An insight into moon-sighting
The issue of moon sighting has never been as divisive as it has become today. In the past, Muslim scholars agreed on a certain method to decide the start and end of the month of Ramaḍān. In the last few years, advancements in communications and media have turned the world into a small village creating a new context where matters concerning trans-national relations are involved. A second new context may also be related to the presence of many Muslims in countries that lack one single Muslim authority. Resultantly, readily understood issues related to a number of Islamic rituals have now become controversial and confusing. This confusion is further fuelled by the influence of a Western lifestyle upon Muslims; generally speaking, Muslims are often accused of being anti-Western or even unscientific in their spheres of life. This can influence them to react emotionally and unreasonably. One such observable sphere in which many Muslims have reacted in this manner is with regard to moon-sighting and the establishment of the start of the month of Ramaḍān, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al–Adha.
In this article, I would like to draw attention to specific principles in an attempt to remove misconceptions surrounding the ongoing debate.
Sharῑ’ah Principles related to the confirmation of the beginning of Ramaḍān and the Eid
I believe many readers will be aware of these principles yet some of them may not be aware of specific fundamental issues within them. In order to gain a deeper understanding, we have to differentiate between the principles used by those in authority in any Muslim community including the Muslim nation [ummah] under the Caliph [khalifah] or other leaders in his absence, and the principles used by ordinary Muslims.
Leaders or those in charge are commanded to employ one of two principles. The first is to sight the moon with the eye. The basis for this doctrine is numerous Prophetic traditions [ahadith]; Abu Hurayrah relates that the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said, ‘Fast when you see it (i.e., the moon) and cease fasting when you see it, and if it is hidden or cloudy, complete the counting of Sha’bān as thirty days.’ This hadith is agreed upon by Al-Bukhāri and Muslim; similar authentic ahadith are also recorded. The second principle applies only in the absence of the first, which is to complete thirty days for the month of Sha’bān. The basis for this is also the previous hadith and many other similar statements. It is worth noting that the overwhelming majority of scholars unanimously agreed upon using these two principles. Furthermore, it has been stated by a number of scholars that the overwhelming majority of scholars also agreed not to consider astronomy or calculations as a tool to confirm the beginning of Ramaḍān or Eid.
Scholars who quoted this consensus include al-Jassas al–Hanafi, al-Baji al-Maliki Ibn Rushd al-Maliki, al-Subki al-Shafi’i, Ibn Taymiyyah, Ibn ‘Abidin Al-Hanafi and others. They added that the effective cause [‘illāh, ratio legis] for confirming these events is the visual sighting of the moon or the completion of the month of Sha’bān. This means that the only basis for fasting is one of these two principles.
It is important to clarify this point further; the Sharῑ’ah in many cases may consider a variety of factors including scientific ones that could have an effect on the ruling. However, the scientific factor may or may not influence the end ruling of the Sharῑ’ah since in some cases it is totally outweighed by other factors to the degree that it appears to be ignored completely. There are numerous examples to help explain and corroborate this. Take the following instance, in a well known hadith, the Messenger of Allāh (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said, ‘The child belongs to the bed and the adulterer deserves the stone’. This hadith explains the case of a man who states he was involved in an illicit relationship with a married woman and claims the child she later bears. Allāh, the legislator, paid no attention to this claim and affirmed that the child remains the legitimate descendant of the woman’s lawful husband. This is the explanation of the statement, ‘the child belongs to the bed’. The lawful husband can deny this association with the child only by li’an, the process of taking an oath by Allāh and invoking His curse after an allegation of adultery.
To explore the workings of this principle let us suppose after the death of both parents, the other siblings dispute the legitimacy of this child and their claim is supported by DNA tests which show that this child is not a descendant of their father, and is not their full biological brother or sister. However, the only legislated way of depriving the child of any right is through the process of li’an. With the death of both parents this is not possible so the child must remain the legitimate child of both parents in the eyes of the Sharῑ’ah. Without the process of li’an, the child is considered the legitimate child of both parents even if science proves otherwise. Here we can say for the sake of clarification that this child has two fathers, the biological (or scientific one) and the legal [shar’ῑ] one. As far as the Sharῑ’ah is concerned, the latter is the real father and the former holds no significance whatsoever; he is deserving of punishment for his admission of adultery.
