Moon Sighting Is Obsolete: Lunar Month Starts Should Be By Astronomical Conjunction

For this year's Eid Al-Fitr 1440 A.H. (2019 C.E.), the Muslim world had some countries, as well as some masjids in the West, ending the Ramadan fast on Tuesday. In Kitchener/Waterloo, we had the Kitchener mosque, following astronomical calculations, end the fast on Monday, while the Waterloo Masjid, following sighting, ended it on Tuesday.

Seeing the Unseeable

The problem here is that it was astronomically impossible to sight the new moon on Monday, since it is not illuminated at all.

Here is Monday June 3rd at sunset, in Riyadh Saudi Arabia. The moon's altitude is 0d33' (~ 0.6 degree) above the horizon, is too close to the sun to be seen, and there is no crescent to be seen (illumination is only 0.1%). One degree is approximately your pinky finger's width, when your hand is fully extended!

And here is Tuesday June 4th at sunset. Now the illuminated fraction is 1.7% (you can see a faint crescent) and it is 12d36' above the horizon, and it is considerably moved away from the sun, as it does every day.

You can verify this data for yourself by downloading Stellarium, a free planetarium software. There are also several phone apps, including Lunar Phase for Android.

A Saudi astronomer stated the obvious, that the moon could not be seen on Monday.

Despite all this, the crescent moon was sighted magically by people with supposed superman vision, in Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi courts blindly took it as fact, declaring that Eid is on Tuesday!

The debate about when a lunar month starts in the Islamic calendar is an old and recurring one. It has happened several times during the last several decades, early in the 20th century, and even back in the 1300's C.E, as I will detail below.

Politics and sectarianism also plays a role: in the same country, the Shia and Sunni sects would have Eid on different days intentionally. Even the BBC chronicled such a divide this year in Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere.

Here are some quotes from the book الادلة في اثبات الاهلة by Taqi Al-Din Al-Subki, a renown Shafii scholar who died in 1355 C.E.

The booklet was published by Samira Dawood Al-Ani, in a critical edition, and can be downloaded from here.

The reason he wrote this booklet is that in 1348 C.E. (= 748 A.H., that is 671 years ago!) when the crescent of Dhul Hijjah, the last month of the Hijri year was being sighted, it could not be seen according to astronomers, and was not seen in the Levant or Egypt, yet some people claimed they have seen it. As a judge, he refused to declare that the moon was sighted, and that the following day is end of Dhu Al-Qe'da.

سبب كتابة هذه الدراسة
ص 95
فقد وقع في هذا الشهر و هو ذي الحجة سنة ثمان و اربعين و سبع مئة مسألة تحتاج الى النظر فيها ... و الذي وقع انه تراءى الناس الهلال ليلة الاحد فلم يروه مع كثرتهم و طلوعهم على المنارة في دمشق، و اخبر جماعة ممن يوثق بمعرفتهم: بان رؤيته تلك الليلة غير ممكنة في العادة، فلما كان في ثامن يوم جاء اثنان او اكثر قليلا شهدوا برؤيته ليلة الاحد و هم ليسو بارزي العدالة، لكن زُكوا مع اطباق البلاد - مصر و غزة و القدس و سائر الشام و طرابلس و صفد و حمص و بعلبك و حماة - على انهم لم يروه الا ليلة الاثنين، و اخبر جماعة ممن رآه ليلة الاثنين انه لم يمكث كثيرا و غاب قبل العشاء من ليلة الاثنين

ص 150
كان الداعي الى كتابة هذه الكراسة تكرار امثال هذه الواقعة في سنين كثيرة و فحشت في هذه السنة جدا فامتنعت من تنفيذها ثم جاء الخبر من الديار المصرية و جميع البلاد الشامية بانهم عيدوا خلاف ما عيدوا في دمشق ... ذي الحجة سنة ثمان و اربعين و سبع مائة بالعادلية بدمشق

Although he uses the traditional method of actual sighting of the crescent, he also recommends that a judge learn the limitations on the sighting of the crescent moon for himself, rather than relying on others to advise him.

