Issues in Moon Sighting, Part 1

by S. Harbi, U of U student, Vice President MSA

هُوَ الَّذِي جَعَلَ الشَّمْسَ ضِيَاءً وَالْقَمَرَ نُورًا وَقَدَّرَهُ مَنَازِلَ لِتَعْلَمُوا عَدَدَ السِّنِينَ وَالْحِسَابَ مَا خَلَقَ اللَّهُ ذَلِكَ إِلَّا بِالْحَقِّ يُفَصِّلُ الْآيَاتِ لِقَوْمٍ يَعْلَمُونَ

[يونس 5 ]

It is He who made the sun to be a shining glory and the moon to be a light (of beauty), and measured out stages for it; that you may know the number of years and the count (of time). Allah has not created this but in truth. (Thus) does He explain His signs in detail, for those who understand. (10:5)

Glory be to Allah (SWT) who has made Islam an easy and accommodating religion for all of us. A conflict arises in many Muslim communities around the world. The debate has been over what methodology to utilize when determining the sight of the new Moon to begin the holy month of Ramdaan. Moon-sighting has been a controversial topic that has been clouded over by sheer ignorance. There are various factors that many Muslims utilize to seal the fate of their fast. Inshallah in this paper I will attempt to go over three of the main aspects:

  1. Astronomical calculations
  2. “Whatever the Sheikh of Saudi-Sudan-Pakistan-Indonesia-pick the country of your choice-says”
  3. Unification with other Muslim communities

Bukhari reported on the authority of [Abdullah] Ibn Omar, radi’allahuanhum, who said that the Prophet sallahu alayhi wa salaam, said on the day of the [battle of] Alliances: “No one should pray asr except in the [territories] of Banu Qurayzah.” Some were still on the road at the asr time and said: “we will not pray asr until we reach it [Banu Qurayzah]. Others said: “we will indeed pray; this is not what was intended.” The Prophet Sallahu alayhi wa salaam was informed about [the disagreement], and he did not rebuke any of them.

Three important observations must be highlighted from that hadith

  1. Some of the sahabis took the Prophet’s words literally did not perform Asr salah until reaching Banu Qurayzah
  2. Some of the sahabis did perform Asr salah while on the road.
  3. and lastly the Prophet Sallahu alayhi wa salaam approved the actions of both groups. He did not point out who was right and who was wrong

Now from those three observations we can now conclude that the Prophet Sallahu alayhi wa salaam approved the actions of both, signaling that differences in opinion are abound to arise, and that the ijtihad of one group does not invalidate that of another.

I do not plan on going into detail in which opinion is correct and which is not, but rather weigh each opinion to give each their fair due, and also to provide a practical resolution Inshallah.

Contention 1: Astronomical calculations

We live in the day and age where science has surpassed its own heights.

The debate over the determination of the birth of the new crescent (Hilal) has taken a new priority in North America after the Fiqh Council of North America (FCNA) announced, in August 2006(still going on today), its new ruling (fatwa) on the use of calculation for establishing the beginning of the Islamic lunar month(1). The ruling established for the first time in recent history astronomical calculations as the sole criteria for deciding the birth of the new crescent.

With this new fad of utilizing astronomical calculations many questions arise. The greatest question of all is Does this method provide the highest degree of certainty compared to other methods?

When naval scientist attempt to answer that given question they use four basic factors to determine the beginning lunar month: Complexity of the movement of the moon, Size and brightness of the lunar crescent, Sky conditions, and the observers situation and conditions.

1. The complexity of the movement of the moon in relation to both the earth and the sun, and the degree of precision of the mathematical formula used to calculate the moment of conjecture;

2. The size and brightness of the lunar crescent, which depends on the apparent angular distance between the centers of the moon and the Sun. This distance is what astronomers call the elongation of the moon from the Sun.

3.  Sky conditions, including air density and humidity, the presence of objects in the sky that obscure the young crescent. In recent times, the increase in the level of air pollutants, particularly around cities, has impacted negatively sky conditions.

4. The observer’s situation and conditions, including location, experience, and preparation. An observer who is located at low latitude and high altitude, and who knows where and when to look for the waxing crescent has a better chance of observing the new Moon.

Astronomical knowledge, have improved greatly over the last two centuries. Today, astronomers can calculate with great precision the date and time of conjuncture, i.e. the birth of the new Moon.(2) Now we see why FCNA is wooed by Astronomical calculations. But what is it that makes other Sheikhs go against it?

Contention2: Astronomical Calculations does not provide reliability

(to be continued…)

Admin note: As a means for encouraging our youth to be active in all ways that suit their skills and interests, we will be hosting Guest Contributions from long-standing readers. Given that these are articles not written by the Imaam or the admin team, we cannot vouch for the authenticity of all that is written; we do make every effort, however, to ensure that the content is in keeping with general outlook of traditional Sunni norms. So, any questions that arise from Guest Contributed-articles should definitely be directed to a scholar that you trust.

3 responses to “Issues in Moon Sighting, Part 1

  1. Assalaamualaikum

    Two small issues with an otherwise excellent article:
    a) It’s practically non-existent for Indo-Paks to want to follow moon-sighting according to what the Sheikhs of India or Pakistan rule. When Indo-Paks want to deviate from the Hadith-oriented moon-sighting arguments, they lean towards “what the Sheikhs in Saudi and/or ISNA say.” And nobody in the rest of the non-IndoPak community would remotely think to ask “what the Sheikhs of India or Pakistan say” on this or any other issue. I imagine the author wants to be egalitarian in painting all Muslims with the same brush, but he/she needs to pick a different color for Indo-Paks on this issue–better to be accurate than politically correct.

    b) One important main aspect needs to be considered for this to be deemed a comprehensive article: the fourth aspect of following moon-sighting according to the Hadith and Sunnah and thus discarding the artificial and divisive constructs of the other three main aspects to this issue.

    Hoping to read more, inshallah.


  2. I looked into Fiqh Counsil of North America. After reviewing their profiles the question come to mind – Are they allowed Eligible to give Fatwa?

  3. worried mother

    As-salaam-alaikum. I would just like to comment to Muslims who want to go with solely astronomical means of moon sighting and thereby make it convenient by designating our Ramadan and our Eid holidays in advance. I want to ask them to consider that if they believe that the Quran was a forward thinking Holy Book that is to be valid in days of the past during The Prophet’s (peace be upon him) time and in the current times as well, then would it not be logical to also indicate that Allah (swt) would have indicated that if there were better means in the future through science that we should utilize those means? After all, so many things were indicated so far in the future in The Holy Quran and Allah (swt) would have anticipated so many things that would have been discovered in science since Muslims were leaders of Science, Math, Astronomy, etc. There was a purpose for us to sight the moon ourselves, we need to accept and follow this. All of the calculations for sightings are precise as indicated in one of the other comments, hadith supports this thought, so let’s not keep discussing things in regards to Saudi Arabia versus Indo-Pak. Allegiance to a country or land is not important compared to Hadith.