The identification of the dates for the beginning of the month of Ramadan and the celebration of Eid al-Fitr (the celebration of the end of Ramadan on the first day of the month of Shawwal) this year was marked by even more confusion than usual. Much of this confusion can be attributed to deliberate mischief-making by the Saudi regime, which has a long history of manipulation of the Hijra calendar, compounded by the insistence of some Muslim organisations all over the world on following the Saudi lead. However, the failure of Muslims to cope with these factors is largely due to misunderstandings of certain key points regarding the way in which the Islamic calendar operates.
The first point to understand is that it is frankly impossible for all Muslims all over the world to celebrate Eid on the same day, as some Muslims idealistically expect. If the earth were flat, that would be possible; but it is not. Even Christmas, which is celebrated by most people on December 25, does not fall on the same day everywhere. As Australia and New Zealand welcome Christmas just after midnight, people in North America are starting their day on December 24. This is because of the time difference between the two regions. Australia is 13 to 16 hours ahead of North America, depending on where one resides in each of the two continents.
Because Muslims use the moon to determine the start of the month, in some parts of the world the lunar month begins a day earlier than in others. It must be borne in mind that the Islamic month begins with the sighting of the moon the previous evening. Thus if the new moon (a narrow crescent) is sighted on Monday evening, then Tuesday is the first day of the new lunar month. The ‘birth’ of the moon, which is its appearance as a light-less disc invisible to the naked eye, must not be confused with the sighting of the new moon; it is the latter that Muslims follow. This usually occurs about 20 to 22 hours after the moon’s birth, provided that a number of other conditions (angle of separation between the moon and sun, how long the moon is above the horizon after sunset, and sky conditions at sunset, and the like) are also favourable. Under ideal conditions, if the sky is clear, the moon is 20 to 22 hours old, and it sets about half an hour after sunset at a particular locality, then it should be visible to the naked eye. It then needs to be seen not by one or two people somewhere (false reports of sightings, before the moon has even been born, are common place, as many atmospheric phenomena can be confused with sightings of the new moon), but – in accordance with a well-known fatwa of Imam Abu Yusuf (a student of Imam Abu Hanifa ra) – separately and independently by a large number of people.
One other point needs clarification: what constitutes a matla (horizon) for sighting the new moon, and how is this determined? The term matla refers to the territorial area over which the claim of moon-sighting applies. That is to say, if the moon is sighted in one place, should that also determine the date of Eid in another place, even if the moon is not sighted there? This issue involves a number of factors, including distance, communications technology, political jurisdiction, time zones and social and cultural aspects. Modern communications technology has made it possible for news of a moon-sighting to be conveyed from one place to another very quickly, but this is only part of the story. The globalization of communications brings in the issue of time-zones to the fore; a moon-sighting at sunset in California is no use in the Middle East, where it is already the middle of the next day. Conversely, Muslims in California cannot await a sighting in the Middle East the following day, as this would mean continuing to fast even after the moon has been sighted in their area.
This clearly indicates that in modern conditions, the horizon for sighing the moon must be determined by local time-zones and conditions, making it inevitable (and not unacceptable) that Muslims in different parts of the world celebrate on different days. What is unacceptable is the confusion caused by attempts to tie Eid in local places to moon-sightings elsewhere, particularly when this causes logistical and practical problems (see box above), and when it results in Muslims of different nationalities or following different schools of thought celebrating Eid on different days, even though they live in the same community and city.
It appears that two points are fundamental to resolving this ever-recurring confusion: the determination of what constitutes a horizon, and sightability criteria for the new moon. Unless each time-zone is considered autonomous, the problem of past-midnight announcements of the start of the new month will continue to bedevil Muslims, especially those living in non-Muslim societies. (For Muslim-majority societies or those with well-established political authority – Iran, Saudi Arabia and so on – it does not matter because the state determines the start of each calendar month, and everyone follows.) Many in North America follow a fatwa issued by a Pakistani scholar, Maulana Taqi Usmani, that North America should be considered one horizon, despite having four time-zones between the east and west coasts, although Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Syria and Saudi Arabia, with only three time-zones, are considered separate horizons. Why should this be? Muslims in England do not wait for moon-sightings in Newfoundland (Canada’s east coast, four hours after British time) before they start an Islamic calendar month, but Muslims in Newfoundland are expected to wait for sighting claims from California (four hours later) to determine the start of a lunar month. Why this apparent inconsistency? The sightability criterion, namely that a new moon must be possible to sight, based on astronomical data, must also be clearly adhered to in order to avoid premature sighting claims.
The confusion that engulfed the Muslim world over the start and end of this Ramadan was the result of Muslims overlooking these basic points. According to astronomical data, Ramadan could not have started anywhere in the world on Saturday September 23. The earliest possible date was Sunday September 24, and only for North America, because the new moon was only visible on the southern tip of the US the previous evening. Similarly, the Shawwal moon could not be sighted anywhere in the world except in the southern extremities of South America on Sunday October 22 (astronomers are able to generate visibility curves using computers that establish the outer limits of the new moon’s visibility on the first day). Nonetheless, the Saudi authorities announced the sighting of the moon on Friday September 22, and much of the Middle East began to fast on Saturday September 23, even as experts were proclaiming the sighting to have been scientifically impossible.
