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Out of all the symbols that Muslims could have chosen to symbolize the unity of Islam, it is indeed ironic

that they chose the crescent, which for many signifies the greatest manifestation of division amongst
Muslims, 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 most
effective question that seals the fate of one’s own fast, “What are YOU going to do?” In this post, I don’t
want 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 thousands
of issues of fiqh that our scholars have differed over, since the time of the Companions. And, in the
multi-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 in
our traditional legal schools of thought. However, what makes the issue of the moon-sighting stand out
from 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 prayed
in 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 beginning
of the month of Ramadan, as this difference will affect entire communities, and form fault lines between
two 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, there
are two primary reasons why such differences exist. Firstly, of the few hadeeths that we have regarding
moon-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 generations
that the earliest Muslims were not exposed to, hence no explicit, unequivocal ruling exists regarding
them.

The classical scholars of Islam were only concerned with a few issues, and their modern counterparts
have 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 minimum
requirement 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 within
this 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 their
respective 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 into
account 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 the
sightings of all provinces within one matla (i.e., on the same longitudinal plane); or the sightings of all
provinces 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 respective
opinions. And once again, we find that even within madhabs there is a significant difference of opinion
in the finer details of this issue.

These two issues are discussed in practically every book of fiqh. Other issues were not as pressing to the
people 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 such
calculations, 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 see
a crescent, yet astronomical data clearly tells us that the crescent was not born at that time, and hence
could not have been seen? Should we give precedence to a visual sighting, or claim that such a person is
mistaken? 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, it
is easy to extrapolate these differences into hundreds of opinions. The point that I wish to stress here is
that 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 complication
involving 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 completely
ignoring sightings in the first place, and basing the beginning and end of the month solely on
astronomical data.

As far as I know, no reputable Sunni scholar in our classical (i.e., pre-modern) history has claimed that a
community could completely ignore visual sighting, and rely unconditionally on astronomical data. The
fiqh details have been hashed out in enough articles, and it is not my intent to repeat them here (for
those who are interested, see some of these articles below – in particular the article by Imam Hamza
Yusuf, and the one by Shaykh Haytham al-Haddad).
In any case, the decision to follow calculations has been taken by a very large and reputable national
body, and the decision to follow a national, visual sighting has been taken by other reputable
institutions. Added to this, there are still communities who wish to follow an ‘international’ (i.e,. Saudi)
sighting, and there are even those who will only follow a sighting that occurs within their own city.
Facing a myriad of options, it is the average Muslim who is left with the confusion of having to make up
his or her mind and figure out what exactly to do.

Some words of advice:

Firstly, just for the record, in my humble opinion the strongest fiqh position, independent of other
factors (see below), seems to be that we should follow a visual sighting within North America. If one
trustworthy Muslim physically sees the moon, and it was seen at a time when we know from
astronomical data that it was born and possible to see, then such a sighting should be accepted for all
Muslims of this continent.

Secondly, this opinion is just at a theoretical level. At a practical level, it is essential that one looks at the
situation of the community, and keep the best interests of the community in mind. So, if one is in a
position of authority and respect, and his decision will have an impact on the community, then and only
then should he research the various opinions and come to a conclusion that he will feel comfortable
with asking others to follow, whatever that position may be. However, if one is not in a position of
authority, and is just a regular Muslim following others, then in this case it is not the role of the average
Muslim to perform ijtihad on such fine matters. Rather, one should follow the local masjid that he or
she typically refers to for other issues, and that one feels a sense of affiliation with. A Muslim must
realize that this issue, along with all other fiqh differences of opinion, are issues that should not cause
disunity and hatred amongst the Muslims. Trusting an authority and following one opinion over
another is a matter completely permissible, or even obligatory, in the Sharee`ah, but fighting and
bickering and disputing with other Muslims is completely prohibited by the unanimous consensus of
all scholars of Islam. In other words, even if two masjids are celebrating Eid on two different days, this
should not lead to one masjid looking down at another, or feeling superior to them, or arguing with
them.

Thirdly, if someone feels that he or she would prefer to follow an opinion that their local masjid
is not following, based upon their fiqh preference, then even though this would not be sinful in and of
itself (as there is no consensus in N. America regarding this issue, unlike in most Muslim countries),
there is no reason to announce such a decision publically, or debate or convince others of the merits of
one’s own opinion. Rather, let the people do what they are doing, and this particular brother or sister
may follow another opinion in private. This would be better to preserve the unity of the Muslims.
Additionally, regardless of the actual day that one celebrates Eid, it is completely permissible, rather I
would say encouraged, that one attends the Eid celebrations of the community on other days as well.
Even if this means that one is fasting that ‘Eid’ day, there is no problem in attending the prayer, but of
course the one who is fasting will intend it to be a voluntary (nafl) prayer, and not his own Eid. This
would give the impression of Muslim unity, and increase the number of Muslims at all Eid festivals. (And
hey, you get to enjoy the benefits of Eid twice!!)
Lastly, out of all of the hadeeths that should be emphasized regarding the issue of moon-sighting, I
believe the following one is the most important, yet oft neglected as well.

Abu Hurayrah narrated, as reported in the Jami of al-Tirmidhi (2/37), that the beloved Prophet (salla
Allah alayhi wa sallam) said, “The fast *starts] on the day that you all are fasting, and the [Eid] al-Fitr is
the day that you all break the fast (i.e., stop fasting).”

Imam al-Tirmidhi commented on this hadeeth and said, “This has been interpreted to mean that one
fasts and celebrates the Eid with the group of Muslims and their majority.” The famous Yemeni scholar
al-San`ani wrote in his Subul al-Salaam, “This hadeeth proves that what counts for claiming that it is Eid
is that the people agree to the fact that it is Eid. And so, if a single person sees the crescent (but is not
followed for some reason), he still must still follow the community (and not his sighting).” And the great
student of Ibn Taymiyyah, one of the finest ulamaathat our history has seen, Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah,
wrote regarding this hadeeth, “This is a refutation of those who claim that someone who knows when
the moon is born by astronomical calculations should follow it in starting and finishing the fast, ignoring
the rest of the people. Another interpretation of this tradition is that one who witnesses the crescent
and whose sighting is subsequently rejected by the judge should not fast, just like the people are not
fasting” (Tahdheeb al-Sunan 3/214).

In other words, what this hadeeth tells us is that what’s important regarding the beginning and end of
Ramadhan is not when the moon is sighted or not, but rather following the community of Muslims and
keeping the local Ummah unified. Therefore, even if the crescent was ‘born’ and could have been
sighted, if the community does not fast on a particular day, for whatever reason, then it is not
permissible for an individual to break away from the community and fast or break his fast separate from
them.

Of course, in our times, even Muslims of one city are typically following different opinions, but if there is
a clear and apparent majority, then this hadeeth should be followed and the individual should stick with
that majority, regardless of the fiqh opinion that they are following.

Brothers and sisters, the beginning of Ramadhan is upon us, either tonight or tomorrow night. Surely
this is not the time to bicker amongst ourselves, fighting over an issue of fiqh that will not be resolved
for decades to come. Whatever opinion you follow, alhamdulillah good for you, just don’t make an issue
of it in the community.

This Ramadhan, let’s permanently bid farewell to moon-fighting, and concentrate on having our sins
forgiven and our fasts accepted.

May Allah bless us all in this Ramadhan, whenever it starts and finishes!!!