Moon a Test From Allah

    A change in strategy by a national body has again caused an uproar of criticism and controversy among the Muslim Americans. Lengthy articles are being compiled by all sides to prove their point. In this debate we are being asked to be globalists, or continentalists or nationalists or regionalists. All of these methodologies demand that one should follow someone else if crescent is not sighted in one’s locality or is not even possible to be sighted under excellent conditions of sighting.

    All these approaches have been tried in the Old World. There, since the advent of colonialism, “countries” existed that divided Muslims into controllable populations. It was thus possible that a body of officials could administratively impose the beginning of the lunar month on the entire Muslim population of a country. This possibility of control was facilitated by the advent of communication technology. Obviously if Eid could be celebrated according to some fixed date, it made it “easier” for everyone to schedule their other life activities. One of the justifications given was “hukm-e-hakim” (obedience to the Muslim ruler). The ulema, most of the time, were obliged to follow suit and some felt helpless to demand that Sunnah be followed, even if Eid is celebrated on two separate dates in the same country. Thus Eid was celebrated on the same day in a given country (nationalistic approach), but the entire Muslim ummah never celebrated Eid on the same day, as far as it is possible to know.

    Allah’s Messenger  had told us, “Verily my Ummah, or the Ummah of Muhammad , will not agree on error; and the hand of Allâh is upon the community; he who sets himself apart from it will be set apart in Hell Fire.” Al-Tirmidhi Hadith 173, Narrated by Abdullah ibn Umar .

    Very soon, after freedom from colonialism, things began to change. The control exercised by the “national authorities” became inoperative, so that in the same “country” Eid began to be celebrated on two different days (regionalistic approach). We know thus for a fact that, for example, in Pakistan and in Nigeria Muslims in the north will begin months at different days than those in the south.

    Other “countries”, even though Muslims were not in the ruling position, adhered to the one country one Eid methodology.

    When Islam arrived in Europe and America, the question ‘when to begin a lunar month’ was not left behind. When the population was small and disconnected the problem was solved by calling “home” and coordinating the dates with the “country” that one came from or to show solidarity with the dates that were observed by the Saudi Government. This situation lasted for a while, until it was known that the dates announced by the Saudi Government were based on calculation rather than actual sighting. So that in actuality Saudi Arabia was following the globalistic approach while others were following nationalistic approach or regionalistic approach. The result of this realization was that two beginnings for a lunar month became common. Even in the same city two masajid would begin the month on different days. This was a new thing, never done by Muslims before. The reason of course was the lack of any mutually recognized authority. Instead of every country or region (a district, a province or a state) being sovereign every masjid acted like an “independent state.” Some masajid recognized some affiliations and aligned their beginning of the month, so many masajid followed ISNA, or ICNA or any other “national” organization of their choice. But the result was still two beginnings for each month in the same city.

    In all these happenings, as far as a city was concerned, some were following the sighted or at least sightable hilâl (crescent moon) while others were following a day when sighting the hilâl was not possible in their area but was sighted or was sightable somewhere in North America.

    An exception to this norm was those masajid who followed a country of their choice instead of any ‘local’ criteria. They too ended up following those who followed a day when sighting the hilâl was not possible in their area but was sighted or possible to be sighted somewhere in world.

    Recently ISNA decided to discard all previous “norms” and depend openly and totally on a calculated beginning for every month. The immediate result of this decision was that while in the past Eid was observed on two consecutive days, this year Eid-ul-Fitr had three observances. One observance was based on possible global sighting (Fig. 1), one was based on continental sighting (Fig. 2) and one was based on local sighting, wherever the hilâl was sighted should observe the beginning of the month.

    All three criteria are practiceable. If followed faithfully, they will give predictable dates for all twelve months of the year. 

    The vital question for us to address is which of these criteria is the nearest to the orders of Allah and His Messenger  .

    The first method assumes that if the hilâl is sighted in one part of the globe, the rest of the world can assume that hilâl is present in their area but was not observed because of the local conditions. Therefore it is permissible for them to follow those who actually or in ISNA’s case potentially observed the hilâl.

