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The Mystery of Moonsighting
Many Muslims are taking a keen interest in ‘moon-sighting’ to resolve their differences about the Islamic dates. We quote from the Quran and the books of Ahadith, open the books of Fiqh and Fatawa, call the ‘Alim or the country of our choice, and when the time comes we argue with those who do not accept the dates of our choice. What is often ignored in these discussions are some basic questions:
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 sunset and ends with the next month’s crescent. Logically, the Hilal (a crescent seen after sunset) is the only criterion for an Islamic lunar calendar. This is based on a decree from Allah.
They ask you about the crescents. Tell (them) they are for fixing time for men and the Hajj. [Qur'ân 2:198]
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 Allah .
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 resolve 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:
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 Allah 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.
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 people 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 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 we not 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.
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.)
Acknowledgments: We are thankful to Committee for Crescent Observation, Ithaca, NY, for much of the information in this editorial.
Published: December 2000
Last modified 08/12/05 09:25 AM - Iqra - ISSN #1062-2756