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20th December 1998

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Ramadhan: That all important sighting

By Ahmed Sha

There has been and continues to be much debate between scholars on the sighting of the moon before the start and end of the Ramadhan fast. The differences are mainly concerned with the need to sight the moon in every city, or country, or whether Muslims in one country can rely on the sighting of the moon in another country or city. It is often the case that within the same city, you find people fasting while others are celebrating the Eid. Why do we not have a standard which may be applied to all countries?

Yes, in fact there is certainly a standard and criteria to apply to determine the date of fasting and other Islamic dates. But people read these differently, often missing the purpose of these criteria and putting themselves in unnecessary difficulty. For example, the Prophet says: "We are an un-lettered community, which does not write or do calculations. Therefore, fast when you sight it (the moon) and end your fasting when you sight it. Should you be prevented sighting it by clouds, then complete the month (to 30 days)." This is an authentic Hadith, but it starts with a preamble which says: "We are an un-lettered community".

The Prophet has given us a method to find out the beginnings of new months which does not rely on calculations, when the Muslim community had not acquired much knowledge. But this characteristic was not meant to be permanent. In a different version, the Prophet instructs us in the case of an overcast sky to "make an enlightened estimation."

This is the criterion which is simple and applicable in all situations. It is clear that the sighting of the moon is intended only as a mark which is available to all people, in all ages, regardless of their standard of learning or advancement. There is no special virtue given to the new moon, or to its sighting. It is only a convenient marking. When Muslims were uneducated and had little learning, they had to rely on the actual sighting with the naked eye. Hence the need for a back-up measure in the case of an overcast sky. If we consider the Hadith carefully, we do not find in it anything that gives any virtue to the state of an "un-lettered community" or any wish to make it permanent. Nor does it give the sighting with the naked eye any sanctity to make it applicable in all situations, regardless of the availability of more accurate methods.

Hence, when the Muslim community has attained a standard of learning which enables it to calculate and rely on accurate scientific methods, it must resort to these. In fact we do this every day, in all communities, when we determine the timing of each prayer throughout the year. We have timetables which tell us the exact time of each prayer for the whole year, and the same timetable could be used for many years to come.

In Ramadhan we rely on these calculations to begin the day of fasting and to finish our fast. None of us tries to sight the markings on the horizon for beginning and ending the fast. Why should we not rely on the same methods for determining whether the new moon is born and can be sighted or not? The sighting of the new moon is not a part of the worship of fasting. It is only a mark signalling its beginning and end. We seem to give it a much greater position than that.

Scholars have ruled over four centuries ago that the calculation of the timing of the birth of the new moon and its presence in the sky after sunset the night before Ramadhan starts is more accurate and solid evidence than relying on its sighting with the naked eye. The latter is considered 'probable' evidence, while the calculation according to the rules of astronomy is "firm" evidence. That is the procedure we Muslims should adopt. Because we refuse to adopt this accurate method, we remain immersed in disputes over something which should be very easy to deal with and settle. This is a sad state of affairs, and we hope that our top scholars will find a way to agree on a formula to bring all such disputes to an end. It is their duty to do so. Islam is a religion which unites, and does not cause divisions. It is Muslims who have been ignorantly causing such divisions.

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