Similarly, we can also say that we have two types of months; the first is the legal month, which is known as Ramaḍān and the second is the astronomical (scientific) one, which is the 9th month of the lunar calendar. All Islamic rulings are based upon the first month which may or may not coincide with the astronomical month. The latter has no significance in the eyes of the Sharῑ’ah and hence no Islamic rulings are based on it. This means that we are dealing with two different spheres that have no connection with each other; the sphere which is defined by the Sharῑ’ah and that which is defined by astronomy. Therefore, once the sighting of the moon is confirmed and accepted by the leader of Muslims or by the majority of Muslims then there is no need to investigate further let alone claim that the sighting was invalid or not possible due to astronomical calculations. Who has the authority to judge that it is wrong? Someone with astronomical facts? No, not at all, as the astronomical facts are dealing with a different type of month which is different from the one which governs the timings of certain acts of worship. Our month or field of discussion is something else. We are not denying the astronomical facts; rather we are not fasting the astronomical month. This is very similar to the previous case of biological vs. legal father. If we come to know for a fact that we started fasting Ramaḍān on a day which was different from the astronomical calculation, then that will have no effect at all on our fasting or Eid. This is a fundamental line of reasoning that many people have ignored or are unaware of. It sets aside the following oft-quoted principle, which although correct is not applicable here: many proponents who favour considering astronomical calculations state that a person’s account of having sighted the moon is speculative [zanni] whereas astronomical calculations are definitive [qat’i] and the Sharῑ’ah gives credence to the definitive over the speculative. As stated however, even if we for the sake of argument ‘accept’ the calculations as being definitive (ignoring the differences within astronomers themselves), the point is that the Sharῑ’ah did not consider scientific and astronomical calculations as determining factors in the first place with regard to the sighting of the moon. I will avoid delving into the discussion around the accuracy of astronomical calculations and the claim that some astronomers make that there is a level of uncertainty in calculations; this is beyond the scope of this article and does not really make a substantial difference on account of the aforementioned argument.
Recall the different occasions during the time of the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) where a number of people testified that they, as individuals, sighted the new moon; there is the possibility that these individuals erred or even lied. The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) on one occasion questioned the witness about his faith and upon hearing his testimony of faith, the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) commanded Bilal to announce the month of Ramaḍān. Advocates of astronomical calculations respond to this by saying that the witnesses were Bedouins who were skilled at knowing the start and end of lunar months so their reports were more likely to be accurate. The reality is even if we were to accept this assumption, those who use this argument do not accept testimony even from someone skilled and experienced unless it is confirmed by astronomy; their criterion is astronomy and not experience in moon-sighting. The acceptance of the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) of such testimony is a clear guidance for us to follow without any reluctance. Allāh says in the Qur’ān, ‘And whatsoever the Messenger gives you, take it, and whatsoever he forbids you, abstain (from it), and fear Allāh. Verily, Allāh is Severe in punishment.’
The Prophet’s (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) instruction to complete the thirty days of Sha’bān when the moon is not able to be sighted lends further support to this reasoning of differentiating the Islamic month of Ramaḍān from the astronomical month; the famous scholar, Ibn Hajar, said, ’This (completing thirty days of Sha’bān) is an indication that we should not refer to calculations or astronomy. The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) guided us to completing thirty days of Sha’bān while he could have guided us to consider other means that enable us to know the beginning of the astronomical month’. The day that follows the 29th of Sha’bān could be the first day of Ramaḍān or the last day of Sha’bān. However, if we are unable to sight the new crescent due to poor visibility, then we consider the following day as the last day of Sha’bān without any doubt, even though it might be the first day of the astronomical month. Our month of fasting, Ramaḍān, will start in this case after the 30th of Sha’bān is completed. This is again a matter of consensus between all scholars. Similarly, if the new moon of Eid al-Fitr in this case is seen on the 28th of Ramaḍān, then the Muslims should commemorate their Eid based on the new moon and then compensate the 29th day of Ramaḍān the day after the Eid or any other day. There is no disagreement about this.
The principle for the masses
Their guiding principle is mentioned in the hadith, ‘The fast is the day you all fast; the breaking of fast is on the day that you all break fast; and the day of sacrifice is on the day that you all sacrifice.’ Al-Tirmidhi said, ‘Some scholars explained this hadith to mean that fasting and breaking the fast should be done with the Muslim body [jama’ah] or the majority of people.’
