By Zaheer Uddin
“Ahmad! Where would you be praying Salatul Eid tomorrow?” asked Ali. “Nowhere,” said Ahmad, “because there is no Eid tomorrow, it is the day after.”
This is the confusion Muslims of North America have been facing for many years. The Muslim communities in the United States and Canada have offered Eid prayers on two, sometimes even three, different days! What could be more unfortunate than this. But it has happened year after year, showing our disunity at a time when we should be most united. Why is this happening? How can we avoid it? Let’s look at the problem and its possible remedies.
The Spirit of the Shari’ah
Every Muslim who has some knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence is aware that Islam is a practical Deen and its teachings are in tune with human nature. Its commandments are applicable to the residents of a remote village as well as to those residing in most modern cities of the world. In essence, Islam’s injunctions are such that they can be easily followed by all, no matter where they are.
As far as beginning of Ramadan and celebrating Eidul Fitr and Eidul Adha is concerned, one must beware that the timings of Salat are related to the movement of the sun where as the beginning of Islamic months depend upon the sighting of the crescent. The Qur’an refers to the sun and moon in Surah Yunus, Ayah 5.
He it is who appointed the sun a splendor and the moon a light, and measured for her stages that ye might know the number of years and the court (of time).
Now let’s see what guidance the Qur’an and Ahadith offers in this connection.
The Qur’an in its following ayah says:
They ask you about the phases of the moon. Say, these are signs for people to reckon dates and fix the periods for the Hajj. (Al-Baqarah:189)
It is obvious that Islamic events, including Hajj (pilgrimage), are fixed by the appearance of the crescent.
The Sahih Bukhari, an authentic compilation of Ahadith, says the following about the commencement of Ramadan and Eid. Abu Huraira (r) has narrated that the Prophet (s) said: “Start fasting on seeing the crescent (of Ramadan) and give up fasting on seeing the crescent (of Shawwal) and if the sky is overcast (and you cannot see it) complete thirty days of Sha’ban.”
New Trends in North America
Since the late ‘70s some people and organizations have come up with the idea that the sighting of the crescent in one place (in most cases Saudi Arabia) is sufficient to start or end a month by all Muslims across the world.
Another trend which became popular in some Islamic centers which want to modernize Islam according to North American needs, was to fix the beginning and end of Ramadan according to the astronomical new moon which is invisible.
Allow me to discuss the second practice first. The followers of this trend determine Islamic months on the basis of the “new moon”. What is “new moon”?
As we know, the paths of the sun and the moon on the sky are about the same. So the moon just passes the sun once a month during its eastward journey around the sun. at this moment, the moon is neither to the east nor the west, but possibly a bit to the north or the south of the sun’s place in the sky. Astronomers refer to this moment as the “new moon”. At this phase, the moon is almost directly between the sun and the earth. Consequently, the moon’s illuminated surface is turned away from the earth and the dark side faces the earth. The “new moon” is, therefore, completely invisible.
The invisible “new moon”, whose time is commonly found listed in almanacs and newspapers, should not be confused with the visible young crescent. The crescent is not likely to be visible until the evening following the day of the “new moon” or even an hour later. Only if the “new moon” phase occurs around dawn can the crescent sometimes be seen during the evening of the same day. The time elapsed since the most recent “new moon” phase is called the “moon’s age.” When first visible, the crescent seldom has an age less than 18 hours old have also been recorded. But on the other extreme, the crescent may occasionally have an age of as much as 40 hours when visible for the first time.
However, the visibility of the moon does not depend on its age, but on its angular separation from sun (10 degree), its altitude above horizon at sunset (10 degree), the difference between moonset and sunset (20 to 40) minutes, the weather conditions and the observers’ location. And all these parameters must be looked simultaneously.
In the light of the foregoing discussions, and the accepted norms of the Muslims all over the world, following can be concluded:
The “new moon”, which is invisible is not a crescent.
A mere “knowledge of the new moon” or even tracking the black invisible disk of the moon through the observatories and calculation does not constitute the visibility.
For a crescent to be visible all astronomical factors (criteria) must meet simultaneously that evening.
The crescent must be seen for the determination of the Islamic months.
