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Moon Sighting and Islamic Dates


Every year, when Ramadhaan, Hajj or Eeds approach, the issue of visibility of the moon becomes a hot topic. The US based Fiqh council’s decision to use calculations since the previous Ramadhaan has intensified the debate. The following are my comments on this matter in response to questions by some Forum members.

As for the question, “Does the Qur-aan command people to see the moon?”, the Qur-aan does not contain any command that Muslims must see the new moon to start a month. And there was no need to do so, because it was an established practice of the society that people determined the beginning of a month by the appearance of the new moon. So much so that the words “new moons” was even used to indicate the word “months”, as I mentioned while presenting the teachings of the Qur-aan relative to verse 2:189. People were already doing the right thing so there was no need for a new command or even a comment on that matter. That is why none was made.

Such established practices that are acceptable in Islam are called Ma‘roof and Muslims are expected to follow the Ma‘roof of the society.

When Islamic obligations such as fasting and Hajj required a correct determination of dates, a question arose that if, at the end of a month, it becomes cloudy and people cannot see the new moon, what should they do? The Prophet set it straight by telling them that they should fast when the new moon is seen, and stop fasting when the new moon is seen again. That is, if it becomes cloudy on the 29th day of the month, make it a thirty-day month. Thus, a question of the moon’s invisibility due to clouds was settled. Therefore, the norm was that as soon as the crescent was visible to people, the new month started; the only exception to this rule was that in cases where the horizon was covered up, the count was completed to 30, assuming the moon was not visible.

At that time, that was the only way for common people to determine the start of a lunar month. Now with the advancement of technology, do we need to wait for a person to see the moon or can we determine the visibility according to calculations?

Often, differences of opinion arise and confusions are caused when an issue is not examined or discussed in a structured manner. To provide a structure to the discussion about any of the Islamic teachings and to arrive at right conclusions, it is very helpful to analyze and understand the following three components of that command or teaching:
  • Objective of the command or teaching
  • Criterion, standard or rule to indicate its fulfillment
  • Tools, means or forms used to attain it

Out of these three components of an Islamic command, the rules of Sharee’ah apply to the first two, but not the third one. The third one depends on the human level of knowledge and technology, expertise of people, available means, and ma‘roof of the society. Consider the following examples:

Islamic Injunction Objective/goal Criterion/standard Tools/means/forms
Dress code Modesty (hayaa), protection and looking good (zeenah and reeshaa) Rules about Satr, Khimaar and Jilbaab. Also it should not be tight or revealing The type, make, fibre, cloth, style, etc all depend on the society and technology, which changes over time
Food Eat Tayyeb, avoid rijs and Khabeeth Rules about Zabeeha (slaughter), kind of animal, etc. Method and means of cooking, recipe, storage, refrigeration, etc.
Salaah bil jamaa’ah Tanzeem under an Imaam People must follow an Imaam in person Use of human repeaters or microphone to carry Imaam’s voice to the congregation
Prescribed timing for salaah and sowm Adherence by slaves to the commands of the Lord to organize their day for the service of the Lord Rules about timing of dawn, sunrise, shadow lengths, sunset and disappearance of twilight Determining times by looking at the signs personally or by consulting timetables calculated scientifically in accordance of those signs
Prescribed dates for Islamic obligations Adherence by slaves to the commands of the Lord to organize their life for the service of the Lord Visibility of hilaal (crescent) Looking at the horizon by community members to determine if hilaal has appeared or determining by other methods such as some reliable human witness or the witness of dependable scientific calculations as we do for salaah

These few examples have been given to show that the means, tools and forms are left to people to be adopted according to the ma’roof, knowledge, technology and means of the society and they change as societies evolve and change. However, the objectives/goals and criteria/standards of the Islamic injunctions must be fulfilled.
  1. For the topic under discussion, the objective is to fulfil the obligations of fasting and Hajj and to celebrate Eeds according to the natural lunar calendar. (I have added the word natural with lunar to indicate that it should not be doctored so that it is fixed according to the solar calendar.) There is no difference of opinion on this, the whole Ummah agrees.
  2. The criteria/rules have two components:
    • The month should start with the visibility of the crescent. This is also universally agreed upon by the scholars. Anyone who comes up with a system to determine the date that is not based on the visibility of the crescent will be violating the rule of Sharee‘ah.
    • There is a difference of opinion on the matter of whether the visibility should be local or universal. Some Fuqahaa suggest that people should follow their own local sightings. Majority of Fuqahaa are of the opinion that if the moon is visible anywhere in the world, the whole world should follow it.
  3. Now we come to the means and methods of determining visibility of the crescent. That can be determined by different means. Previously, it was determined by observation by the members of the community or the news from neighbouring communities. Now we can determine it by scientific calculations. I have demonstrated above that the human means and tools used to comply with Islamic teachings is not regulated by the Sharee‘ah.

