Watch this space for the announcement for the date for Eid al-Fitr 1437/2016
All praise is due to Allāh, may peace and blessings be upon our Prophet Muhammad, his family and all his Companions.
In the past, Muslim scholars agreed on a certain method to decide the start and end of the month of Ramadān. 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. As a result, 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 somewhat of an inferiority complex upon many Muslims. Muslims are often accused of being anti-Western or even unscientific in some spheres of life. This can lead 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 Ramadān, Eīd al-Fitr and Eīd al–Adha.
In this article, we would like to draw attention to specific principles in an attempt to remove confusion surrounding the debate. We will clarify the misconceptions on the relationship between Sharī’ah and astronomical calculations. We will also separate the oft-conflated Sharī’ah principles for determining Eīd by leaders, compared to those principles used practically by the masses, in particular in the 21st century world.
Sharῑ‘ah Principles related to the confirmation of the beginning of Ramadān and the Eīd
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 [khalīfah] 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 [ahādīth]; Abū Hurayrah relates that the Prophet, may Allāh 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’bān as thirty days.’ This hadith is agreed upon by Al-Bukhari and Muslim; similar authentic ahādīth are also recorded.
The second principle, which is to complete thirty days for the previous month, applies only in the absence of the first, the sighting of the new moon. The basis for this is also the previous hadīth 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 Ramadān or Eīd.
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.
The legal month is different to the astronomical month in Islām
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 hadīth, the Messenger of Allāh 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 lī’ān , 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 right9 is through the process of lī’ān. 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 lī’ān 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 may in fact be 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 Ramadān 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 exactly 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 Ramadān on a day which was different from the astronomical calculation, then that will have no effect at all on our fasting or Eīd. 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 for the legal months 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 and the margins for statistical error), 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 legal months, even if they useful for determining the astronomical months.
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.
A prophetic methodology
Recall the different occasions during the time of the Prophet 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 on one occasion questioned the witness about his faith and upon hearing his testimony of faith, the Prophet commanded Bilāl to announce the month of Ramadān. 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 calculations; their criterion is astronomy and not experience in moon-sighting. The acceptance of the Prophet 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 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 Ramadān 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 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 Ramadān could be the fist of Shawwāl (i.e. Īd al-Fitr), or it could be the last day of Ramadān. 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 Ramadān without any doubt, even though it might be the first day of the next astronomical month. Our month of fasting, Ramadān, will end in this case after the 30th fast is completed. This is again a matter of consensus between all scholars. Similarly, if the new moon of Eīd al-Fitr in this case is seen on the 28th of Ramadān—a day earlier than expected—then the Muslims should commemorate their Eīd based on the new moon and then compensate the 29th day of Ramadān the day after the Eīd or any other day. There is no disagreement about this.
The principle for the masses
After clarifying the above principles, one very important matter that remains to be clarified is the third prophetic principle for determining the start and end of the legal months. Whereas the first two principles—sighting the moon or completing 30 days of the previous month—are often quoted and well known, what is less well known is that these are intended for those in charge of the affairs of Muslims. As for the general Muslims, then the Prophet (may Allāh praise and send peace and blessings upon him) taught us a mercifully simple guiding principle.
This guiding principle is mentioned in the hadīth, ‘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.’  Imām al-Tirmidhi said, ‘Some scholars explained this hadith to mean that fasting and breaking the fast should be done with the Muslim body [jamā’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 Ramadān and confirming Eīd 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 Eīd with all its rituals such as the congregational prayer, takbīr, exchanging greetings and celebrating alone? Can we have two different days of Eīd 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 hadīth.
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 Ramadān according to the country he is residing in and then travels to another country that had started Ramadān on a different day. Ramadān for Muslims in the destination country may end before or after Ramadān 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 Eīd to complete 29 days which constitutes the minimum number days in a legal 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 the astronomical month.
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, sex, and so forth. For example, Allāh says in the Qur’ān, ‘Cut off 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 Ramadān? 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 Ramadān and the Hajj day. Allāh says in the Qur’ān, ‘Establish the prayer from midday till the darkness of the night (i.e.. the Dhuhr, ‘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 Ramadān 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 Ramadān 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.
Practical Advice: Unity in matters of Ijtihād
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 Eīd 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.
However, unfortunately, this matter is absent in these lands thus far and the Muslims remain in confusion as to how to start fasting, when to celebrate Eīd al-Fitr and in other matters of dispute. Therefore, we advise the generality of Muslims in this land to follow the opinion of the majority of Muslims in this land with regard to the starting and ending of the month irrespective of the basis of that decision, even if this opinion opposes an individual’s opinion or the opinion of one’s organisation. I have not come cross any scholar neither from the past or from our own time who apposes this approach.
Leaving individual opinion and following the opinion of the majority in matters of ijtihād for the sake of the benefit of unity is something that is well established in the Islamic Law. ‘Abdullāh b. Mas’ūd prayed dhuhr behind ‘Uthmān b. ‘Affān in Mina as four rak’ahs despite his opinion and the fact that the Messenger of Allāh 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 Jamā’ah and to all the means that would lead to actualising this. Allāh, Mighty and Magnificent says,
“Obey Allāh and His Messenger and do not differ such that you lose courage and your strength depart, be patient for Allāh is with the patient” 
“Hold fast to the rope of Allāh, 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 Allāh Almighty and His Messenger commanded us to do so in various places in the Qur’ān and Sunnah. Allāh 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 Allāh. Verily, Allāh is Severe in punishment.” 
We also advise Muslims living in the western countries to do their best to appoint an Imām/leader that they can follow in many essential matters amongst which is the commencement and conclusion of the fast. Allāh knows best.
We ask Allāh, 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.
- Ahkām al-Qur’ān 1/280.
- Al-Muntaqa Sharh al-Muwata 2/38.
- Bidāyah al-Mujtahid 1/283-284.
- Majmu’ al-Fatāwa (25/132-133).
- Hashiyah Ibn ‘Abidin 2/387.
- Narrated by Abu Hurayrah, related by both Al-Bukhāri and Muslim.
- As mentioned in Surah al-Nur. This process involves both the husband and wife going to a judge and testifying by Allāh that they are truthful and if not invoking the curse of Allāh upon themselves if they are lying about the alleged act of adultery. Once this process is finished then the child will be associated with the mother and have no connection with the father.
- This includes the right to claim lineage to the father (and his family), the claim to maintenance costs and inheritance. These and other rights are discussed in the books of Islamic jurisprudence.
- Some scholars may consider tacit approvals from both sides as another legitimate way of depriving him this right. This case is only offered as an example here and its details are not able to be discussed here.
- There is more to be said about the part of the hadith where the Prophet commanded his wife Sawdah to don the hijab before the disputed person. However, that is outside the scope of this discussion.
- Al-Qur’ān 59:7
- It is recorded by al-Tirmidhi and the wording is his, Abu Dawud and others.
- Al-Qur’ān 5:38
- al-Furuq vol. 2, pg. 179
- Al-Qur’ān 17:78
- Al-Qur’ān 30:17
- Recorded in Sunan Abī Dāwūd, narrated by ‘Abd al-Rahmān b. Zaid.
- Al-Qur’ān 8:46
- Al-Qur’ān 3:103
- Al-Qur’ān 5:2