Now let us discuss the first trend which was adopted by some organizations in the late ‘70s. It was never the case during the time of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad (s) to treat the sighting of the crescent in one place as a sufficient reason to start or end a month in every part of the world. And the practice of the Sahaba is supported by the following Hadith: Umm al-Fadl bint al-Haris sent Kuraib to Mu’awiya (r) in Syria. He narrated that he reached there and performed the task assigned to him. In the meantime, (when he was still in Syria on the errand), the day of Ramadan crescent arrived. “I saw the crescent Friday evening. When I reached Madinah at the end of the month (of Ramadan) ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Abbas (r) inquired: ‘When did you see the crescent (in Syria)?’ I replied: Friday evening. He asked: ‘did you see it yourself?’ I said : Yes! And not only me, but everybody saw it, and they fasted and Mu’awiya fasted as well. Then he said: ‘But we saw it (the Ramadan crescent) Saturday evening, and we are not going to give up fasting unless we complete the count of 30 days or we see it (the crescent of Shawwal).’ Kuraib says that I inquired of him: Is Mu’awiya’s sighting (and his fast) not enough for us (to determine our days of Ramadan)? “No!” he said, This is the way the Messenger (s) has ordered us to do.’ (Sahih Muslim, and others)
It is quite obvious from the above Hadith that:
a) In Madinah the crescent was seen on Saturday, while in Syria on Friday evening, and
b) Ibn ‘Abbas received the “news/information/witness” in time to do the following:
Count 30 days from the Friday sighting and declare the day after the 29th of Ramadan as the day of Eid al-Fitr (it would have been the 30th day of Ramadan in Syria).
Reject the Saturday sighting in Madinah.
Reject the Friday sighting as “universal” and binding on all Muslims, even if they did not see the crescent on Friday on the horizon on a clear day.
Insist on the validity of the Saturday sighting for Madinah because it was seen on a clear horizon, and it was not seen on a clear horizon there.
Insist on counting 30 days from the day it was seen in Madinah, except if it becomes visible earlier. (It is narrated that he asked Kuraib to fast 31 days, following the non-visibility of the Shawwal crescent on the 29th day in Madinah).
Insist on Shawwal crescent sighting in Madinah.
Note here that Ibn ‘Abbas did not accept the plea that Mu’awiya’s decision to fast after Friday’s sighting was binding on all Muslims. And he did not do all this because it was his judgment or personal inference from the practices and sayings of the Messenger (s), but because it was the “Sunnah” and it is what the Messenger (s) had ordered.
This narration occupies a pivotal position and is generally considered to be supportive of the concept of the Ikhtalaf-al-Matale (beginning of Islamic months based on the crescent sighting in one’s own area, city or country of residence) by the past and contemporary Islamic scholars. The reasoning here is that every community is obliged to follow the command which can be factually ascertained. The time of Salaat which comes at different times at different places, can be cited as example. When the sun sets in the East, it does not set at the same time in the West.
For Muslims of North America the difference of opinion about the Ikhtalaf-al-Matale is meaningless in a practical sense. When a crescent becomes visible, say in Saudi Arabia, then it will also become visible in North America after 8 to 11 hours, because here sun will set after those many hours (See diagram).
The Root Cause
The root cause of the present confusion of the Muslim communities in the US and Canada is so-called “verified” reports of crescent sightings coming from the Middle East (mainly from Saudi Arabia), and crescent’s non-visibility in the whole of North America as well as Western Europe and Northern Africa.
Is something wrong in these reports? The answer is yes! Some of the major reasons are:
For the last many years when it was claimed that the crescent was sighted in Saudi Arabia, the same evening it was not sighted in the countries to its West such as Jordan, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Italy, France, Spain, and the whole United States.
If the crescent was really sighted in Saudi Arabia, it should have been seen all over the world in 24 hours. But there is always two days difference between Saudi Arabia and the countries to its East such as Malaysia, Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan.
Claims of crescent sightings in Saudi Arabia sometimes have not been accepted by its Grand Muftis like Shaikh Ali Tantavi who gave a fatwa against such claims by the Saudi Government (See document).
In the past people have been assigned by some North American Islamic organizations in Riyadh and Jeddah to see the crescent and report to it. Even at times when those people did not sight any crescent, the government of Saudi Arabia announced that the crescent was sighted.
Astronomers may not agree to a single criterion for crescent sighting but there is a general consensus on the following points:
The “new moon” is not visible.
The minimum age of a visible crescent ever reported was 14 1/2 hours after the conjunction (new moon) at sunset.
A difference of 20-40 minutes between the sunset and the moonset is needed for crescent sighting.
Until 7 degree angular separation of moon from sun, no light of sun reflected by the moon can come to the earth, because of the mountains and the craters on the surface of the moon that block the sun light.
Unless the crescent altitude above horizon is above the glare of the sun (8 degrees), crescent can not be sighted.
Not one of these astronomical criteria about crescent sighting was met in the last many years when Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries made their claims of crescent sightings. Even in some cases they made the announcements of crescent sighting when moon was setting before the sun. For example Ramadan of 1985 – 16 minutes; 1986 – 17 minutes; 1989 – 37 minutes.
It is a real dilemma for Muslims in North America. Many Muslims have accepted these claims of crescent sighting without questioning because of ignorance as well as respect for Haramain Sharifain. It is a general practice of some Islamic centers and individuals in North America to contact people back home in Middle East to find out whether they have sighted the crescent. If the answer is yes, they announce that they would follow suit regardless of the authenticity of crescent sighting in the Middle East. These Islamic centers make the announcement of beginning and end of Ramadan even before sunset without considering or attempting to see the crescent locally. Even more amazing is that the people who claim they are the followers of Salaf, do not follow the practice of Salaf (Ibn ‘Abbas and other Sahabah) and propagate these overseas sighting reports.