ص 118
فصل
من المقدمات التي يحتاج الى معرفتها: تسيير منازل الشمس و القمر و قربه و بعده منها و قدر ارتفاعه عن الافق و قدر النور في جرمه و قدر مكثه بعد غيبوبة الشمس الى ان يغيب و يسمى كل واحد من هذه الثلاثة قوسا، و قالوا: اذا كان قوس الرؤية ست درج و قوس النور تسع درج و قوس المكث تسع درج امتنعت رؤيته، و ان زاد كل من الثلاثة درجة امكن بعسر، و كذلك اذا زاد اثنان دون الثالث، و كلما حصلت الزيادة قوي الامكان و يحتاج ايضا الى النظر في صفاء الجو و كدرته و كون الهلال من جهة الشمال او الجنوب و اختلاف مطالعه و مطالع البروج و مغاربها، و الاولى للقاضي ان يمارس ذلك ليعرفه من غير تقليد، فإن لم يعرف قلد من يعرفه

And imposes some limits that if astronomers say that the crescent could not be sighted, then any testimony claiming that it was has to be rejected, contrary to what Saudi Arabian courts did 2 days ago. Moreover,

ص 105
فصل
من اقوى الاسباب الموجبة للريبة: اخبار من يوثق به علما و دينا من اهل الحساب و علم الهيئة: ان الهلال لا يُرى، و من مارس هذا العلم عرف ان اهله يدركون ذلك لا محالة، غير انه على مراتب:
منها ما يقطع فيه باستحالة الرؤية
و منها ما يحتمل الرؤية احتمالا بعيدا
و منها ما يحتمل احتمالا قريبا
و منها ما يكون امكان الرؤية فيه راجحا
و منها ما يكون الامكان جليا واضحا
و نعني الاستحالة هنا: الاستحالة العادية لان الامكان العقلي موجود، و انما المستحيل عادة كالمستحيل عقلا في ذلك، و متى حُكم باستحالة الرؤية امتنع قبول الشهادة بها

And also quotes astronomers with the length of the lunar year, and that it either has 7 months of 30 days and 5 months of 29 days, or 6 months of each. So, if a year already has 7 months of 30 days, the 8th and subsequent months could not be anything other than 29 days each, and any testimony of sighting contrary to this has to be rejected.

ص 149
السنة القمرية ثلاث مئة و اربعة و خمسون يوما و خمس و سدس، و بمقتضى هذا يكون في كل سنة سبعة كوامل و خمسة نواقص او ستة كوامل و ستة نواقص، فلا تزيد الكوامل على سبعة، فلو اكملنا سبعة اشهر في السنة ثم غم علينا في الثامن، ان اكملناه خالفنا الحساب (هذا امر مقطوع به في علم الهيئة و ليس في الشرع ما يرده)، و قد لا يجسر الفقيه يحكم بالنقص لا سيما اذا لم يكن عنده حساب خاص بل مجرد هذه القاعدة و تقدم اكمال تلك الشهور، و لكن هذا فرض نادر فلذلك ما اشتغال فقهاء به

Lunar Months Should Be Calculated Only and By Conjunction

Now that we have shown that Eid Al-Fitr for 1440/2019 was wrong in many countries, I like to go further and avoid the reason for all this dilemma: sighting should be obsolete, specially in this day and age of technology. Astronomical calculations should be the sole method for determining the start of lunar months.

This will not only avoid the above dilemmas, but also allow for a predictable calendar to be published in advance.

And I am not making this stuff up ...

More than 80 years ago, an Egyptian scholar, and judge, Ahmed Shaker, wrote a short booklet (30 pages) about the matter, and whether to abandon the sighting of the moon for astronomical calculations. He too, like Al-Subki in 1348 C.E. was writing because of discrepancies in sighting across Muslim nations.

The summary is that he advocates for crescent sighting to be abandoned, because it was recommended when the nation was mostly made of nomadic people who are illiterate and can't calculate the time of the new moon. So it was easier to just sight it.

But later Muslims became very proficient in astronomy and excelled in it. They even measured the circumference of the earth, translated scientific books from Greek, and added their own observations and calculations in many Zijs (astronomical treatise and tables), and that legacy is with us today in the Arabic names of bright stars. I gave several talks at the local astronomy club on the topic. Check it here and here.

Shaker says that consequently, we should use calculation alone, and the moment of conjunction (Moon adjacent to the Sun). This is the same as we deal with the five daily prayer times, and how they are calculated (and not dependent on viewing the sun rising or setting, shadows or transiting the meridian). This used to be printed in calendars. He also says that 'possibility of sight' should not be considered either. Just that the moon has overtook the Sun.

He also says that communication has been revolutionized by the telegraph, telephone and radio, and therefore one city/village can know what others have decided by calculation.

Now 80 years after he wrote his booklet, we all have powerful computers in our pockets that show when the new moon is, just like we have apps that show the time for prayer. For the daily prayers, no one visually observes the astronomical phenomenon anymore:

  • Dawn on the eastern horizon
  • Actual sunrise
  • Transit of the sun using a sundial or stick shadow
  • Length of the shadows
  • Sunset below the horizon
  • End of twilight

Even in pre-modern times, there were contingency measures for when there is clouds that forbid the observation of such phenomenon, so calculations were necessary, even approximately, using an astrolabe.

