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(published on the Zaytuna Institute website)

By Hamza Yusuf


Article Abstract:

This paper will examine the issue of Muslims physically sighting the crescent moon as the basis for beginning the months that constitute their lunar calendar. The argument posed here is especially relevant in the United States and Canada where the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and its allied Fiqh Council of North America are attempting to establish a norm of using calculations as the basis for determining the beginning of the lunar calendar, and the timing of associated devotional acts such as the Fast of Ramadan and the Hajj.

This paper advances several arguments and rebuts others in an effort to prove that the only acceptable basis for determining the lunar month is the actual sighting of the dawning crescent. At the root of the problem is a failure to recognize that the crescent moon?s appearance is a legal cause (sabab) determined by God in the Qur?an and through His Prophet?s words. That being the case, no scholar in the history of Islam has ever permitted calculation in lieu of sighting until the modern era. Moreover, predicting the new moon?s visibility with absolute certainty is impossible, even by modern scientific calculations, as opposed to the degree of certainty that has been attained in predicting the astronomical new moon, which is invisible to the naked-eye. Furthermore, the ability to predict the new moon?s probable appearance has not increased greatly from premodern times. For these reasons, and others discussed in this paper, actual sighting poses difficulties in terms of the scheduling requisites created by a modern industrial or postindustrial society.

I argue that the actual naked-eye sighting is the standard demarcator for establishing the entrance of the Islamic lunar month based on the fact that the Qur?anic verse, They ask you about the crescent moons; say they are a means to measure your specific times and are also for the commencement of the Hajj (2:189), can only be interpreted literally. This conclusion ensues because the verse is decisive in its evidentiary nature and unequivocal in meaning. As far as the fast of Ramadan, it is only validly begun on the basis of affirming the entrance of the month by sighting the crescent moon. I will present the textual and linguistic evidence to substantiate this position. In the eventuality of an obscure horizon on the twenty-ninth day of the month, the overwhelming majority of scholars argue that the month should be completed by fasting a thirtieth day. There are a few divergent opinions from this ruling. However, they do not establish the basis for standardizing a lunar calendar based on calculations, as I will show.

I will also establish that observational astronomy has advanced little during the last 2000 years. Premodern people had extensive knowledge of the calculations needed to make advanced calendars, predict eclipses, and ascertain with certainty the births of new moons based upon separation after the point of lunisolar conjunction. The Arabs in the pre-Islamic period, during the prophetic epoch, and thereafter made both lunar and solar calendars. The Arabs were using a sometimes calculated and intercalated lunar calendar in the pre-Islamic period, until its abolition by the Prophet, peace and blessings of God be upon him, who replaced it with a calendar based on actual sighting. Hence, I argue that, far from being an advancement, moving to a calculated lunar calendar is a reversion to pre-Islamic (jahili) custom. Similarly, I will show how the Jews also used a lunar calendar based on actual sighting until political developments forced its abandonment.

In addition to advancing proofs showing that none of our scholars advocated standardizing the determination of the beginning of the lunar months based on calculations, I will show how the opinion of Ibn Daqiq al-?Id has been misrepresented by the advocates of such calculations. This section of the paper will also present the brilliant explanation of Imam al-Qarafi for the divergent methodologies in establishing prayer times by calculations and the beginning of the lunar months by actual naked-eye sighting. In this section of the paper, I will advance the methodological proofs that demonstrate the flaws in Ahmad Shakir?s argument, which posits that the end of widespread illiteracy and innumeracy in the Muslim community lead to ending a reliance on actual crescent sighting to establish the entrance of the lunar months. I conclude my argument by presenting the opinion of the four Sunni schools and the Ja?fari Shia school that the norm for establishing the beginning of the lunar month is the actual naked-eye sighting.

I have endeavored in this paper to adhere to the highest standards of Islamic scholarly discourse. Although my conclusion on the issue under discussion differs from that of the scholars whose works and opinions have informed ISNA?s decision, I retain my respect for them and their accomplishments. I also recognize their sincere efforts in facilitating acts of worship for the Muslims, which is a noble endeavor. We should understand that a lack of uniformity in our opinions around this issue should not affect our overall unity. At the end of this paper, I present a series of policy prescriptions that should help us to move forward constructively.

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