The Ray of Hope
For the last more than 20 years major Islamic organizations like the Tabligh Jama’at, ICNA, National Community of Imam Al-Jameel, the ministry of W. D. Muhammad, the Committee for Crescent Observation and the Ruyat-al-Hilal committees of major cities have followed the widely accepted position of Ikhtalaf-al-Matale (North America as one horizon) and solely depended on crescent sighting in North America.
Al-Hamdulillah, since April 1988, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) has decided to change its previous criterion of Wahdat al-Matale (sighting one place is enough to start and end Ramadan) to Ikhtalaf-al-Matale.
The leadership of ICNA, ISNA and other Islamic organizations and individual leaders and scholars met in November 1988 and agreed upon eight points, one of which was to share the information of crescent sighting before making the final decision. This understanding and agreement consequently accepted by the newly formed Islamic Shura Council in January 1993.
The Big Question
Only one question still remains to be resolved. What should be done with the claim of crescent sighting which contradicts the basic astronomical facts? For an answer we have to go back to the basics. The Qur’an says: “The sun and the moon follow courses (exactly) computed and the stars and trees – both (alike) bow in adoration.” (Al-Rahman:5).
Islam is in harmony with nature and the Qur’an permits us to take help from the objects of nature in the fulfillment of our duties to Allah. There is nothing wrong if we utilize astronomical data and calculations in determining the sighting of the crescent and checking the testimony received from different sources. The confusion in the last several years, resulted from unauthentic testimonies about crescent sighting, which unfortunately instead of being rejected were accepted by some organizations and Centers.
Islam accepts the principle that the strongest testimony may be rejected if it cannot stand the same basic criteria. There are numerous instances of the testimony of very reliable witnesses being rejected by the Messenger (s), the Khulafa-Rashideen, the companions and the Muslim jurists.
We must remember that the testimony or news is reliable only when our own horizon is cloudy or hazy. The horizon will not be cloudy or hazy all over North America exactly at the sunset time. There will always be enough places where crescent would be visible. The Messenger (s) accepted the testimony only when the horizon was not clear in Madinah and he had strong reasons to believe the words of an Arabi. When there was no strong evidence and the horizon was not clear he ordered Muslims to fast the 30th day and broke the fast only when strong evidence convinced him of the truth of its visibility. Ibn ‘Abbas (r) did not accept Kuraib’s news/testimony or Mu’awiya’s (r) decision only because the horizon was clear in Madinah, and he proved ‘correct’ in his decision when the crescent was not seen on a clear horizon in Madinah on the day which was the 30th day according to Friday’s sighting in Syria.
The Islamic jurists (Fuqaha) have mentioned many principles which may be applied to test the validity of a claim. For example, the claim and the testimony must not be contradictory, the witness must be able to stand the questioning.
In matter of crescent sighting we have to come up with a minimum astronomical criteria for confirming or rejecting the witnesses. For instance:
Moon’s age (after conjunction) at sunset should be more than 15 hours.
The altitude of crescent above horizon should be 10 degree at sunset.
The difference between moonset and sunset should be 20 minutes.
The angular separation of crescent from sun should be 10 degree.
One of Islam’s great scholars, Imam Subki, rejected witnesses when the astronomical calculations predicted negative visibility. Similarly, Shaikh Ali Tantavi and Shaikh Al Maraghi, former Rector of Al-Azhar University, have thus concurred: “Unless the sighting of crescent agrees with the mathematical (astronomical) calculation, it is unacceptable.”
The Muslims of North America can overcome this sad state of affairs by applying the injunctions of Shari’ah for all twelve Islamic months including Eidul Adha and in the manner explained by Subki and Tantavi. Only by doing so we avoid the confusion of yesteryears and turn Ramadan and Eidain into an impressive display of Muslim unity Insha’Allah.
Muslims in North America need a group of learned Ulema and experts from various Fiqh schools to independently evaluate the evidence and recommend acceptance or rejection of Shahadah. At present, no such independent body exists. Alahamdu-Lillah, we have talented Ulema among us who make their own judgments independently but they have to join hands and form an Islamic Shari’ah Council. As we don’t have financial resources to gather such a large group again and again for consultation, they can adopt a general methodology to arrive at a decision. For Ramadan, Eidul Fitr and Eidul Adha a decision may be reached after a telephone conference call. For other matters we can circulate detailed questionnaire and get written responses. The consensus would be excellent, but a substantial majority decision should be endorsed until a consensus evolves later. We need those who are not only well-versed in Shari’ah laws but are also willing to consider issues for the modern day living. This Islamic Shari’ah Council can take up other issues and challenges in the future. May Allah help us. Aameen
(Original article was written for the magazine, The Message International, April 1990, New York)