If using astronomical calculations or phone apps is acceptable for daily prayers, then why not the conjunction of the moon? And even more: why does one pillar of Islam (Fasting) has one part by sighting of the moon, yet starting and breaking the fast is done using these modern day devices that are based on astronomical calculations? Isn't that a contradiction?

And astronomical calculations are accurate. How accurate? Accurate enough for the Hayabusa 2 spacecraft to chase an asteroid that is as far away or further than the sun, and land on it. And Accurate enough to send vehicles to the moon or Mars, without missing either.

We also have the internet to relay information to anyone with a phone.

You can read the original treatise here: أوائل الشهور العربية هل يجوز شرعاً إثباتها بالحساب الفلكي

Biography of Ahmed Shaker: أحمد محمد شاكر

And Shaker is not alone. There is also Al-Qaradawi advocating for astronomical conjunction back in 2005:
القرضاوي يرجح الحساب الفلكي

And Adnan Qadi الأهلة، نظرة شمولية و دراسات فلكية, also here, where he detailed many errors in witness vs. possibility of viewing. And a short video by him on a section of his book, relating to wrong sighting over many decades in Saudi Arabia.

There is also a book by Mostafa Abdel-Baset Ahmed advocating abandoning the sighting of the crescent in favour of astronomical conjunction: تحديد أوائل الشهور القمرية.. رؤية علمية شرعية

Further Reading

So the final though is: will the Muslims ever finally catch on to the 20th century (let alone the 21st?)

Contents: 

Comments

Moon Sighting

To answer your question: No. We will stick with the "illiterate" of the past and follow the tradition. I find it wonderful that in today's day and age we have astronomical knowledge that we can put to use in making it easier for us in finding the moon, but not letting the astronomical knowledge tell us when the first of month should begin. For two reasons it is very important: 1. Following the Sunnah of the Prophet (PBUH). The moon had to be sighted with the eye on the 29th of any month in order for it to be the first of the month the next day. Otherwise, it would be considered a month of 30 days. i.e. if there is a moon (according to astronomical knowledge) on the 29th but cannot be visible to the eye (due to clouds or other reasons) will we consider the next day to be the beginning of the month? No. Because the moon has to be visible to the eye. So in such a scenario it will be a 30 day month. 2. Astronomical calculations can be used only if the astronomers agree that the first of the month will start after the moon has been sighted the previous night or could be visible and not when the moon conjunction occurs (although that would be helpful to know). And if and when that dispute could find a common ground is hard to say. Even in Qur'an it says - people are meant to fast when they sight the moon not when the moon conjunction happens. So even if Eid-ul-Fitr was celebrated on the wrong day in 2019, people are still not comfortable with relying solely on technology. A common ground has to be found between the two. We cannot just let the technology do all the work for us. No matter what, at the end of each month we got to go on the field and find that moon. Better we find reliable people to do the job.

Please explain ...

Please explain why the traditionalists contradict themselves: they 'follow tradition', by actual sighting of the crescent, when it comes to finding out which day Ramadan starts on, yet they have no issue using technological methods when actually breaking the fast on every day of Ramadan. They have no issue using a printed calendar, or a phone app to know what the time of sunset is, as well as dawn).

Specifically, why do they ignore the hadiths (in Sahih Muslim and elsewhere) of the timing for each prayer, and that Dhuhr is when the sun is at its highest point in the sky for the day, and Maghrib is when the sun sets. Today, no one goes out to checks where the sun is or is it beneath the horizon. We rely on astronomical calculations for these, and with modern technology, we have apps.

Even in centuries past, what would happen when there are clouds and the sun is not visible when crossing the meridian, or on sunset? Only calculations were used, via astrolabes or algebraic equations.

Why is clinging to a hadith paramount in one case, but not in the other?

So why not take that a step forward, and use what some scholars said centuries ago about conjunction and be done with it?

Simply put: Time :) We did

Simply put: Time :) We did not have the structure and organization of time then as we do now. There was no such thing as a watch back then.

Nevertheless, I’m trying to answer your question to the best of my knowledge. I’m not an Islamic scholar so my level of knowledge is of course limited.