This means that the common person does not have his own sighting of the moon or follow his own decision. The matters of beginning Ramaḍān and confirming Eid are not private affairs; they are decisions which affect the ummah and therefore have to be taken on that level. None can do this except the leader of the Muslims. When there is no leader then the majority of Muslims represent the opinion of the ummah. Today, the same ruling should be applied on all sections or communities of Muslims due to the nature of Muslim countries being separated and each making its own decisions.
If we consider this principle we will find it in agreement with common sense as failure to implement this leads to confusion. One can imagine an individual fasting alone, but is it possible for a person to establish Eid with all its rituals such as the congregational prayer, takbir, exchanging greetings and celebrating alone? Can we have two different days of Eid in one city or country? The answer is no we can not and should not. This is not a matter open to dispute. Therefore, the Muslim individual is left with no choice but to go with the flow of the majority on this matter and to act according to the meaning of this hadith. Here, it is appropriate to mention a case elaborated upon in works of jurisprudence [fiqh]: the ruling for a Muslim who starts the month of Ramaḍān according to the country he is residing in and then travels to another country that had started Ramaḍān on a different day. Ramaḍān for Muslims in the destination country may end before or after Ramaḍān in the home country. If it ends before then this means that he may fast only 28 days while if it ends after then he may end up fasting 31 days! What do scholars say about this case? They say that the person should follow the country he has arrived in which means he must fast with them and end the month with them even if it is more or less than a ’month’. If he fasts 28 days, then he must fast one more day after ‘Īd to complete 29 days which constitutes the minimum number days in a month. A similar case in point occurs when a person sees the new moon on a specific day and then travels to perform Hajj. Obviously he will follow Muslims in Makah and will not follow his own moon-sighting even if he is pretty sure that their decision is wrong according to astronomy.
Some may question the basis for differentiating the lay person’s conduct from one in authority; there are some commands that address every single Muslim irrespective of position. An example is, ’O you who believe, establish the prayer’. There are also some other commandments that addressing specific people according to position, gender etc. For example, Allāh says in the Qur’ān, ‘Cut off (from the wrist joint) the (right) hand of the thief, male or female, as a recompense for that which they committed, a punishment by way of example from Allāh. And Allāh is All-Powerful, All-Wise’. This command is directed to those in authority and it is not addressed to the individual; individuals cannot arrest a thief and cut his hand off!
Prayer calculations vs. moon-sighting calculations
It is allowed for us to rely on scientific facts that can provide accurate information in deciding the prayers times; we are allowed to use watches, computer programs and other technologies to decide these times. Why is this not the case for deciding the start and end of Ramaḍān? I will summarise the answer as given by a number of scholars including the famous Maliki scholar al-Qarafi. A very similar understanding can be also found with Ibn Taymiyyah. There is a major Islamic difference between the prayer timings and the timings for the beginning and ending of Ramaḍān and the Hajj day. Allāh says in the Qur’ān, Establish the prayer from midday till the darkness of the night (i.e.. the Thuhr, ‘Asr, Maghrib and ‘Isha’ prayers)’ and He also said, ‘So glorify Allāh, when you come up to the evening (i.e., offer the Maghrib and ‘Isha’ prayers), and when you enter the morning (i.e., offer the Fajr prayer).’ Allāh has commanded us to pray in those specific times and hence we are commanded to determine the time by any means. In contrast, Allāh never commanded us to begin Ramaḍān in a specific time or due to the birth of the new moon rather he commanded us to fast once we ‘witness’ the new moon as it is mentioned in the aforementioned hadith and in the verse in the Qur’ān, ‘The month of Ramaḍān in which was revealed the Qur’ān, a guidance for mankind and clear proofs for the guidance and the criterion. So whoever of you sights (the crescent on the first night of) the month, he must observe the fasts that month”. Therefore, our concern is not in the actual time or the birth of the new moon which is identified by the moon leaving the conjunction; rather we are concerned with ‘witnessing’ the new moon. In the case of prayers, the actuality of the time is of concern to us.
