Moon Sighting Revisited

by M. Bakri Musa 

This year, as in previous years, Muslims in America and elsewhere are again disagreeing over when Ramadan and Eid should begin. This year, also as in previous years, there will be renewed and earnest declarations to resolve once and for all this recurring issue.

The question is whether the new Muslim month (of particular relevance is Ramadan and Shawal) should begin when the new moon is sighted or go by scientific calculations.

A corollary controversy is over when to celebrate Eid ul Adha, whether to do it at the precise time the pilgrims are celebrating theirs in Mecca or to go by the equivalent local time.


Inherently Insolvable

This debate is endless because we fail to recognize that it is inherently not solvable. It is an arbitrary issue, like trying to
agree to a point on a circle or a continuum.

There are only two possible ways of resolving it: through fiat by a central authority a la the Pope and the Catholics. Fortunately for Muslims, we do not have such a structure; that is our strength, not weakness. The issue must instead be resolved through communal consensus, in concert with the Quranic refrain that Allah will not let its community be in error.

For the community to make a wise, or to put it differently, the likely more correct decision, it must be informed on all the relevant factors. These can be conveniently grouped into three categories. One, we must learn from our predecessors on how they dealt with the matter over the last 1400 years. Two, we must be apprised of current scientific knowledge of not only in astronomy but also of human biology and other related disciplines. Three, we must anticipate, based on our past
experiences and current conditions, the likely consequences of our decision. Once we have considered all the elements in their totality, then we are more likely to arrive at an informed if not wise decision.

Even then we must still have the humility to recognize that it is only our best collective judgment at the current time. Meaning, we should not hesitate to revisit it should conditions change.

The controversy over when the new month should begin is similar to determining when the new day should start. In the Western scheme of things, the new day begins at midnight; for Muslims, at sunset. Both are arbitrary selections. I am certain that there are other traditions now and in the past that begin their day at sunrise or even mid day.

Biologically, the human body is used to the morning being the beginning of the new day, in tune with our circadian rhythm. When we get to bed late past midnight, we worry about getting up early the next morning even though it would still be the same day. When we get up at 7 AM we feel fresh and ready for a new day, even though it is already nearly a third of the way into the Western day and halfway through with the Muslim day.

Our psychological perception may change if we were to become nocturnal like bats. Our new day would then begin at sunset, the Muslim new day. With global warming and the days becoming unbearably hot, we may yet
come to that!

Learning From Our Predecessors

This is where our scholars and ulama contribute greatly. They are well versed with the Quran and the ancient texts, as well as the sunnahs of our prophet s.a.w. In deciphering them, it is well to heed the caution of our luminary Al Arabi, “All that is left to us by tradition is mere words. It is upon us to find out what they mean.”

As Muslims we accept the message of the Quran as universal, for all mankind and at all times. That is a matter of faith. We must first however discern what that message is. We must have the wisdom to put texts in their contexts, and to distinguish the literal from the metaphorical. Most of all we must have the humility to acknowledge that all knowledge begins with Him, and only He knows the ultimate truth. For us mortals, the search for knowledge and the truth is never
ending.

To quote the Egyptian intellectual Taha Hussein, “The end will begin when seekers of knowledge become satisfied with their own achievement.”

Lessons From Science

The birth of the new moon can be reliably predicted through calculations and from past observations. That is the valuable
contributions of astronomy. To science, the “new” moon (conjunction) is when it passes between the earth and the sun. At that particular moment, the moon is completely within the earth’s shadow and thus cannot be seen from earth. The new moon will become visible as it slowly emerges from the shadow.

There is the inescapable time lag between when the new moon is born and when it can be visually sighted (hillel). It would vary with atmospheric conditions, seasons (summer or winter), locations (southern or northern hemisphere, sea level or top of the Rockies), weather (hence the science of meteorology), and visual acuity (hence the science of human optics), among others.

Even the science of language plays a role, in particular the definition of “local” community. In a country like Canada that spans six time zones, the new moon may not be sighted at sunset in Newfoundland, but will become obvious at sunset in Vancouver five hours later. By the time the new moon would be sighted at 11 PM at Whitehorse, people in St. Johns would have already started their new morning and be too late to begin their fast.

Similarly, when the new moon cannot possibly be sighted in the northern but can in the southern hemisphere, how should countries like Indonesia that spans the equator handle the issue? There cannot be a right or wrong decision, only a communal one. We delude only ourselves if we think otherwise.

The same confusion occurs with celebrating Eid ul Adha. If we were to follow tradition of celebrating at the same time of the pilgrims in Mecca, as many would insist, it would mean that some communities would celebrate at midnight.

Consequences Of Our Decision

A useful aid in making decisions would be to do a “downstream analysis.” Assume that we have made a certain conclusion, what would be the consequences, fully aware that we cannot always anticipate everything, and that the laws of unintended consequences are always operative.

If we stick to tradition, we keep alive our rituals, and with that, our link to our rich heritage. We could make the moon sighting into a festive event, another opportunity for communal bonding. In Arizona, astronomy buffs have regular celestial sighting parties. It can be a deeply moving and highly spiritual experience to ponder the vast cosmos in the silence of the evening.

The negative would be the current uncertainty and chaos, with some community celebrating Eid on one day while members of an adjacent one would still be fasting. What would that say about our respect for our festive Eid to be fasting on that day, not to mention of Muslim unity?

The uncertainty carries a significant price tag. Facilities have to be rented on two successive days just to be sure, doubling the cost. If we opt for the predictable scientific method, we would be spared the extra expense. Imagine what we could do for the poor with the money saved!

If we could have the day fixed ahead of time, we are more likely to get official recognition of our holy days, and we would be able to plan properly.

The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and the Figh Council of North America are to be commended for attempting a consensus. However our Islamic Sharia Council of California does not support the decision. I would have preferred that ISNA and the Figh Council be more inclusive in their deliberations so bodies like our Shari Council could voice their arguments before the decision.

As ultimately this is a community decision, it is incumbent upon us to be informed of the issues and communicate to our leaders our sentiments. This essay is my contribution at both.

Have a Blessed Ramadan!

Moon Sighting Revisited
by M. Bakri Musa
www.bakrimusa.com

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One Response to Moon Sighting Revisited

  1. Shehzad Khan says:

    Very enlightnening and well written…Thanks for your contribution to this otherwise, biased debate.

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