To answer your question why digital time is used to make prayers/breaking fast: Digital time is used because it provides us a reasonable window for performing prayers. I’m certainly not against science nor completely against astrological knowledge. Like you have said, it is the astronomical knowledge which has allowed us to be able to precisely calculate the prayer times. That is true. However, let’s not forget there is no exact time for a certain prayer to be performed. There is always a window of time for each prayer. So although astronomical knowledge is good for predicting that Fajr happens at a certain time, let’s not forget there is a 15-20 mins time period during which we can perform our prayers. Same goes for the other prayers. My point is: even if the prayer time were inaccurate by a few minutes it wouldn’t make that much of a difference. In fact, many apps have a difference of a few minutes in the timings in which they differ. What we need to be careful of is the time during which we cannot perform prayers. Estimates of prayer time can be made without the use of a time log, but since we live our lives according to a digital system that is what we have revolved our lives around. Within our busy time of work that same time has to tell us when to take a pause to make our prayers. Same goes for the fast. There is no exact time for breaking your fast as long as it is immediately after sunset. If my digital time is telling me it is time to break my fast when it’s 20 due to sunset, of course I’m going to think something is wrong with my app. You don’t blindly follow an app and do as it says, but use it as a guide to help you fulfill your purpose of need. So the reason why there hasn’t been an issue using printed calendars or phone apps for dawn and sunset is because it has aligned with our logical reasoning that yes - it seems to be accurate in regards to those given times. The calendar and the apps itself might be a few minutes off but that is a small difference.

“Specifically, why do they ignore the hadiths (in Sahih Muslim and elsewhere) of the timing for each prayer, and that Dhuhr is when the sun is at its highest point in the sky for the day, and Maghrib is when the sun sets” I do not understand how that could be true when these apps are designed based on the principle of hadiths (so I believe). I do not know how the digital world of prayer came around to be, but we have trusted our leaders and have hoped that they have allowed the digital system to work according to the hadiths. So when the app tells me it’s time for Dhuhr then most certainly my assumption is that the sun has/is at its highest point in the sky for that particular day.

“So why not take that a step forward, and use what some scholars said centuries ago about conjunction and be done with it?” Simply because the word of Scholars does not overrule the command of Allah? It is stated in Surah Al-Baqarah verse 185: “The month of Ramadan [is that] in which was revealed the Qur’an, a guidance for the people and clear proofs of guidance and criterion. So whoever *sights* the (new moon of the month), let him fast it.” It is clear to me that the command is simple. It is to *sight the moon*. And I’m hoping through the visible eye.

Again, missing it all ...

Again, you did not understand what the issue is, and therefore your arguments are illogical.

Specifically, why do they ignore the hadiths (in Sahih Muslim and elsewhere) of the timing for each prayer, and that Dhuhr is when the sun is at its highest point in the sky for the day, and Maghrib is when the sun sets

I do not understand how that could be true when these apps are designed based on the principle of hadiths (so I believe). I do not know how the digital world of prayer came around to be, but we have trusted our leaders and have hoped that they have allowed the digital system to work according to the hadiths. So when the app tells me it’s time for Dhuhr then most certainly my assumption is that the sun has/is at its highest point in the sky for that particular day.

The apps use the rules in the hadith to know the timings of prayers (and start and end of the daily fasting). The point is that with the astrolabe, calendar, program or app, there is no need to actually observe the sun crossing the meridian, or setting, or any of the other astronomical phenomenon.

Why then, do you forego the actual observation in lieu of calculation for sunset and noon, but insist of actual sighting for the start of the month?

So why not take that a step forward, and use what some scholars said centuries ago about conjunction and be done with it?

Simply because the word of Scholars does not overrule the command of Allah? It is stated in Surah Al-Baqarah verse 185: “The month of Ramadan [is that] in which was revealed the Qur’an, a guidance for the people and clear proofs of guidance and criterion. So whoever *sights* the (new moon of the month), let him fast it.” It is clear to me that the command is simple. It is to *sight the moon*. And I’m hoping through the visible eye.

It was scholars who said calculation can be used for prayer times (and daily fasting times), wasn't it? So why is it okay in such an instance and not in the start of a lunar month?

And you don't know Arabic at all, do you?

The word شهد does not mean sight, at all. It means "be present", which either means : not traveling, hence exempt, or adult, sane, not sick, hence need to fast. See Al-Tabari's Tafisr for example. If it had meant "sight", then it implies that those who did not sight the moon are not obliged to fast. And simply I would not go outside, and therefore I am exempt. Simply absurd.

Shaarrul or qamar Ramadhan??

I agree with Khalid..on 2:285 it's say; ."..month of Ramadhan... " Not "...MOON of Ramadhan..." or "...NEW MOON of Ramadhan...". It's mean check your calendar (month) and NOT see a moon or new moon in the sky.

Camel Caravan anyone?

The prophet and his companions only used camels and other beasts for travel and trade?

Why are we using cars and airplanes now? Isn't it Sunnah to do what the prophet did?

Oh, they say we can use modern technology? So why not in moon sighting then?