Some Muslim individuals and organisations repeatedly call Muslims in the UK and some other non-Muslim countries to abandon following Saudi Arabia in determining Ramaḍān, Eid and Hajj. A section of these voices is driven by certain agendas to attack the Saudi government and ultimately to attack the religious ideology adopted by Saudi Arabia. In any case, they are unable to provide a practical and workable alternative. The suggestion for Muslims in the UK and other European countries to establish their own moon-sighting has proven over the years to be both an impractical and a non-approachable solution for numerous reasons. Muslims in the UK, for example, have not agreed on any one organisation to represent them in this issue due to their wide and diverse nature. They differ on the course to be followed in case of failure to sight the moon on the possible dates of visibility; some recommend following astronomical data, others recommend following the sighting of the nearest Islamic country. Again, they differ between themselves on which country to follow. Others suggest that when the moon is not sighted then Sha’bān should be completed as thirty days irrespective of the astronomical data as this is mentioned in the Prophetic guidance. However, this recommendation is not widely accepted as it means that for the most part, Ramaḍān will start after the thirty days of Sha’bān due to the cloudy conditions in most European countries including Britain. Another opinion put forward is for each Muslim to follow one’s local mosque; this is the worst recommendation as it divides Muslims on a matter which should unite them as a single community; what does one do if there are two local mosques? Another option is to follow the first country that announces the sighting; while this is a very logical and legitimate opinion; it is unlikely to be accepted due to the political climate, diversity and disunity of Muslims living in the UK as an example. Moreover, those supporting astronomy as their basis will again question the sighting if it does not meet their criteria.
After considering all these opinions and taking into account that almost two-thirds of the Muslims in the UK, for example, follow Makkah for spiritual reasons, one will find himself compelled to support this judgment. As we have declared before that the basis of this is textual and rational evidences. Unity is not the determining factor for this conclusion but is one of the prime factors for sure. It is also worth noting that the masses in many countries follow Makkah and not Saudi Arabia; their attachment is to Makkah as their holiest place and not to Saudi Arabia.
The process of moon–sighting in Saudi Arabia
To conclude the discussion, I would like to state that the Saudi moon-sighting is not a matter of personal attachment to myself for many reasons. One reason is the fact that I am not promoting following Saudi Arabia in deciding the beginning and ending of Ramaḍān. Nevertheless, I would like to clarify a misconception related to the Saudi moon-sighting as it is criticised in both Muslim and non-Muslim media. These criticisms include the claim that they rely on ordinary Bedouins who emerge from the desert knowing nothing about moon-sighting and the stages of the moon. Some claim that the main motivation for such individuals who testify to seeing the new moon is to gain a reward or seek fame. This criticism is further used to attack the Sharῑ’ah as a whole as it is always linked to Saudi Arabia. It is important for us all as Muslims to not falsely accuse others and ignorantly support a non-Islamic agenda.
Firstly, the official Saudi calendar is not used at all in deciding the beginning and ending of Ramaḍān and the day of ‘Arafah. I have heard many times that the Saudis are following the Jewish methodology in their calendar and therefore Muslims fast according to the Jewish moon-sighting. Such a ridiculous statement is unworthy of a response. The Judicial High Court is responsible for deciding such dates and is based on testimony that they receive. Secondly, some accuse the Saudi authorities of not paying attention to verifying the testimony that comes from a single unknown person who may be lying or mistaken. I would like to say that in most years, the testimony is corroborated by a number of known witnesses. In 1424 AH there was a controversy concerning sighting the Eid moon and its visibility; it was announced that the moon was sighted in Saudi Arabia and many astronomers and others accused Saudi Arabia’s system of being daft and paying no attention to the important matter of a Muslim’s worship. I happened to be visiting a friend a few days later who was watching a documentary presented by Al-Majd TV channel about moon-sighting. In this documentary, the channel interviewed the person who sighted the moon; it was apparent that this man was not just a simple lay person with little intelligence. He was well educated, experienced and knowledgeable in both visual sighting as well as astronomy. He even took the camera crew to the actual location and his set up where he would watch for the new moon. He also added that it was his habit for many years along with a group of people to monitor the new moon every month. At times they would accompany one of the judges of that area. In addition, a famous Saudi astronomer Dr. Mohammed Bakheet al-Maliki wrote an article published in Ramaḍān 1421 AH (Dec 2000) that in 1413 AH astronomers announced that it was impossible to see the new moon due to its disappearance half an hour before sunset, yet it was announced that the moon was sighted by more than ten people in Saudi Arabia and in the United Arab Emirates. He also added that some sighted the moon without intentionally going out to look for it. The number of witnesses rose to the extent that the Judicial High Court ceased to accept any more testimonies. The famous scholar Dr. Bakr Abu Zaid, who used to work for the Ministry of Justice that is in charge of dealing with witnesses, mentioned that in 1406 AH astronomers announced that it was impossible to sight the new moon of Shawwāl. However, the moon was sighted by more than twenty different people in various places in Saudi Arabia and some other neighbouring countries. In addition, I came across a PhD thesis by a researcher who said that in 1425 AH it was also announced that it was impossible to sight the new moon of Shawwāl yet it was witnessed by more than forty people and the authorities officially recorded more than ten of those testimonies. I relate these incidents to provide more clarity about the issue and to advise people not to accuse other Muslims, especially knowledgeable people, of committing trivial mistakes concerning major matters.
