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Issue of Moon Sighting

Issue of Moon Sighting

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Published by: marmar92 on Aug 13, 2010
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10/25/2012

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 Out of all the symbols that Muslims could have chosen to symbolize the unity of Islam, it is indeed ironicthat they chose the crescent, which for many signifies the greatest manifestation of division amongstMuslims, at least in Western lands!
Yes, it’s that time of the year again when brothers and sisters frantically begin calling family and friends,asking, “What did
Shaykh so-and-
so say?” and
 
“Did they see the moon yet?” and, the single mosteffective question that seals the fate of one’s own fast, “What are
 
YOU
 
going to do?” In this post, I don’twant to go into a detailed tangent regarding which opinion is ‘correct’
or not, but rather lay out some of the issues surrounding the controversy, and offer some practical advice.The precise conditions required to sight a credible
hilaal 
is just one of the many hundreds and thousandsof issues of 
 fiqh
that our scholars have differed over, since the time of the Companions. And, in themulti-
madhab
milieu ofNorth America, we are exposed to many such
 fiqh
differences on a regular basis,to the extent that most of us have come to live with and accept the rich diversity of opinion present inour traditional legal schools of thought. However, what makes the issue of the moon-sighting stand outfrom the usual run-of-the mill
 fiqh
issues is that it affects a joint and communal festival of the Ummah.Other issues, such as whether zakat should be given on jewelry, or whether the
qunut 
be prayedin
witr 
or Fajr, or the finer details of how one prays, do not affect the Ummah as a whole. Typically,
these other differences can be left to one’s individual preference with little or no detrimental effect on
fellow Muslims. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of the date of the two Eids and the beginningof the month of Ramadan, as this difference will affect entire communities, and form fault lines betweentwo neighboring masjids, or even within the worshippers of the same masjid.But why is there such a controversy in the first place? Well, as is typical with such controversies, thereare two primary reasons why such differences exist. Firstly, of the few hadeeths that we have regardingmoon-sighting, various scholars have understood them in different manners, leading to a difference of understanding that manifests itself in contradictory opinions. Secondly, issues arose in later generationsthat the earliest Muslims were not exposed to, hence no explicit, unequivocal ruling exists regardingthem.The classical scholars of Islam were only concerned with a few issues, and their modern counterpartshave added even more issues, apparently just to spice up the whole debate! To elaborate: classical jurists were primarily (but not exclusively) concerned with two issues. Firstly, what is the minimumrequirement for the number of witnesses needed for verifying the beginning and end of Ramadhan?One for the beginning, and two for the end? Or vice versa? Or one for both? Or two for both? Or a large,unspecified quantity? Or, was it different for a clear day versus a cloudy one? Plenty of opinions withinthis issue, and even within one
madhab
it is common to find variant opinions. With regards to this issue,a number of authentic hadeeths appeared to give different rulings, hence scholars had to use theirrespective
usool 
in formulating answers to this question.The second issue that was of major concern to them was: should the Muslims of one province take intoaccount sightings from a different province? Once again, a wide selection of opinions to choose from:
 
each province should follow its sighting only; or only the sightings of the provinces neighboring it; or thesightings of all provinces within one
matla
(i.e., on the same longitudinal plane); or the sightings of allprovinces as long as the news arrived in time. However, unlike the first issue, there exists no clear,unequivocal hadeeth dealing with the subject (albeit some narrations from the Companions exist).Hence scholars had to use analogy (
qiyas
) and other general principles to formulate their respectiveopinions. And once again, we find that even within
madhabs
there is a significant difference of opinionin the finer details of this issue.These two issues are discussed in practically every book of 
 fiqh
. Other issues were not as pressing to thepeople of those times as these two, hence references to them are typically only found in the larger and
more cumbersome commentaries. Such issues include: must one see the crescent from ‘ground’ level,
or is it permissible to climb, say, a tall mountain to see the crescent? Or, what if an instrument, such a
telescope (yes, later Muslims had telescopes), is used, does this count as an ‘acceptable’ sighting? Or,
what if it is a cloudy night, can one refer to astronomical calculations and, based solely on suchcalculations, declare the beginning and end of the month? And more issues besides these, some of which are more relevant to our times than others.In our times, even more issues have surfaced, the most important being: what if someone claims to seea crescent, yet astronomical data clearly tells us that the crescent was not born at that time, and hencecould not have been seen? Should we give precedence to a visual sighting, or claim that such a person ismistaken? Another issue is the determination of the exact degree of the arc of elongation to claim that a
new crescent has been ‘born’: 9 degrees, or 12, or more, or less?
 As can be seen, putting all of the various issues together and calculating out all the possible scenarios, itis easy to extrapolate these differences into hundreds of opinions. The point that I wish to stress here isthat many Muslims simply do not realize the level of complexity surrounding issues of fiqh, including this
one, and woefully bemoan, “Why can’t our scholars just unite on one opinion and save us from
the
hassle of disunity?!” As can be seen, it’s not as simple as that, and indeed it is of the wisdom of Allah
that such a rich diversity exists in fiqh.Thankfully, on a practical level, the issue of moon-sighting never reached a level of complicationinvolving all of the above factors. Rather, a few years ago, the single major issue that split the
community was that of ‘local’ versus ‘international’ sighting (or, to be more precise, ‘local’ versus ‘Saudi’
sighting). Of recent, however, another major opinion has been added to the stew: that of completelyignoring sightings in the first place, and basing the beginning and end of the month
solely 
onastronomical data.As far as I know, no reputable Sunni scholar in our classical (i.e., pre-modern) history has claimed that acommunity could completely ignore visual sighting, and rely unconditionally on astronomical data. Thefiqh details have been hashed out in enough articles, and it is not my intent to repeat them here (forthose who are interested, see some of these articles below
 –
in particular the article by Imam HamzaYusuf, and the one by Shaykh Haytham al-Haddad).

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