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Principles for calculating dates for Ramadhan and Eid, and the importance of getting them right

Waseem Shehzad

The correct dates for the beginning of Ramadhan and the celebration of Eid al-Fitr and issues which often cause confusion in the community. Here WASEEM SHEHZAD explains how the dates are determined, and what the dates for these blessed days are this year.

Three events in the Islamic calendar, meant to bring Muslims together, often lead instead to confusion and disunity. The start and end of the blessed month of Ramadhan and the celebration of Eid al-Adha are meant to be occasions of Muslim unity, but past experience has shown that there are always some problems and even families become embroiled in heated argument. The reasons for such confusion need to be investigated and the sources removed in order to avoid unnecessary discord.

Muslims follow the lunar calendar, which is 10 or 11 days shorter than the 365 days in the Gregorian calendar year, which is based on the Sun. Unlike the Gregorian calendar, in which most months have 30 or 31 days and February has 28 (except in a leap year, when it has 29), lunar months have either 29 days or 30. There cannot be a 28-day month or a 31-day month, nor is any month fixed at either 29 or 30 days. One year a particular Islamic month may have 30 days, and the following year the same month may have 29 days. Muslims are required to determine the start of each month by the sighting of the new moon. In the Qur’an, Allah says: "They will ask thee [O Prophet] about the new moons. Say [to them] that these are to determine the seasons [of the year] as well as the time of Hajj" (2:189). There are many hadiths (sayings) of the Prophet (saw) that clearly stipulate the requirement of moon sighting to determine the start of each month.

In one well-known hadith, the Prophet has said: "Begin your fast when you sight the [new] moon, and end your [month of] fasting when you sight the moon. And if the sky is overcast [that is, the new moon may be there but cannot be sighted] then complete your 30 days." Because the Islamic month can be a maximum of 30 days only, the argument ends here even if the sky continues to be overcast and the moon remains invisible after the thirtieth day.

With the approach of the blessed month of Ramadhan, the issue of moon (or crescent) sighting assumes added importance. Muslims must start and end the month on the right day. Some may ask whether it is necessary to be so particular about the exact date. It is: in Islam the reward for an act of ‘ibadah is often tied to both time and place. The five daily salah can be offered anywhere, for instance, yet it is preferable to offer them in a mosque. Even more important is the timing of salah; the midday salah (dhuhr) cannot be offered in the early morning, nor can maghrib salah (sunset) be offered even a minute before sunset. Similarly, fasting cannot begin a day before its moon-determined date if we hope to earn the barakah (reward, blessing) that Allah has promised us for it. True, Muslims can fast on other days, for instance on Mondays and Thursdays in accordance with the Sunnah, but the reward they are promised for fasting in the month of Ramadhan, which is a fard (compulsory act) is far greater than that of performing a sunnah (an optional practice of the Prophet).

With advances in science, astronomy and computer programmes, it is now possible to calculate the exact moment when the new moon will be born for any month years in advance. The birth of the moon is at that point in the lunar orbit when the sun, moon and earth are in conjunction, that is, in a straight line, with the moon between the earth and sun. At that moment the moon is invisible to the naked eye because the side facing the earth at that point is its night side, ie. the side of the moon turned away from the sun. A new moon is not visible to the unaided eye until at least 20 to 24 hours after its "birth". We must bear in mind that the moon is always in the sky; its size, shape and visibility are determined by the proportion of its sunlit side that is not turned away from the earth (which in turn depends on where in its orbit around the earth it is). The moon’s visibility is also affected by several other factors: the time of moonset in relation to sunset (the longer the moon stays above the horizon after sunset and the larger its angle of separation from the sun, the greater its chances of being visible), cloud conditions at the horizon, and atmospheric pollution. It is a common phenomenon that in towns and cities there is too much city-light dispersion in the sky and so most stars are not visible there, while people in the countryside enjoy a wonderful view every clear night.

Birth of moon

Monday November, 4, 15:54 Toronto time / 20:54 UK time

No possibility of visibility that evening.

Wednesday December 4, 02:34 Toronto time / 07:34 UK time

Visibility Tuesday. November 5 Thursday December 5
Sunset (Toronto) 17:03 16:41
Moonset (Toronto) 19:46 17:53
Age of moon at sunset (Toronto) 25 hrs 30 min. (Moon needs to be at least 20 hours old to be visible. Therefore moon will be visible in Toronto on Tuesday November 5). 38 hrs 07 min.
First Ramadhan: Wednesday November 6, 2002 First Shawwal: Friday, December 6, 2002
NB: above data accurate for Toronto only.

This year the Ramadhan moon will be born at 15:54 Eastern Standard Time (3:54 pm Toronto time) on Monday, November 4. In Britain it will be 20:54 (8:54 pm), and in the Arabian Peninsula it will be 11:54 pm. Thus there is no possibility of the moon being visible on the evening of November 4 anywhere in the world. The following evening (Tuesday, November 5) at sunset the age of the moon will be 25 hours 30 minutes in Toronto. The moon will set at 5:46 pm, after sunset, which is at 5:03 pm in Toronto. Thus there is a good possibility that the new moon will be visible in Toronto and all places west of it. In Britain and Europe it may or may not be visible, but in the Arabian Peninsula and places further east it will not be visible even on the evening of Tuesday November 5. Judging from past experience, however, it seems certain that there will be moonsighting claims from the Saudi kingdom on November 5, where at sunset the age of the moon will be about 17 hours. If the Saudis truly followed the Sunnah of Allah’s Messenger (saw), there would be no confusion in the Ummah about the start or end of Ramadhan, which is mostly caused by people following their false moonsighting claims. It is now clear that , while the Saudis claim to follow the visibility criteria, they actually follow the birth of the moon.

It is with the Shawwal (Eid al-Fitr) moon that there is likely to be greater confusion. This year the Shawwal moon will be born on Wednesday, December 4 at 2:34 am (Toronto time). In Britain the time will be 7:34 am, in the Peninsula 10:34 am, and so on. (Remember: like a new-born baby, there is just one specific moment at which the moon is born; it cannot be born at different times in different places.) With the birth of the Shawwal moon at 2:34 am on December 4, the age of the moon at sunset (4:41 pm in Toronto), will be only 14 hours and 7 minutes. Even in the western extremities of North America its age will only be about 17 hours: not old enough to be seen. Thus the earliest visibility possible is on Thursday, December 5, making Friday, December 6 this year’sEid al-Fitr. Because of the time of the birth of the moon, the new moon will become visible in the east before people in North America can see it, because of the time lag. In Britain its age at sunset (about 5pm) on December 5 will be more than 32 hours.

This may confuse some people when they see a fairly large crescent moon on the horizon. They may assume that it is the second day of the moon. It must be remembered that neither the size nor the brightness of the moon determines whether it is the first or second of the moon; several other factors (as mentioned before) affect the visibility of the new moon. The point to remember is this: it is vitally important for Muslims to start fasting on the correct day.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 31, No. 17

Sha'ban 25, 14232002-11-01

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