The lunar lunacy
Let’s begin with some hadiths regarding the crescent -
Narrated Ibn `Umar: I heard Allah's Apostle saying, "When you see the crescent (of the month of Ramadan), start fasting, and when you see the crescent (of the month of Shawwal), stop fasting; and if the sky is overcast (and you can't see it) then regard the month of Ramadan as of 30 days."" (Bukhari 3.124).
Narrated `Abdullah bin `Umar: Allah's Apostle mentioned Ramadan and said, "Do not fast unless you see the crescent (of Ramadan), and do not give up fasting till you see the crescent (of Shawwal), but if the sky is overcast (if you cannot see it), then act on estimation (i.e. count Sha'ban as 30 days)." (Bukhari 3.130).
Narrated Aisha: We set out along with Allah's Apostle shortly before the appearance of the new moon (crescent) of the month of Dhi−l−Hijja and he said to us, "Whoever wants to assume Ihram for Hajj may do so; and whoever wants to assume Ihram for `Umra may do so..." (Bukhari 3.11).
Every year we face a problem in determining the beginning of Ramadan and Eid days as the decision is subject to visibility of the new moon. If we could begin Ramadan on a correct date then we could also find some luck in finding the Night of Qadr. For instance, if we begin Ramadan on a wrong day then the odd and even numbers of the last ten days of Ramadan would vary. In that respect the safest strategy would be to look for the Night of Power in the last ten days and not only on odd nights.
Similarly, if the moon is not sighted on the expected date then we cannot celebrate the Eid, which means at that situation we are risking keeping an extra fast that may fall on an Eid day if we err in our calculations. And fasting on the days of Eid is prohibited!
Narrated Abu `Ubaid: (the slave of Ibn Azhar) I witnessed the `Id with `Umar bin Al−Khattab who said, Allah's Apostle has forbidden people to fast on the day on which you break fasting (the fasts of Ramadan) and the day on which you eat the meat of your sacrifices (the first day of `Id ul Fitr and `Id ul−Adha)." (Bukhari 3.211).
Islam follows a lunar calendar to determine the days of rituals and celebrations (but depends on the solar or sun’s position to determine the prayer times). As a result, the celebrations falls in different seasons in different years in compared to solar calendar. That allows a Muslim to taste the rituals in different weather conditions.
“It is He Who made the sun to be a shining glory and the moon to be a light (of beauty), and measured out stages for her; that ye might know the number of years and the count (of time). Nowise did God create this but in truth and righteousness. (Thus) doth He explain His Signs in detail, for those who understand.” (Qur’an 10:5).
“And He hath made subject to you the sun and the moon, both diligently pursuing their courses; and the night and the day hath he (also) made subject to you.” (Qur’an 14:33).
In early days when there were not many high rise buildings in the city, we used to get on the roof tops of our residence right before the iftar and maghrib time to see if we could have a glimpse of the new moon on the western sky (in Bangladesh) immediately after the sunset. In a short duration it is very difficult to see the crescent as it is too thin and stays only for a short while. But, we did manage to see the moon in most times except on the cloudy or rainy days. Today, we could no longer see the western horizon because of the high rise buildings. So, we no longer go to our roofs to look for the moon ourselves.
Today, we have a national “Moon Sighting Committee” that has members scattered around the country with the responsibility to see the moon. In some areas, our air-force lends some of their choppers to fly high in the sky to find the moon. But often this committee fails to see the moon no matter how many people are sincerely trying to see it.
When we were East Pakistan we had another part- the West Pakistan. At that time we could also depend on the visibility of the moon if it was sighted there. Ideally, if Muslim sees the moon anywhere is good enough reason to settle for Eid day. However, majority prefer a local sighting.
It is often seen that different areas in the same country are following Eid days on different days. It is mainly because some follows the moon sighting in Saudi Arabia, and do not depend on local sighting. They also begin their Ramadan fasts following the moon sight in KSA. Thus ending up in disunity with the rest of the Muslims in the country, which is not desirable.
“…ye should remain steadfast in religion, and make no divisions therein…” (Qur’an 42:13).
It is probably possible to overcome the problem if we take astronomical science into consideration. The following verses in the Qur’an reveals that the planets and sub-planets follow a fixed time table in their own orbits -
“They ask thee concerning the New Moons. Say: They are but signs to mark fixed periods of time in (the affairs of) men, and for Pilgrimage. It is no virtue if ye enter your houses from the back: It is virtue if ye fear God. Enter houses through the proper doors: And fear God: That ye may prosper.” (Qur’an 2:189).
“God is He Who raised the heavens without any pillars that ye can see; is firmly established on the throne (of authority); He has subjected the sun and the moon (to his Law)! Each one runs (its course) for a term appointed. He doth regulate all affairs, explaining the signs in detail, that ye may believe with certainty in the meeting with your Lord.” (Qur’an 13:2)
“It is He Who created the Night and the Day, and the sun and the moon: all (the celestial bodies) swim along, each in its rounded course.” (Qur’an 21:33).
“The sun and the moon follow courses (exactly) computed;…” (Qur’an 55:5).
Therefore, taking help from an astronomical chart for possible lunar visibility could reduce our hassle. If we know what would be the position of the moon and at what angle or point it could be seen then we could narrow down our search and increase our chances of seeing it. Similarly, the chart could also tell us before hand when the moon would not be visible at all, so that we do not look in vain for it. The moon follows a mathematically traceable path that could be predicted accurately. The visibility coordinates would vary from different positions of the globe. We could definitely use this science to our advantage to look for the moon.
Those who are strictly following the Saudi moon sighting are risking missing a compulsory fast of Ramadan by not fasting the last day (i.e., the 30th) when the moon is not locally seen. As normally, in most cases, a Ramadan in Saudi Arabia does not go beyond twenty nine days.
Personally I would not depend on moon sighting news from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) as I have witnessed a case during my hajj in 2004 when our Hajj fell on a Friday (making it a Akbari Hajj), but the king there decided to shift the day one day later to avoid making it a special hajj. All of us who understood the matter were very upset, not because we did not get the Akbari Hajj, but to see the audacity of the king to rule over Shariah. Therefore, in KSA the king dictates the days of rituals which is not necessarily on the basis of sighting of the moon rather fitting his own interests (if not in all occasions).
Some Muslim scholars suggested that as an alternative solution to this problem we could break the last day fast as soon we see the moon on the 30th day and if it looks larger than the crescent implicating that it would be the moon the second day, which is actually the Eid day. But they did not say anything about what to do with the missed Eid day prayer due to this problem. Not sure what is the basis of this alternative solution as I could not find any hadith supporting this idea.
From our discussion above, I guess it is safe to conclude that we could try using the astronomical science to see if it delivers anything useful to solve this problem and liberate us from this catch 22 situation. Mathematical calculations do not lie; so we have a chance. Our Moon Sighting Committee could work together with our Astronomical Societies and Associations to come up with a feasible plan to get rid of the dilemma that we face every year.
Moonsighting Committee Worldwide (MCW): http://moonsighting.com/
Moon sighting News, Analysis and Articles: http://www.islamicmoon.com/
Hilal Sighting Committee: http://www.hilalsighting.org/
Al-Ghazzali Centre- Australian National Crescent Sighting Coordination Centre: http://alghazzali.org/events/calender
Bangladesh Astronomical Society: http://www.bangastrosociety.org/
Bangladesh Astronomical Association: http://astronomybangla.com/