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 Ramadan. 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 Ramadan, ‘Id al-Fitr and ‘Id al–Adha.
In this article, I would like to draw attention to specific principles in an attempt to remove misconceptions surrounding the on-going debate.
The Beginning of Ramadan and ‘Id
Some follow the opinion that the new moon must be sighted or that the previous month, Sha’ban, must be completed as thirty days in order to assure the start of Ramadan and the same goes in order to assure the start of Shawwal. This is the correct position in principle, and there is no doubt concerning this due to the large number of evidences supporting it and it is the opinion of the majority of Muslims amongst the Companions and succeeding generations. The Prophet peace be upon him 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’ban as thirty days.” Similar authentic ahadith imply that we depend on moon-sighting in deciding the start of each lunar month.
Others follow the opinion that astronomical calculations should be employed in order to assure the start and end of Ramadan. A third group follow the opinion that they should follow the sighting of their homeland or the country from which they arrived. Some of the Muslims, and perhaps they are the majority in some countries, follow the sighting and announcement made by Makkah because it is the direction of our prayers and an emblem of Muslim unity.
It is clear that all of these opinions mentioned above have those who would criticise them. Those who go the way of sighting the moon criticise those who use astronomical calculations and there is no doubt that this criticism is correct. They in turn are criticised by others who state that sighting the moon is just not possible in the majority of areas of many European and American lands due to the poor visibility as a result of the weather and so these criticisers rely upon the sighting of the moon undertaken by their homeland. Hence you will see some of our Pakistani brethren fasting and celebrating ‘Id with Pakistan, some of our Egyptian brethren fasting and celebrating ‘Id with Egypt, some of our Moroccan brethren fasting and celebrating ‘Id with Morocco etc. Each one thinks that the sighting of the moon made by his homeland is the most valid sighting!
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 Ramadan and confirming ‘Id 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 ‘Id with all its rituals such as the congregational prayer, takbir, exchanging greetings and celebrating alone? Can we have two different days of ‘Id in one city or country? The answer is no we cannot 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 Ramadan according to the country he is residing in and then travels to another country that had started Ramadan on a different day. Ramadan for Muslims in the destination country may end before or after Ramadan 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 ‘Id 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 Makkah 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, Allah says in the Qur’an, ‘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 Allah. And Allah 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!
Everyone has his opinion, but there is no doubt that the greater benefit lies in the Muslims of one land fasting as one body, starting the same day and celebrating ‘Id on the same day so as to display unity.
Unity is one of the greatest features and benefits that the Islamic Law calls to and this is why some of the scholars were of the opinion that it would be good for Muslims living in non-Muslim lands to appoint one leader who would determine the likes of these matters for them. In many cases it is almost impossible to appoint a leader for all Muslims residing in that land, yet they still can appoint some form of leadership to which they refer in matters like this.
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, may Allah praise and send peace and blessings upon him, 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’ban as thirty days.’ This hadith is agreed upon by Al-Bukhari 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’ban. 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 Ramadan or ‘Id.
Astronomical Month vs Shari’i Month
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 [‘illah, ratio legis] for confirming these events is the visual sighting of the moon or the completion of the month of Sha’ban. This means that the only basis for fasting is one of these two principles.
We have two types of months; the first is the legal month, which is known as Ramadan 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 Shari’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 Shari’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. If we come to know for a fact that we started fasting Ramadan on a day which was different from the astronomical calculation, then that will have no effect at all on our fasting or ‘Id. 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 Shari’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 Shari’ah did not consider scientific and astronomical calculations as determining factors in the first place with regard to the sighting of the moon. This is a feature that permeates many chapters in Islamic fiqh, similar to, for instance, the Shar’i father of a child not necessarily being the same as the biological father.
Allah says in the Qur’an,
‘And whatsoever the Messenger gives you, take it, and whatsoever he forbids you, abstain (from it), and fear Allah. Verily, Allah is Severe in punishment.’
The Prophet’s instruction to complete the thirty days of Sha’ban when the moon is not able to be sighted lends further support to this reasoning of differentiating the Islamic month of Ramadan from the astronomical month; the famous scholar, Ibn Hajar, said, ’This (completing thirty days of Sha’ban) is an indication that we should not refer to calculations or astronomy. The Prophet guided us to completing thirty days of Sha’ban 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’ban could be the first day of Ramadan or the last day of Sha’ban. 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’ban without any doubt, even though it might be the first day of the astronomical month. Our month of fasting, Ramadan, will start in this case after the 30th of Sha’ban is completed. This is again a matter of consensus between all scholars. Similarly, if the new moon of ‘Id al-Fitr in this case is seen on the 28th of Ramadan, then the Muslims should commemorate their ‘Id based on the new moon and then compensate the 29th day of Ramadan the day after the ‘Id or any other day. There is no disagreement about this.
I would like to emphasise to my brothers and sisters living in any non-Muslim country to follow the opinion of the majority of Muslims in your country irrespective of the 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. Leaving individual opinion and following the opinion of the majority in matters of ijtihad for the sake of the benefit of unity is something that is well established in the Islamic Law. ‘Abdullah b. Mas’ūd prayed dhuhr behind ‘Uthman b. ‘Affan in Mina as four rak’ahs despite his opinion and the fact that the Messenger of Allah had prayed two as had Abū Bakr and ‘Umar. When asked why he did this, he replied, “Differing is evil.” Moreover the Islamic Law has enjoined one to stick firmly to the Jama’ah and to all the means that would lead to actualising this. Allah, Mighty and Magnificent says,
“Obey Allah and His Messenger and do not differ such that you lose courage and your strength depart, be patient for Allah is with the patient”
“Hold fast to the rope of Allah, all of you, and do not split.”
To conclude, we advise Muslims to do everything possible to establish unity among themselves and until they do that they should cooperate in enjoining the good and forbidding the evil as Allah Almighty and His Messenger commanded us to do so in various places in the Qur’an and Sunnah. Allah says,
“Help you one another in Al-Birr and At-Taqwa (virtue, righteousness and piety); but do not help one another in sin and transgression. And fear Allah. Verily, Allah is Severe in punishment.”
We also advise Muslims living in the western countries to do their best to appoint an Imam/leader that they can follow in many essential matters amongst which is the commencement and conclusion of the fast. Allah knows best.
We ask Allah, Mighty and Magnificent, to unite the Muslims upon righteousness and Taqwa. Peace and blessings be upon our Prophet Muhammad, his family and all his Companions.
For more detail also read An insight into moon-sighting