The Lunacy of Lunar Sightings

The following piece is an important article written by Dr. Youssef Ismail, who is one of the few people I really trust on the issue of determining lunar dates in order to know when the Hajj and Ramadan have begun, when it’s Eid, etc. I trust him for two reasons: firstly, he has been traditionally trained in Maliki fiqh and granted an ijazah to teach it and therefore understands the fiqh issues involved; secondly, and perhaps in this case more importantly, he is a scientist with a doctorate in engineering from Stanford University, which is one of the most prestigious institutes of science in the West. Dr. Youssef Ismail is a first rate intellect who has been diligently moon sighting for over twenty years and has taught astronomy at all levels. He is currently Professor of Astronomy and Science at Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California.

The debate over moon sighting is an ongoing and tragic one for Muslims, especially for those in the West. It has been divisive and even split families and communities. The juristic principle, “The government removes disagreement” has worked well in the Muslim world although at a cost. The scientifically impossible and hence clearly unverified reports of sightings in places like the Arabian Peninsula are a travesty to modern science not to mention classical jurisprudence, which acknowledged the role of science in negating moon sightings. Our classical scholars were, almost without exception, well versed in the cutting edge sciences of their age. And while astronomy has developed greatly since the advent of the telescope and calculus, its ability to predict eclipses or new moons has not advanced in any significant way. This aspect of astronomy was surprisingly developed even in the Babylonian period. Granted our precision, which now is down to minutes, seconds, and even nanoseconds, has evolved significantly, but the prediction of the actual events within hours has been known for centuries.

Muslims were capable of calculating the moon’s birth centuries ago to a highly accurate degree. They used sophisticated charts to determine when and where the moon could be sighted. I personally know the timekeeper of Fes, Morocco who took me up in the minaret of the Masjid al-Andalus and showed me the twelve holes used by the muezzin to sight the moon based upon where it would appear given the time of year. The astronomer, mathematician, engineer, and Egypt’s peerless jurist, Imam al-Qarafi, stated that while science negates moon sightings, it does not assert them. In other words, if natural science tells us it is impossible to see the moon, the reports of sightings are therefore dismissed as the result of other phenomena or possibly the dodgy character of the claimant. However, if science tells us that the moon can be sighted, it is accepted only when naked eye sightings have confirmed it. There really is no debate for those who take the time to study this issue deeply. However, unfortunately, people neither trained in fiqh nor in astronomy or those trained in one without the other are the ones who are making most of the arguments. Yet the only ones who can arrive at an educated ruling about this are those who are properly trained in fiqh and its usul, along with a sound knowledge of astronomy, especially observational astronomy, which is studied less today and is quite distinct from theoretical modern astronomy.

What is important to note about this dilemma is that the issue highlights a central crisis of our Ummah today: we are split into two broad-based camps – the modernists and the traditionalists. The modernists claim to be rational in their approach and prefer to rely on science while too often ignoring the vast intellectual tradition of our great scholars. Hence, many in the U.S. and Canada face north in a “great circle route” for qiblah because it is scientific despite centuries of Muslim practice – including American Muslim practice until the late 1970s – using the loxodromic route, and many also fast according to calculation, despite centuries of Muslim practice using naked eye sightings. What is intriguing is that in both situations Muslims of the past were quite capable of calculating the great circle route but found it too cumbersome and anti-fitrah as is clear from their writings in‘Ilm al-Hai’ah, a compilation of sciences that involves astronomy, navigation, cartography, and surveying, which was used in determining the qiblah. Muslims of the past were also capable of calculating the birth of new moons and even knew when they could be seen by the naked eye based on the conditions but despite that chose to follow naked eye sightings given the hadith’s clear injunction to do so. Sadly, we are now caught between an ossified tradition that ignores science and modernists who ignore the classical tradition. Hence, on the one hand, we have traditional scholars following claims of naked eye sightings despite established modern science that enables those working with its tools clearly and decisively to declare its impossibility and despite our classical scholars, who were profoundly well-versed in science, especially geography and astronomy, declaring the necessity of scientific negation of impossible sightings given their absolute reliability and decisive (qat’i) nature; on the other hand, we have modernists who completely ignore the classical tradition of the jurists who, with their knowledge of astronomy, were capable of making calculations of moon sightings but did not do so, as they considered it an abandonment of prophetic practice. Almost all of the articles and books that I have read on the subject unfortunately follow only one or the other methodology. One of the rare exceptions to this is the work of Dr. Mokhtar Maghraoui, who is trained in both modern and classical sciences at the doctoral level. Hence, he is able to draw from both modern science and the traditional fiqh positions. I challenge anyone to read carefully Dr. Maghroui’s "An Islamic Legal Analysis of the Astronomical Determination of the Beginning of Ramadan” or a book that I wrote on this subject, Caesarean Moon Births with a disinterested approach and not be convinced. Unfortunately, most people’s minds are already set, and they read to refute rather than enlighten themselves. I personally would love to be convinced of the other position, as my goal is unity and not simply to be among those who differ (and are practicing, as the Arabs say, khaalif tu’raf ), but I sincerely believe that the opposing argument is unconvincing.