    However, some people feel that in this matter the Sharee‘ah has prescribed the method as well. They base their opinion on the use of the phrase “whoever witnesses the month, must fast” in verse 2:185. They say “witness” implies human observation, not calculation. This is an erroneous conclusion for many reasons. Here, witness implies that if a person is alive and well during the month, he must fast. If it is taken to mean seeing by human eye, as some suggest, then does it mean that only those who actually see the moon with their own eyes should fast, while those who do not see the moon, do not have to fast? Of course not! Thus, if people can rely on the witness of other people, why can they not rely on the witness of Muslim scientists who are giving their witness on the basis of their precise and reliable knowledge? If this kind of logic is used to draw conclusions from the text of the Qur-aan, then what about determining the end of Suhoor and the start of Fajr? Verse 2:187 in the same section of the same soorah says, “until the white thread becomes distinct from the black thread”. Can we say then that the appearance of the white thread of dawn must be seen to be distinct from the black thread of night by everyone, without relying on the calculation of the time of the emergence of rays of light from the sun at dawn break? Let us be consistent in interpretation and application of the Qur-aan.
  4. As for completing thirty days if there are clouds on the 29th, that is an exception to rule, not the rule itself. If the main rule is satisfied, the need for exception is automatically eliminated. The exception was allowed because there was no other way for people at the time of the Prophet to overcome the problem created by clouds. Furthermore, just as the exception was overruled by the witness of a neighbouring community that did not have clouds, the exception will cease to apply on the basis of scientific witness.

    Thus, using calculations as a means of determining crescent visibility is as sound as determining the time of dawn by calculation. It is a perfectly legitimate way of fulfilling the commands of Sharee‘ah and does not violate any of its rules. In addition, it has the following benefits:
    • A calendar can be compiled many years in advance
    • It removes the frustrations of people and avoids wastage of resources of the Muslim communities when they know well in advance when Eed or fasting or Hajj is going to be.
    • It is far more reliable than human sighting, as recent experience has proven. Many incidents have occurred where people observed some unidentifiable object in the horizon and thought that they have seen a crescent or they thought that they have seen the crescent at a time when there could not have been a crescent in the sky. Just as the calculation of the time of Dawn break is far more reliable than a person trying to look outside to determine appearance of dawn, in that respect, the presence of man-made lights of various kinds has made it very difficult to trust the human eye to accurately identify dawn break.
  5. So now we come to the location of visibility. Should the visibility be determined for each major city such as Toronto, Chicago, Montreal, New York, Vancouver, etc, to follow the local sighting? Should it be by province? By Country? By North America? By Continent? Universal? Arguments can be made in favour of and against each of these criteria. The Muslim scientists and the US based Fiqh Council have suggested to go universal according to the majority opinion of the fuqahaa. Now, do we fight it out or do we follow their expert opinion? After listening to their arguments, I think it makes sense to go universal.
  6. The last point is: How do we determine universal visibility so that if the crescent is seen anywhere in the world, all Muslims in the world are able to celebrate it on that day? We are told that if conjunction happens before 00 hour at the universal dateline (noon GMT), the crescent will be visible that day somewhere in the world. This criterion will ensure that all Muslims of the world can celebrate Lailatulqadr on the same night or Eed on the same day throughout the world.
  7. If this method is used, sometimes there will naturally be a difference of one day between the local sighting and the universal sighting criterion. Should that be a cause of concern? I do not think so. Human actions are never perfectly precise, and Allaah SWT does not expect them to be precise. As long as the whole community celebrates together in the spirit of obedience to Allaah trying their best effort and intentions to follow the edicts of Sharee‘ah, Sharee‘ah is not concerned about the difference of one day. For example, the crescent may be there, but we are instructed to complete thirty days in case of clouds. In that case, we are out of sync by one day from the real movement of the moon, but it is ok according to Sharee’ah. Similarly, people do make mistakes in determining visibility, even if a mistake has been made, we have been asked to fast with the community and break fast with the community. Thus, the community spirit is far more important than being a day off the calendar. Just imagine the blessings of Allaah if all Muslims follow it unanimously.

Until that happens, please try to present this case to the management of your Masjid without arguing. If they do not agree, please keep following the decision of the Masjid where you normally go to pray. If the dialogue and amicable discussion continues, the ummah will be united in due course.

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