    The second method assumes that if the hilâl is sighted in one part of the continent (North America), the rest of the continent can assume that hilâl is present in their area but was not observed because of the local conditions. Therefore it is permissible for them to follow those who actually observed the hilâl.

Fig. 1

Fig. 2

    However, we find no unambiguous or even ambiguous justification for these assumptions in the Qurân or Sunnah. All the evidence ever presented directs us towards local sighting or sighting within a very localized area.

    Kurayb said: Umm Fadl, daughter of Harith , sent him (Fadl, i.e. her son) to Mu’awiyah in Syria. I (Fadl) arrived in Syria, and did the needful for her. It was there in Syria that the month of Ramadan commenced. I saw the new moon (of Ramadan) on Friday. I then came back to Madinah at the end of the month.  Abdullah ibn Abbas asked me (about the new moon of Ramadan) and said: When did you see it? I said: We saw it on Friday night.  He said: (Did) you see it yourself?  I said: Yes, and the people also saw it so they observed fast and Mu’awiyah also observed fast.  Thereupon he said: But we saw it on Saturday night. So we shall continue to observe the fast until we complete thirty (fasts) or we see it (the new moon of Shawwal).  I said: Is the sighting of the moon by Mu’awiyah not valid for you?  He said: No; this is how the Messenger of Allah has commanded us. Yahya ibn Yahya was in doubt (whether the word used in the narration by Kurayb) was Naktafi or Taktafi.(Sahih Muslim Hadith 2391).

    There is no example in ahadith that justifies global or continental approaches presently being practiced. We have requested and are requesting again, all proponents to present a single proof that validates their proposal of globalistic, continentalistic or nationalistic approaches. None has been forthcoming and none will be forthcoming.

    The only valid interpretation is the one practiced by our predecessors. There is also very little difference based on the madhahib on this issue. Imam Ghazali, in his Ihya Ulum-id-din (Chapter on Fasting. Maktaba e Thanavi, Deoband, 1986: Vol. 1, Page 366) summarized the consensus of the past thus:

    “If the moon is seen in one city but not seen in the next and the distance between the two is less then two manzil it would be wajib for both to observe the fast. If, however the distance is more, then each city will follow its own ruling.”

    There are other numerous rulings based on the Sunnah. None of them ask us to follow some distant place when the moon is not sighted in our “city”. All of them emphasize the local sighting.

    Insha Allah in the next part we will examine, how these rulings are in complete agreement with the “scientific” knowledge that has been accumulated in the past few years and also how the confusion in Europe and America is spreading all over the world.

Part II

    Over the last two centuries data has been collected by Muslims and non-Muslims to evaluate the possibility of making predictable and accurate models of visibility of the new moon. There now exist computer programs that with considerable confidence tell us where and when hilâl cannot be sighted. They also predict, with considerable margin of confidence, where hilâl can be sighted, if the horizon is not clouded. It is possible to generate, in advance, calendars that are fairly accurate in telling us when a month will begin, based strictly on sightable hilâl.

    What this advancement in our knowledge of the moon-cycle has done is to strengthen our iman. The Messenger of Allah , when he was teaching us our deen, taught us nothing except what was according to fitrah (the natural truth). When he was teaching us to follow the sighted hilâl, he was teaching us the peculiarity of the moon cycle; that two cities may not see the moon on the same night and must follow their own observations.

    Our confusions are the results of us ignoring the teachings of the Prophet  and trying to reinvent the wheel ourselves. So the whole process that was to be very easy has become a big mystery. This is because we ignore in our search some basic questions:

1. What is an Islamic day/date, and when does it begin?

2. Is the Hilal of the Qurân, Sunnah and Fiqh the ‘New Moon’ of the astronomer?

3. How accurately can we calculate and predict the visibility of a crescent?

Islamic Day and Date:

    An Islamic day/date begins at sunset and ends at the following sunset. The Islamic month begins from the first day/date determined by the ‘crescent’ seen after the sunset and ends with the next month’s crescent. Logically, the hilal (a crescent seen after the sunset) is the only criterion for an Islamic lunar calendar. This is based on a decree from Allâh.