In a stinging rebuke, two astronomers from the United Arab Emirates, Mohammad Shawkat Odeh, an engineer at the Astronomical Society, and Dr Nidhal Guessoum, associate professor of physics and astronomy at the American University of Sharjah, said that it had been impossible to see the crescent moon on Friday, September 22. “The moon had set before sunset, so there was no moon in the sky to be seen,” said Odeh (Rania Habib: Gulf News, October 4).
Odeh said that the religious authorities in Saudi Arabia confuse astronomy with astrology: the latter is forbidden in Islam because it is based on studying the movements of planets and stars to make forecasts about the future. “We are not astrologers, there is a very big difference between us and them,” he said. “The difference is not clear at all for Muslim scholars in Saudi [sic.], so they don’t consult with astronomers.”
Although almost all Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt, started Ramadan on September 23, al-Azhar ‘ulama declared ten days later that this had been a mistake. Perhaps influenced by this and the rising tide of criticism globally, Egypt, Jordan, Oman and a number of other countries did not join Saudi Arabia in celebrating Eid on October 23, despite having completed 30 days of fasting. Instead they said that the first fast, of September 22, should be regarded as nafl (optional), and Eid celebrated on the correct day. Unfortunately the point that simply completing 30 days is not a sufficient reason to end the fasts if the fasting began on the incorrect day was beyond many Muslims who had mistakenly followed the Saudi lead; so their error at the beginning of Ramadan was compounded at the end of the month.
People advance both religious and scientific arguments for their various positions. Some people dismiss scientific evidence altogether, insisting that once someone claims a moon-sighting, that claim should be accepted. While theoretically this is sound, it can only apply if the sighting was scientifically possible. One must also note that claims of moonsighting are frequently made from certain regions of Saudi Arabia. Do the people of these regions have better eyesight than others? And why is it that several hours later people in North America are still unable to sight the same moon whose sighting was claimed earlier by the Saudis? When there is so much clear evidence of the unreliability of Saudi claims, it is perverse to insist on accepting them.
Some Muslims argue that Saudi moon-sighting claims should be accepted, even if they are wrong, for the sake of unity. There are two answers to this. The first is the impossibility of celebrating Eid on the same day all over the world; people in Australia, Japan, the Philippines and so on, for instance, will already have started their day long before they hear about the Saudi moon-sighting claims. The second is perhaps much more fundamental: that the days for the performance of certain Islamic fara’id (obligations) have been ordained in the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet (saw), and are therefore essential parts of correct Islamic ‘ibadah. To argue that these obligations can justifiably and knowingly be performed on the wrong days, in the name of a nebulous and impossible unity (at a time when most Muslims accept the division of the Ummah into 57 nation-states, competing and squabbling over far more significant issues) can only be regarded as a fitnah of the worst order.
The real unity that we must strive for is the practical and tangible unity of Muslim communities in local areas, so all Muslims in particular cities or regions are able to to perform these obligations on the same, correct day according to local conditions and the local sightability of the moon.
The problems caused in Toronto by the fitnah over the date for Eid
Like much of the Muslim world, North America too was gripped by confusion about the start and end of Ramadan because of flawed assumptions about what constitutes one matla (horizon). It makes little or no sense for people in Toronto to wait for moonsighting inCalifornia before deciding about their start or end of Ramadan. In a few years’ time, when Ramadan falls in summer, sunset will be around 9 pm. Why should people in Toronto wait until aftermidnight to find out whether the new moon has been sighted inCalifornia before establishing the start or end of their month?
Muslims in North America have established a number of organisations-the Fiqh Council of North America (FCNA), ‘ulama councils and hilal committees in various cities-to address these problems, but with little apparent success. The Hilal Committee ofToronto, for instance, comprising nearly 70 mosques and Islamic organisations, added to the confusion, especially for Eid, when it declared at almost midnight on October 22 that Eid al-Fitr would be the next day after accepting claims of Shawwal moonsighting fromCalifornia. The worst part of the mess was that while California is only three hours after Toronto time, it took the Hilal Committee until midnight to make the announcement. It later transpired that the committee, or rather an inner group of five individuals, had waited for the Ulama Council of California to make their decision before it announced its own. Many members of the Hilal Committee asked why its decisions are being made by a secretive group of five and subject to approval by the Ulama Council of California.
Muslims living as minorities among other peoples cannot afford such surprises. Some schools in Toronto had cancelled field trips for all children on October 24 in order to avoid conflict with Eid celebrations; others agreed to hold examinations on October 23 in order to not force Muslim students to write them on the day of Eid. By declaring Eid for October 23, the Hilal Committee messed up all these plans and made Muslims look extremely disorganised, if not outright foolish.
A number of mosques and organisations are seriously considering withdrawing from the Hilal Committee if such malpractices persist. They feel that the principles on which the decisions are made are consistent with neither the Qur’an and Sunnah nor with the realities of life in North America. On the issue of Ramadan and Eid dates, as on many others, Muslims can be their their own worst enemies, causing problems for ourselves even on issues on which non-Muslims are willing to accommodate us.