Hollow Controversies Amongst Muslims Over Moon-Sighting: There’s A Simple Way Out

Hollow Controversies Amongst Muslims Over Moon-Sighting: There’s A Simple Way Out

by Arshia Malik - Sunday, March 26, 2023 04:08 PM IST
Hollow Controversies Amongst Muslims Over Moon-Sighting: There’s A Simple Way OutA crescent moon
  • It is not uncommon to see controversies over moon-sighting amongst Muslims in India.

    Today, through astronomy, it is possible to know the exact position and time of the appearance of new moon long before the actual day of such sighting.

Islam follows the lunar calendar and moon-sighting is an important aspect of Islamic tradition. 

It determines the start and end of Islamic months, particularly for the months of Ramadan and Shawwal. 

This means that the timing of Islamic months can vary by a day or two depending on the sighting of the new moon. Muslims traditionally look for the new moon on the 29th day of the current month, and if it is sighted, the new month begins the next day. If the moon is not sighted, then the current month is considered to have 30 days, and the new month begins the day after.

Moon-sighting is also important during the month of Ramadan because it marks the start and end of the month-long fast. The sighting of the new moon marks the start of Ramadan, and the sighting of the new moon at the end of Ramadan marks the start of the festival of Eid al-Fitr. 

Moon-sighting is typically carried out by trained individuals or groups, who observe the sky at sunset to look for the new moon. The sighting is then reported to the relevant authorities or Islamic organisations, who announce the start of the new month, or the end of Ramadan based on the sightings.

But moon-sighting has been a subject of controversy within the Muslim community for many years. 

One of the major issues is the difference in opinion among scholars on the method of moon-sighting. Some scholars advocate for the traditional method of physical sighting of the new moon with the naked eye, while others argue for the use of astronomical calculations to determine the start of Islamic months. 

Those who advocate for astronomical calculations argue that this method is more accurate and less prone to errors. 

Another type of controversy surrounding moon-sighting is the issue of regional differences. 

Due to differences in weather conditions and geography, the sighting of the new moon may not be possible in some regions, while it may be visible in others. 

This can lead to different regions beginning or ending Islamic months on different days, causing confusion and discord among Muslims.

The controversy over moon-sighting is also sometimes politically motivated which has also led to disagreements over the start and end of Ramadan and the celebration of Eid al-Fitr. 

In some cases, different Islamic organizations and communities may observe Ramadan and Eid on different days, causing confusion and division among Muslims. 

An example of the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir can be cited where in the decades of the armed conflict since 1989, various Islamic sects and creeds announced different dates for the start of the holy month of Ramzan on the days Pakistan and Saudi Arabia announced it, just to show sentimental solidarity and slight the Indian authorities. 

In India, there is no centralised or official authority that decides the moon-sighting. Rather, the decision is made by various local committees or groups of Islamic scholars who are responsible for determining the sighting of the new moon in their respective regions. 

These committees or groups usually consist of experienced astronomers and religious scholars who have the knowledge and expertise to observe and determine the sighting. 

The Hilal Committee in New Delhi is a recognised Islamic authority responsible for moon-sighting in India. The Central Ruet-e-Hilal Committee met in Hyderabad to declare the date for the beginning of Ramadan in India.

Once the moon sighting has been confirmed, the local committees or groups will then announce the start of the new month or the beginning of Ramadan and the end of the month or the celebration of Eid al-Fitr. 

These announcements are typically made through local mosques or Islamic organisations and are widely disseminated through various media channels to inform the Muslim community. 

It depends widely on which firqa (sect) the local mosque or chapter is following, and the neighbourhood and Muslim homes will follow that mosques' announcement. 

This year too contradicting announcements were made in Jammu and Kashmir regarding the sighting of the moon for Ramzan on Wednesday. 

The Grand Mufti of Jammu and Kashmir, Naseer-ul-Islam said that no evidence was found from any part of J&K regarding the sighting of the moon for Ramzan, so the first day would be on Friday, March 24. 

Meanwhile, Anjuman-e-Sharian Shian President Agha Syed Hassan Mousvi Al Safvi in a statement issued in Srinagar said that they had received confirmation of the sighting of the moon for Ramzan, so the first day of fasting would be Thursday, March 23. 

Imam and preacher Mufti Muhammad Anayatullah Qasmi in the central mosque of Talab Khatikan in Jammu in a statement announced the sighting of the moon for the holy month of Ramadan. 

In many cases hence, the issue of moon-sighting has become ‘moon fighting’. 

In this case, both sides are divided over the question of what is really the 'new' moon. Interestingly, both sides of the divide base their arguments on the Hadith: "Do not fast unless you sight the crescent, and do not break your fast till you sight the (following) crescent." (Al-Bukhari, Vol. 3:130).

Quoted above, the last sentence of this Hadith is significant in the sense that it insists if the new moon is not sighted with bare eyes because of clouds, sandstorm, haze or any other obstacles, the faithfuls should be ‘work(ing) out’ the best and the most scientific way possible to determine the moon’s position. 

If for some reason it is still not possible to work it out, it is advisable to wait for an additional day before celebrating the Eid and/or commencing the month of Ramadan. This is the most authentic and important Hadith that clearly advises how best to determine a new moon’s position/appearance.

In essence, the Hadith requires Muslims to ‘work out’ the time of the appearance of the new moon (if it is mature enough to be sighted with bare eyes). That means, if we are sure enough that the new moon has already appeared and gained enough maturity, we may start fasting or celebrate Eid, whichever is the case. 

During the early days of Islam, there was no other way but to sight the new moon with bare eyes. As a result, if the moon could not be sighted with bare eyes in an overcast evening, they had to wait for an extra day to make it sure that the new moon was already in the sky. 

Please note, that on the 30th day, there is no requirement even to sight the new moon. That means, the emphasis is not on the mere sighting of the moon, but the confirmation of the moon being in the sky in a certain position (even if it is still hidden under the clouds)!

These days, through astronomy, it is possible to know the exact position and time of the appearance/sighting of the new moon long before the actual day of such sighting. Therefore, with the help of science, ‘working out’ or determining the actual position of the new moon is possible without even looking at the sky which, in turn, could serve as the basis for starting fast or celebrating Eid.

It does not contradict the above-mentioned Hadith or the instruction by the Prophet.

The ongoing ‘moon sighting’ controversies could easily be referred to as a hollow ‘moon fighting’ exercise

To remove the controversy, Muslims can abide by  Islam’s much revered ‘Qiyas’ system (instructions obtained from the holy Quran and Hadith) and use the methods of ‘Ijma’ (consensus) to resolve the issue once for all, preferably, by relying on a method which is scientifically embedded and less controversial and thereby,  agree ahead of time, on fixed dates to observe three of their major events/festivals – Ramadan, Eid ul Fitr and Ei dul Adha. 

In many countries, including Europe and China, lunar positions are determined by using the scientific method. The United Nations Headquarters in New York determines Eid days (both Eid ul Fitr and Eid ul Adha) based on astronomical data and includes them in its official holiday calendar at the beginning of the year.

Arshia Malik is a columnist and commentator on social issues with particular emphasis on Islam in the Indian subcontinent.
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