Twice a year , every year, the issue of moon sighting crops up in the Muslim community that almost always ends in a controversy. This happens near the day that marks the start of Ramadan and the day that marks the end of the same month. It is when many Muslims particularly those living in the west scroll through the media in search of the possible or announced dates. And more often than not their quest is soured when they learn of disagreement within the community over moon sighting.
This articles explores why there is such discord on a single moon? Once the mentioned days have passed, the surge in interest subsides and the indifference towards the Islamic calendar seeps in. And it is this attitude within Muslims for the rest of the year that is partly responsible for keeping this issue unresolved.
Like the five daily prayers that are timed mainly on position of the sun in sky, the start of the month in an Islamic calendar is marked by the lunar cycle. The position of the sun and the appearance of the moon vary with geographical location. For example, the new moon may be sighted first in Polynesian Islands and the next night in Saudi Arabia or vice versa. The details of birth and sight-ablity of moon can be collected from the website moonsighting.com that has been running for more than a decade.
Broadly speaking the community splits into two groups: one that believes in local sighting and one that follows the Saudi sighting. There are valid religious opinions on both stances but that is interestingly not the root of the problem. This split has grown deeper since the 80’s when Saudis started building mosques/ Islamic centres all across the world. These mosques regardless of their geographical location follow the Saudi timetable and their influence is greater in countries where Muslims are a minority and have no single governing body (e.g. UK, USA etc). The mosques’ assimilation with Saudi Arabia is an exercise based on the Saudi Kingdom’s wish to have a unified Islamic date across the world which it has pursued since 1972.
So the question arises, if one is safe to follow both local or a central moon sighting than where is the problem?
The problem is that those who think that the Saudis have a robust mechanism for moon sighting, need to think again. It may sound radical but strictly speaking there is no- sighting of moon in Saudi Arabia.
It should be understood that the kingdom has been using a calculated lunar calendar as its official time keeper together with Gregorian calendar. They should be applauded for their effort in trying to keep alive an alternate Islamic system. It has to be realized that in the modern era, where schedules/plans are prepared months ahead if not years, it would be a nightmare to have unconfirmed future dates on any timeline. Thus devising a calendar based only on visual sighting of the moon opens up the possibility of uncertain dates and in turn creates logistical challenges and hinders functionality of state in a global village. Therefore in trying to be certain of the dates, the kingdom has adopted the use of a calculated lunar calendar called the “Ummul Qura”. The necessity of a calculated calendar is understandable. However, the criterion on which the calendar was calculated is extremely questionable. It was not devised using the opinion of scholars and experts from across the world.
There is a consensus among all scholars that it is sighting of the Hilal (the crescent moon) that marks the start of the Islamic month. One the other hand the “Ummul Qura” was initiated using the birth of new moon as the criteria. It should be noted that it takes about 18 hours after the birth of new moon to became a Hilal. This discrepancy in “Ummul Qura” is only the first bone of contention. The problem is further compounded by the fact that the decision for the three important dates i.e. start of Ramadan, start of Shawal (EID) and start of Dhul-Hijjah are the prerogative of the Saudi king. And unfortunately most of the times, the ill use of this royal decree leads the kingdom to go against not only its own (Ummul Qura) calendar but against the whole world.
One proof of this can be measured by the number of 29 days Ramadan months over the years. In a lunar calendar the duration of any particular month is not fixed and varies between 29 or 30 days. A lunar year is approximately 354.37 days. This means that the probability of having 30 day month as opposed to 29 day month is slightly higher if not the same.
Based on Ummul Qura Calendar, here is what the duration of Ramadan should have been:
(Note that the calendar is downloadable from the internet)
9th December 1999 – 30 days
27th November 2000-30 days
16th November 2001-30 days
6th November 2002-29 days
26th October 2003-30 days
15th October 2004-30 days
4th October 2005 -30 days
24th September 2006-29 days
13th September 2007-30 days
1st September 2008-30 days
22 August 2009-29 days
11th August 2010-30 days
1st August 2011-29 days
20th July 2010 -30 days
9th July 2013- 30 days
29th June 2014-30 days
It can be observed from the list that the number of 30 days Ramadan far exceeds 29 day Ramadan, which is consistent with the premise. Unfortunately this couldn’t be further from reality. Over the listed years, one would lose count of the number of times erroneous sightings have been used shorten the blessed month and start Eid a day earlier. There have been far more 29 day Ramadan months than otherwise. The repercussions of this error are remarkable. It means that Muslims could start fasting a day before Ramadan, which was discouraged by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). And more importantly they could celebrate Eid within the blessed month. Furthermore, the odd nights in the last 10 nights of Ramadan which hold particular significance would also be missed. Thus this issue is not something that can be overlooked.
In short, the Saudi monarch chooses to start the month normally on “Ummul Qura” but finishes on its own whim. Although there is a method to this madness. Whenever the Kingdom has been challenged, they have produced (hallucinating) witnesses. The date on the Ummul Qurra is later readjusted by increasing the days in the final month of Dhul-Hijjah. Yes, there have been a 31 day Dhul-Hijjahs. In compensation the Saudi government quietly pays up charity money (Kaffara) for their own population, leaving the millions that follow them uninformed in a limbo.
The solution is to change the Ummul Qura calendar using criteria that is based on sighting and sight-ability of the moon. This means the following should be taken into account:
- The moons age should be at least 18 hours long
- The moon should be 10 degrees above the horizon
- The moon should set at least 45 minutes after sunset.
Mualana Samiruddin Qasmi of Wifaqul Ulama, a leading expert on the subject explains “Not only will these changes bring consistency for Saudis in following their own calendar, it will also harmonize the Muslim community across the world and the kingdom’s dream of a single Islamic date across the world will be realized. The current system is doing the opposite. It sometimes starts the month two days ahead of all countries thus making it impossible for any unity”
Needless to say, the king’s decree of deciding dates should be renounced. Witness’s testimony of sighting should be vetted and should not be accepted when the scientific impossibility of sighting is already established. If one wouldn’t pray Fajr salah at 2:00 o’clock in the afternoon based on a just a person’s testimony, why change it for the start of new month.
In this news clip, the Saudi official can be seen admitting to erroneous sighting which is a rarity. Most of the time no statement of error let alone explanation is issued.
It is unfortunate that because of Saudis’ folly, countries that have more robust mechanisms of sighting moon are being questioned by their own people. For instance in Pakistan which tends to have more 30 day Ramadans than 29, most people dazzled by Saudi’s illusion of authenticity (reinforced by petro dollars) have started poking fun at the moon sighting committee.
Renowned scholar Mufti Taqi Usmani has vehemently objected against the Saudi’s shambolic system through which he says the king has declared Eid several times using only the testimony of witnesses even when the moon wasn’t born. His voice has been echoed by numerous seminaries across the subcontinent and beyond. By the efforts of concerned community members, ICOP (Islamic Crescent’s Observation Project) was formed which has members in all Muslim countries. It has played a leading role in creating awareness. Subscription to their website informs members of moon sighting updates on important dates.
The Prophet Mohammad PBUH told us that among my followers, there will never be consensus on an act that is wrong. Muslims are therefore encouraged to learn more and raise awareness on this issue. After all we don’t want another 10 years to pass by before we finally get out dates right.
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Since we do not get to know (or frankly don’t care) about rest of the months, how does the Ruet.e.Halal committee decide upon the rest of the months? It seems like the whole nation has its curious spectacles on and witness accounts are pouring in on Ramazan or Eid-Hilal but that is not the case for the rest of the months, so does this introduce a discrepancy? Could the ReH miss out on the moon since people are just not looking (read: concerned)?