The central issue is simply this: the liberal arts, which were the basis of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim education, were never only the language arts known in the West as the trivium and in the Muslim world as al-sinaa’t al-thalath but always included the quadrivium. The great jurist, theologian, and scientist, Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, in his Akhlaqi Tusi, writes, “The foundational arts of science are four: arithmetic, geometry, harmonics, and astronomy.” Classical scholars were skilled in all of them. Today, few seminary students of Islam go beyond studying basic calculations used in inheritance laws and zakat determination and no longer study chronometry (tawqit) or astronomy, geography, and navigation (‘ilm al-hai’ah), all of which were considered necessary knowledge for scholars of the past. The problem of moon sighting will not go away until we resolve the central crisis it involves, as it gets to the heart of what is wrong with modern Muslims: our inability to harmonize tradition with modernity.

The great tragedy of this is that those who rely on calculations to determine lunar dates have removed a day that our Prophet, God’s peace and blessings upon him, established, which is known as the “day of doubt” (yawm al-shakk): it is the first twenty-four hours after the moon has separated from the sun. NASA, the most prestigious and advanced scientific body of astronomy and space science, has stated that the naked eye sighting cannot be predicted in the first twenty-four hours after the “birth” of a new moon due to many variables but especially atmospheric conditions. Surprisingly, Ibn Taymiyyah beat them to the same conclusion centuries ago in hisRefutation of the Logicians. Yet some modern Muslims have declared that this day can be known with certainty despite the Prophet, God’s peace and blessings upon him, declaring it a day of doubt. Furthermore, his assertion – while it needs no verification – has been confirmed, according to NASA, by modern science.

This Ramadan, I started fasting in California and found myself in a Muslim country on the 29th night. This particular country uses calculations to start and end their Ramadan. Normally, I follow the Eid of whatever the country I’m in declares it to be. But given what I know about the anarchy involving the issue, I do that as long as there are verified multiple sightings somewhere in the world. Alas, nowhere in the world could the moon have been seen on Thursday night, except one place, South America, yet no one there claimed to have seen it without a visual aid. Sadly, while it was scientifically impossible to see it in California, some sincere people thought they saw it in San Diego, and those who most likely don’t understand the science
behind the impossibility of naked eye sightings, given the moon’s relative position, or the traditional view of science’s validity in negating impossible sightings believed them. This is due to their adherence to classical fiqh books without understanding the science involved in those positions. In a village or a remote place, this would be the way moon sighting would be practiced, as advanced science is not necessary to the practice of Shariah, but where those sciences are available, they are used, as in advanced cultures or in times such as ours, when millions of people have access to mass communication. Hence, I chose to pray Eid with the community but maintained my fast, as I knew, as far as I was concerned, that it was still Ramadan.

