The politics of moon sighting

Muslims are divided on the issue of moon sighting

With Ramadan starting this weekend, there is no doubt that Muslims in Britain and elsewhere will be divided on the sighting of the moon and therefore will begin and end their fast on different days. Hanny Anwar argues that the fiqh of moon sighting should be given more importance than political considerations. 

Moon sighting is a subject that encapsulates the current struggle that exists for those following Islam around the world. It becomes most relevant at the start and end of Ramadan each year.

Fasting the month of Ramadan is an act of worship and is not in origin a political matter or one directly related to the practical systems of Islam. In spite of this it has become central to a debate concerning the application of the Shariah rules.

There is a temptation to reduce this discussion to one about the judicial understanding (fiqh) of moon sighting and the strengths and weakness of the various opinions regarding it.

Understanding the fiqh of this subject is important as it is the attempt of the believer to know the rule of Allah (swt) on a matter so that he or she can appropriately apply it and worship Allah (swt) in the best possible way. However, it fails to address the context in which the question is posed which is actually the matter that should be discussed.

Division

In the 21st century, Muslims are divided as to when Ramadan starts and when it finishes and this typically results in division along political lines. Some show trust in this matter to Saudi Arabia, some to their national mufti or government, some to their local mosque and others to their own calculations.

These differences are on the face of it based on simple juristic difference but on closer scrutiny are largely political in nature, driven by a faction’s view of politics and the ramifications of those views.

We should, nevertheless summarise the relevant fiqh. Fasting Ramadan begins with the sighting of the moon. The reason to begin fasting is seeing the moon. The Prophet (saw) said: “Fast when you see it (the moon) and cease fasting when you see it, and if it is hidden or cloudy, complete counting of Sha’ban as thirty days. “ (Narrated by Abu Hurayrah in Bukhari and Muslim).

There are many similar evidences that confirm this. Ibn Abbas (ra) reported “A bedouin came to the Prophet and said, ‘I have seen the crescent tonight.’ The Prophet said,  ‘Do you bear witness that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah?’ He said ‘Yes.’ The Prophet said, ‘Bilaal! Announce to the people that they should fast tomorrow.”

The reason for fasting therefore is the sighting of the moon and this is independent of whether that person is from your local area or not. So the stronger opinion is that Ramadan should be announced for all Muslims once there has been a single reliable report of moon sighting.

Astronomical calculations

The advocates of calculations argue that they are more accurate than the physical sighting of the moon. That is true if one wishes to determine the astronomical new moon. Modern calculation methods can predict the exact location of the moon at all times.

Therefore, it is correct to say that if astronomical calculation determines that on a particular night the moon cannot be visible at a particular location, sightings from that location cannot be accepted.

Those who advocate calculations surmise that the “spirit” of the text indicates that accuracy is the objective of moon sighting. Therefore, the most accurate and reliable way to know of the advent of the new moon is through calculation. They argue that the evidences are not to be taken literally.

On a larger scale, this is an argument that seeks to “modernise” Islam by defining the Shariah according to its overall objectives rather than literal meanings. This mirrors the path of other religions, most notably Christianity, which now preaches the importance of the spirit rather than the literal meaning of their holy texts.

At length in that religion, the spirit of the text has radically changed the practice of Christianity in Europe to be one that adapts itself to secular society.

Regional moon sighting

Those who advocate that sightings should be on a regional basis actually mean a national basis.

In 2010 the majority of countries that fasted on Wednesday 11 August declared that the moon had been sighted based upon the declaration by Saudi Arabia. This was not regional as Canada fasted but Iran did not.

Some also fasted Wednesday based upon the calculation method. No moon sightings were reported on the Tuesday anywhere in the world except for Nigeria, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia which by calculations, should not have been possible.

Those countries that started fasting on Thursday were either based on local moon sightings or the completion of 30 days of Sha’ban. To complicate matters further, many Western countries had some factions starting on Wednesday with Saudi Arabia and some on Thursday based on a local moon sighting.

Unity

The current confusion is not due to intentional disunity. We should remember that the majority of Muslim countries are united within their borders and the debate mainly exists in the West where the debate becomes manifest.

Part of the wisdom of the communal acts of worship in Islam such as fasting, Hajj or Jummah salat is the reminder it provides of the unity and basic equality of all Muslims.

Somehow, it has paradoxically become a source of division and this is one of the ways in which Shaitan tries to corrupt virtuous acts. May Allah (swt) accept our fasting this Ramadan.

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