They ask you about the crescents. Tell (them) they are for fixing time for men and the Hajj. (2:189)

    For centuries the Muslims followed the simple rule of going out on the 29th evening and watching for the crescent. If it was seen, then well and good; if not, then the month was completed to 30 days. This was based on explicit instructions from the Messenger of Allâh.

Abu-Hurayrah  said that Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) said: Whenever you sight the crescent (of the month of Ramadan) observe fast, and when you sight it (the crescent of Shawwal) break it, and if the sky is cloudy for you, then observe fast for thirty days. (Sahih Muslim Hadith 2378; Sahih Bukhari, Vol. 3: 133)

The statement of the Prophet “Start fasting on seeing the crescent (of Ramadhan), and stop fasting on seeing the crescent (of Shawwal)”. And Ammar said,”Whoever fasts on a doubtful day is disobeying Abu-l-Qasim”. (Sahih Bukhari Vol. 3 chapter 11)

    Every town and city went by its sighting despite the discussions among the Fuqaha (scholars) about the validity of ‘Ikhtilaf-e Matali’. The ‘nation cult’ was not yet bred into the Muslim psyche and the means were not there yet to ‘enforce’ it. By the middle of this century the radio news told us when the Ramadhan and the Eidain were celebrated in nearby towns and countries. Then telephone, television and other means of instant communication developed, so now we can know when our home village, thousands of miles away is starting or ending a month. However, they have created several serious problems which we have been unable to solve for the last 25 years. We blame others for creating disunity among the Muslims without ourselves knowing the basics of moon-sighting. Had the Ulama and the experts in moon-sighting talked to each other we could have solved some of the issues long ago. Had the Ulama remain united under one banner the problem would have never arisen.

Let us look at some of the facts:

1. The earth is not flat.

2. The moon disappears at the end of every lunar month, and is seen after sunset one or two evenings later.

3. The moon takes the same 24 hours as the sun to be visible over the globe.

4. The moon’s crescent is seen in a parabola, and not at a longitude, north-south, like the sun.

5. The moon’s crescent first becomes visible from a different place on earth every month. This place changes east-west and north- south every month. There is no ‘meridian’ and no lunar dateline. The crescent does not become visible every month first in Makkah or Jerusalem.

6. The moon’s crescent is visible in locations west of the initial place of sighting.

7. The moon’s crescent is always visible on the 30th day in a clear sky. If it is not seen then the count of 30 is wrong.

Visibility calculations

    Ever since humans started using the moon’s phases for counting the days of the month, they have wanted to check the accuracy of the witnesses. The Babylonians, the Jews, the Hindus, the Greeks, and many others learned to calculate the ‘new moon’ (conjunction) long ago, but had to guess the sightabilty of the ‘crescent’. The Jewish calendar makers solved the problem by ignoring the decree of Allâh to them. They were to start and end their times also by the visible new moon. (see 1 Samuel 20:5; 1 Samuel 20:18; 1 Samuel 20:24; 2 Kings 4:23; Psalm 81:3; Isaiah 66:23; Ezekiel 46:1; Ezekiel 46:6; Amos 8:5; Colossians 2:16). They stopped sanctifying both the new moon (i.e. visible new moon) and the following days. The Jewish calendar has been ‘fixed’ for all locations on the earth since at least the fourth century C.E. It is based on an invisible “new moon”.

    When the Messenger of Allah came to Medina he found the Jews following their lunar calendar, which was similar to the Arab calendars except that the month started on the basis of the new moon at Jerusalem, and not the visible crescent in Medina. He fasted the first ‘Ashura’ according to the date fixed by the Jewish calendar centuries ago. Later it became clear that the Jewish calendar fixed the first date of the lunar month on a day when the moon’s crescent was not visible in Medina. Instead of asking the Muslims to depend on the Jewish calendar for the Islamic dates he asked them to rely on their eyes. As the crescent moon was always visible on the 30th day, he asked the Muslims to look for it on the 29th to be sure that the month began on the correct date.