The rule we have is simple: “Leave what gives you doubt for what gives you certainty.” Calculations do not provide certainty that the first day, i.e. the day of doubt, can be determined by calculation. We can know only that the astronomical new moon has been born but not the calendrical new moon. The proof of the inaccuracy of that method is that the Saudis, who commendably are the only people in the world that use the lunar Hijrah calendar in their administrative affairs, due to their unscientific acceptance of sightings deemed impossible by lunar positions, have had to repeat dates (such as the 1st of Muharram two days in a row) over the years because the calculations eventually cause a month to have 31 days, and that inevitably disrupts the lunar calendar. (See "Hilal Sighting in Saudi Arabia: A First Hand Report” by Salman Zafar Shaikh. Most people are oblivious to this fact, but even if they are aware of it simply assume it is not a problem. But imagine the Western world having to have two days that are January 1st because someone miscalculated the calendar!

During a lecture on the problem of calendars, one of my college math professors told our class that the only truly scientific and natural calendar was the Muslim lunar calendar. The Muslim lunar month is a self-correcting system. If people follow it in its natural form, they will never find themselves with two consecutive days being the 1st of Muharram. However, just as people want fast-food, many Muslims want fast-Islam: they want an Islam that fits into their schedules as opposed to a schedule that fits into their Islam. It is also a sign of the sin ofgula so prevalent in our age that people are desirous to end Ramadan as quickly as possible. An Indo-Pakistani I know told me that her grandmother said that people used to cry when Ramadan was ending out of sadness that such a blessed month was coming to a close.

My advice to those who recognize the importance of certainty is that we adhere to naked eye sightings. The sightings could be local, national, or global but must be based upon a multitude of sightings and also must be in accordance with sound science. People’s fast should not be determined by a small number of individuals in one city, especially when science tells us that it was impossible to sight the moon in that place even with the aid of a high-powered telescope, given that it was not visible below the Danjon limit. For those still convinced by calculations, my advice is to read Caesarean Moon Births well or to read Dr. Maghraoui’s paper.

For the average Muslims who are not scholars or students of knowledge, I believe their fasting, based upon the guidance of their leaders, is valid. However, my recommendation for those who went with the sighting reports of Thursday evening and did not fast on Friday is to make up a day. I think the intentions of those who “sighted” the crescent were sincere in their attempt to implement the Sunnah of the Prophet, God’s peace and blessings upon him. Unfortunately, they failed to consider the decisive scientific evidence to the contrary, which according to the masters of our tradition, such as Imam al-Qarafi, nullifies unscientific sightings. In using these modern tools, such as visibility charts, we can eliminate these controversies in the future. Concerning calculations without naked eye sightings, my main concern is with the leadership whom I believe, despite good intentions, have abandoned the Sunnah of the Prophet, God’s peace and blessings on him, on this particular issue, all the while doing so claiming it is based upon modern science. However, modern science itself does not concur! The real issue, I believe, is that people want the convenience of scheduled holidays to facilitate their hectic work schedules. While easing the troubles of Muslims is an important aspect of the Shariah, and the modern world is often highly antagonistic to the practices of Muslims, I think, on this issue, it is a misguided approach.

Those who know me well know that I loathe fitnah and divisiveness, and I detest sectarianism; hence I am appealing to the sincerity of all parties to respect the others despite the positions they may have taken. Muslims are brothers and sisters, and, if we disagree, the Qur’an tells us to revert back to Allah and His Messenger, God’s peace and blessings upon him. Each must do so according to his or her own conscience, but it should be based upon sound knowledge or the following of sound scholarship and a circumspect view of the whole issue, not a piecemeal approach that does not take into consideration the nuances and real problems inherent in this perennial crisis. I sincerely recognize I could be wrong on this issue, but I don’t think I am, and God knows best. I recommend you read well this article written by Youssef Ismail, a thoughtful moon sighting expert of over twenty years, who does not go out merely in Sha’ban but has diligently watched the birth of new moons every month for several years. I pray that Allah raises him among those of whom our Prophet, God’s peace and blessings upon him, said, “The best of God’s servants are those who watch vigilantly for the new moons and observe diligently the shadows as a way of remembering God.”