around 1 p.m. the day before the celebrations. If it’s a cloudy night, Muslims fast for another day. Other Muslims believe the new moon must be sighted locally. 

Another interpretation of the moon sighting relies on scientific calculations. Over the past 10 years or so, Abdisalam said, more and more people have followed the guidance of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), which years in advance provides a calendar with dates for the beginning of Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr. The group’s religious body, the Fiqh Council of North America (FCNA), has approved using astronomical calculations to determine the date. That calendar listed Friday, April 21, 2023, as the date of Eid.

Because Minnesota’s Muslim community is so diverse, Eid celebrations may actually fall on different days, Abdisalam said. For mosques that follow the ISNA calendar, Eid celebrations will fall on Friday, April 21. But Muslims who rely on a moon sighting still aren’t sure when they will stop fasting and celebrate Eid. It could be on April 21, along with Muslims who abide by the ISNA calendar. But if the sky is cloudy, their Eid celebrations could take place on April 22. And these worshipers won’t know until the day before.

Many East African Muslims—a large portion of Minneapolis’ Muslim community—rely on moon sightings, Abdisalam said. His own mosque does not yet know when Eid al-Fitr celebrations will occur.

“School should always be prepared that there’s the possibility of some families who would not follow whatever day they said,” he said. He suggested students who celebrate on different days should have their absences excused.

El-Amin suggests that the group of Twin Cities imams, which the district now consults about the calendar, represents a majority of the local Muslim community. That group has adopted FCNA’s calculations to determine the dates of Eid.

“They all consult and work together to try to look for the sighting of the new moon or to calculate the phase and take the guessing out of it. Because we are in a space where we need to know ahead of time,” she said. “We can’t wait to the last minute to pivot.”

What does the Islamic Society of North America say?

Basharat Saleem, the executive director of the Islamic Society of North America, said that the dates for Eid al-Fitr are knowable well in advance and available on ISNA’s website.

“There should be absolutely no confusion about it. In fact, we can tell you for the next 50 years when Eid will be celebrated,” he said. “Our religious body has determined that we could use those scientific calculations and be able to determine these dates well in advance.”

The 2023 date for Eid al-Fitr—Friday, April 21—was determined years ago and has not changed, he said.

So should Minneapolis Public Schools have known last year that Eid would fall on April 21 this year?

“They should have,” Saleem said.

So how should schools determine the date for Eid?

For Saleem, the answer is simple: Check the ISNA calendar.

Abdisalam recommends that districts use that calendar. But he also advises that they build in flexibility.

“I would say go with the ISNA one,” he said. “It’s fairly safe—with the caveat that there’s a possibility that there could be a division in the Muslim community still—no way around that.”

El-Amin said that in the future Minneapolis Public Schools will determine its calendar in consultation with Twin Cities imams. The district plans to cancel one day of classes for each Eid that falls on a school day, she said.

Some districts adopting these calendar changes have opted to take two days off for Eid al-Fitr.

“Ideally, two would be best,” Abdisalam said. But, he added, districts may not be able to afford two days off, given other pressures on the calendar. And soon the other Eid, Eid al-Adha, will raise additional questions for school calendars.

What about Eid al-Adha?

In recent years, Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, has fallen during the summer. Last year, the holiday was in July; this year, Eid al-Adha is tentatively scheduled for June 28—after the school year has ended. 

But in coming years, Eid al-Adha will be observed earlier in June, and then in May—intersecting with the school year.

And Eid al-Adha is even more difficult to plan for. While the lunar calendar helps ISNA anticipate dates for Eid al-Fitr years in advance, the other Eid follows a different set of calculations. 

Eid al-Adha is connected with the pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, Saleem, of ISNA, explained.

“That date is not fixed because that depends on that pilgrimage and how that goes,” he said. “That date cannot be predetermined. Therefore, it has to be established about 10 days before the date of that Eid.”

Since this year’s Eid al-Adha is tentatively scheduled for June 28, the date will be officially set around June 18. It could “shift just one day up or down,” Saleem said. That date will be determined by the Supreme Court of Saudi Arabia.

Minneapolis Public Schools will also determine this date in advance, in consultation with local imams, El-Amin said.

It seems like Minneapolis Public Schools has a lot more days off in the middle of the year than usual, and the school year is running longer. Is that because of religious holidays?

Partly, but not entirely. This year, Minneapolis Public Schools canceled classes for two Jewish High Holy Days in the fall. Two other “non-school” days—December 9 and March 3—were scheduled to accommodate teacher professional development. That’s a new provision in the union contract that teachers and education support professionals approved last spring, following a three-week strike.

These days come on top of the preexisting holidays, grading days, and conference days. Then, the district amended the calendar twice: to cancel classes for the observation of New Year’s Day, on January 2; and Eid al-Fitr, on April 21.

Will we need to reschedule this school day?

By canceling classes on April 21, some schools will fall behind their minimum state-required instructional hours, Interim Superintendent Rochelle Cox said at Tuesday’s school-board meeting. Those schools will need to make up for lost time. Other district schools with longer school days (and thus more total hours in the bank) may not need to make up time. One possible makeup day for the schools behind on instructional hours is Friday, June 16. Minneapolis Public Schools will provide more information about making up instructional time in coming weeks.

Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...