Shahadah (witness)

    In the beginning the ‘shahadah’ of one or two individuals was enough to declare the start of a lunar month. The claims were from within a town and the decision was for a small area. As the Ahadith make it very clear, the Muslim jurists from among the Sahaba and tabi’in rejected every attempt to extend the visibility from a town to another town (Ibn Abbas, Salim and Ikrama, etc.). As the mistakes and false Shahadah increased, the Muslim jurists increased the Nisab (the number of person who should witness) from one or two to 50 (Imam Abu Yusuf), a group from each mosque in the town, 500 in the city of Balakh, and 1500 in Bukhara. Their concern was to begin the fasting and to celebrate Eidain on the correct dates.

The New Moon

    The Muslim ‘muwaqqits’ and astronomers have continued their search during the last 1400 years for an accurate formula of predicting the moon’s visibility, without much success. Only the invisible ‘New Moon’ could be calculated very accurately. The Muslim Ulama faced a puzzling situation as the means of communication improved. They tried their best to determine the Ramadhan and Eidain dates on the basis of ‘Shahadah’. But often Ramadhan started on two or three different dates and Eidain were celebrated on three or four days.

Unity of Dates

    In the 1940s and 1950s the Muslim countries ‘came out’ of the Western dominance politically. ‘UNITY OF THE MUSLIM UMMAH” was a very attractive slogan. How to achieve this elusive unity? The calendar became one issue.

    With radio telescopes and other scientific advances, the crescent’s visibility was no longer a matter of scientific inquiry. Without realizing the complexities of a lunar visibility and the global lunar calendar, and impressed by the accuracy of the calculations for the invisible “new moon”, some Muslim astronomers and ulama suggested an easy way out. Why shouldn’t the Muslims adopt the ‘new moon’ for their calendar? In other words, why should not we follow the Jews? In their opinion, it would solve all the problems. The New Moon date could be accurately calculated, there would be no need to haggle over the false claims of moon-sighting, and Muslims, like Jews would not have to go out and look for the crescent. But they neglected the most obvious fact. The ‘new moon’ of the Jews is not the crescent of Abu-l-Qasim .


    Muslims are now spread to all corners of the globe. They live in countries spread from Indonesia to Morocco but also in New Zealand and Australia, Japan, China and Mongolia, Russia and South Africa, Europe and North America. On the one hand, they wish to be ‘united’, and on the other, follow the letter and spirit of the Quran and the Sunnah. When they try to ‘see the crescent’, as the Quran and the Sunnah require, they find that the Ramadhan and Eidain crescents are ‘NOT SEEN EVERYWHERE ON THE SAME DAY/DATE’. Despite the efforts to unite the Muslim Ummah on a single criterion, the dates of Ramadhan and Eidain differ by as much as three or four days. In Europe and North America, where the largest number of ‘highly educated’ Muslims are now living, this chaos is intolerable. But nobody is sure how to get out of this difficulty.

    1. 1f we try to see the crescent (for example, in Frankfurt, London, Chicago, Miami or Los Angeles) we find that the visibility often differs from place to place and month to month.

    2. If we follow the ‘news’ from our home country we find that: a) the news of ‘sighting’ very often is not and cannot be correct, b) various countries differ about Ramadhan and Eidain dates, c) some countries like Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Turkey and Morocco which officially arrange for crescent observation, are always one or two days behind the Middle Eastern states, d) some countries are always one or two days ahead of the ‘sighted crescent’, and e) others follow the Jewish method of calculations with some modifications, and substitute the city of their choice for Jerusalem. This is done so that no one can accuse them of following the Jews.

    When all we wish to follow ends up in ‘disunity’, we try to search for the causes of it. The answer is simple.

    Allah’s Messenger said: Never did a people make an innovation but there was withdrawn from them the equal measure of Sunnah. Adhering to Sunnah is better than making innovations. (Transmitted by Ahmad. Al-Tirmidhi Hadith 187 Narrated by Ghudayf ibn al-Harith ath-Thumali .)


Published: December 2006/January 2007