Finally, I would like to emphasise to my brothers and sisters living in any non-Muslim country of the conclusion of this discussion. The evidence compels us to follow the opinion of the majority of Muslims in our country irrespective of how the opinion is arrived at. There are further details that need clarification to answer many questions for Muslims living in the West; it is not the intention of this article to address such detailed matters but to clarify the main misconception about moon-sighting and the role of Muslims.
Misconception 1: 29th day moon is always thin and 30th day moon is thick.
It is very possible that the 30th day moon of one month is about the same thickness as 29th day moon of another month. The moon revolves around the earth in an elliptical orbit, therefore, sometimes it is closer to the earth and sometimes it is farther from the earth. If the moon is 20 hours old on 29th day of one month when it is closer to the earth, it may look about the same size as, when it is 25 hours old on the 30th day of another month and is farther from earth.
Misconception 2: 29th day moon sets in a short time while 30th day moon remains longer on the horizon.
The moon above the horizon an hour before setting travels down to horizon line along a path whose inclination depends upon the latitude of the observer. A vertically downward path would be an Equator, and a 45 degrees slope at 45 degree latitude. The moon that is 10 degrees above horizon at Equator, would set quicker than a moon that is 10 degrees above horizon at a latitude of 45 degrees. Therefore, it is not correct to say that the 30th day moon remains longer on the horizon. Some months it may be, but not always.
Misconception 3: If the moon is thick and remains on the horizon a long time, it must
be the 2nd day moon.
This is very common argument that we hear repeatedly, but has no truth in it. If on the 29th day, the moon at sunset is 18 hours old and is higher above the glare of the sun, it may be visible on that day and will appear to be very thin. However, if the 18 hours old moon on the 29th day is very low on the horizon, it would not be visible on that day, then on the 30th day it would be 42 hours old and quite thick, and remains above the horizon a long time, but it was not visible the day before.
Misconception 4: On New-moon day the dark side of the moon faces earth.
By this sentence, people think that the far side of the moon is dark side of the moon,
and that dark side faces us at New-moon day. That is not the case. The same side of the moon always faces the earth, sometimes illuminated, and sometimes dark. The moon takes 27 days, 7 hours and 43 minutes to spin, or rotate, once on its axis. It takes the same amount of time to orbit the earth. The combination of the two motions keeps the same side of the moon facing the earth. To us on earth, the moon is fully illuminated at full moon, completely dark at new moon, and partially lit in between.
Misconception 5: Three consecutive months of 30 days are not possible.
Three consecutive months of 30 days are very possible and are not uncommon. In fact even four consecutive months of 30 days is possible, but rare. This is mainly due to considering the whole USA as one (Matla’) horizon. Because of the elliptical orbit of the moon, two consecutive months of 30 days are quite common. In the third month, on the 30th day of previous month, sometimes the moon is only sighted on west coast, because for east coast it may have been 29th day from the actual sighting in east coast. If that is the case then in fourth month the moon may take 29 or 30 days to be visible. In the latter case it would be four months in a row that make 30 days’
month. The Committee for Crescent Observation, Ithaca NY has been keeping the records of sighting in North America for the last two decades, and confirms that three consecutive months of 29 days, and four consecutive months of 30 days has occurred several times in USA.
Misconception 6: Full moon occurs on the 14th night.
This is wrong too. Full moon is the instant of time when the moon crosses an imaginary line passing through the centers of the sun and earth. This could happen at any moment of day or night. Therefore, it is very possible that in one month the moon is full at 7:00 a.m. This moon would be 99% lit on the night before and becomes full in the morning, but decreases to 99% lit-up on the following night. Such a moon would appear as a full moon to an observer on both nights. These two nights could be 13th and 14th, or 14th and 15th depending upon the location on earth and the time of new moon birth.