False Sightings or Exact Calculations - The Islamic Choice?

Omar Afzal

False sightings - a bane of the Muslim Ummah for years - is "not very relevant", says Jibali (Wall Street Journal 1/7/97).

The Islamic way is to go only by the witness, even if false, as long as "he tried to be accurate".

One is amazed by how a sane Muslim can make such a brash statement after going through the Qura'n and the Sunnah.

In recent years several articles have appeared stating that an Islamic month begins only by direct or indirect sighting. Using calculations or any other method for ascertaining the crescent, or questioning any claim by a Muslim is invalid.

They also believe that it is quite possible that a moon is seen in S. Arabia or Egypt and nowhere else in the world; or (only a selected) few see a moon, then it disappears; the rest of the world won't see it on a clear sky for hours.

According to them, there is 'no proof whatsoever' for using calculations and only a 'minority opinion' permits it (Hudaa, Jan. 97). Let us scrutinize their claims.

Qura'n confirms calculations

In their zeal to support their false assumptions these writers quote one Hadith, and opinions of a few minor Fuqaha. They forget that such a statement denies the words of Allah who gave Muslims a "Kitab", asked them to 'write' their contracts, learn calendars, compute inheritance shares, etc. How could He ask the Muslims to do all that and His Messenger Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam (Peace and Blessings be upon him) asked them not to write or compute.

Here is what the Qura'n says about the moon (Qamar) and its crescents (Ahilla):

36:39 And the Moon,-- We have determined its phases (which it must traverse) till it becomes like an old date-stalk, dried up and curved...

10:5 It is He who made the sun (a source of bright) radiance and the moon a (reflected) light, and has determined its phases so that you might know how to compute the year and to measure (time) ... Allah used the word "Manaazil" (phases) twice in the Qura'n (10:5 and 36:39), both in the context of the moon. At both places the word 'Qaddara' is also used which denotes 'calculate' or 'measure'.

55:5 The sun and the moon run on their exactly computed courses.

6:96 He is the One who causes dawn to break, and ... the sun and the moon to run on their computed courses.. Again in the same context of the moon Allah uses the word 'Hisaab' (computation) in 6:96, 10:5, and 55:5. The Qura'n established the fact 1400 years ago that the moon rotates on an exactly computed course. Allah specified "crescent moons (Ahilla) for fixing 'times' and for Hajj.

2:189 They ask you about the crescent moons. Say: They are for fixing time for people, and for Hajj.

Jewish Calendar in Medina

'Ummiya' Hadith is a simple statement of the prevailing conditions during early days in Medina. Muslim scribes could write and compute but complicated calculations of the New Moon (which cannot be seen) or the crescent (which becomes visible long after the New Moon phase) were not known to the Arabs, and the Muslims during the life of the Messenger (saw).

Calendar experts among the Jews, Hindus, etc. could calculate the New Moons thousands of years ago but not the earliest visible (crescent) moons.

The Jews in Medina followed their calendar which used lunar calculations for their dates. A calendar committee checked the accuracy of moon-sighting claims according to these calculations until they changed the 'visible crescent' by 'the New Moon at Jerusalem' to determine their festivals dates.

"In the 4th century C.E. ... the patriarch Hillel II took an extraordinary step to preserve the unity of Israel. In order to prevent the Jews scattered all over the surface of the earth from celebrating their new Moons, festivals, and holidays at different times he made public the system of calendar calculation which was upto then a closely guarded secret... This is the permanent calendar according to which the New Moons and festivals are calculated and celebrated today by the Jews all over the world." Spier (1988:p.2)

The Jews in Medina started their months by their fixed calendar. They teased the Muslims that the moon's visibility is not a dependable method; the lunar month had already started a day or two earlier.

The Jews vigorously questioned us about the crescent moons. Allah revealed this Ayah (2:189) The Messenger Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam (Peace and Blessings be upon him) had two choices:

  1. Ask the Muslims to follow the Jewish calendar, and thus make them dependent on Rabbis for Ramadan, Eidain, etc.; or
  2. Ask them to follow Allah's most obvious sign: a crescent moon which is always visible on the 29 or the latest by 30th day.

He chose the second:

We are an unlettered group; we do not (know how to) write or compute. The month is either 29 or 30 days long. How could any sane Muslim blame the Messenger Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam (Peace and Blessings be upon him) for contradicting Allah's words?

Where did he in this Hadith ask the Muslims to remain an unlettered group for ever? Did he really forbid us from learning writing and calculation till the end of time? The answer is an emphatic "No".

Could this Hadith close doors on the moon's calculation permanently? Again the answer is "No". For centuries Fuqaha did not see anything wrong with moon's calculations and Muslim astronomers from Al-Biruni to Fathi

Pasha tried to calculate moon's visibility. We proudly present these scientific advances to the world. This Hadith was interpreted by a few to forbid moon's calculations because they did not like to depend on the "Munajjimeen" (also associated with telling future events).

This Hadith in no way can be an argument (Dalil) for rejecting the 'crescent calculations' now when they have become 'exact' (Qata'i).

Knowledge in the Qura'n and Sunnah

The first Wahy (92:1-5) stated the fact that 'reading' is sacred; knowledge expands by pen (written words). The Qura'n ranks 'Ilm' (knowledge) the highest among the qualities of a believer (35:28). Allah sent His Messenger Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam (Peace and Blessings be upon him) to teach an "Ummi" (unlettered) group 'the Book' (62:2).

The Qura'n is full of Ayaat about 'Ilm' and 'Hikma'; it invites us for 'deep thinking' in Allah's creation and His signs. How many times we quote the Hadith: "Every bit of knowledge is a believer's lost property. He becomes its rightful owner wherever he finds it."

The Messenger Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam (Peace and Blessings be upon him) called the 'knowledgeable' the inheritors of the prophets. He placed them far above those who only 'supplicate'. The Messenger Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam (Peace and Blessings be upon him) did his utmost to get his companions literate, and learn writing and computation from whoever they could. Ransom from the non-believing prisoners of Badr was badly needed.

But the Messenger Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam (Peace and Blessings be upon him) freed several of them on the condition that they taught some Muslims reading and writing. He asked Zaid b. Thabit, etc. to learn the languages of the People of the Book.

Scores of his companions learned 'writing', as is evident by the number of 'Katibeen al-Wahy' (Qura'n scribes). Many could 'compute' Zakat, inheritance, etc.

Tabi'in and Fuqaha on Calculations

The Qura'n asked the Muslims to follow a crescent moon to begin their months. The Messenger Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam (Peace and Blessings be upon him) started the practice of closely watching the crescent and he asked the Muslims to rely on it. In case the horizon was clouded on the 29th day then wait another day before starting a month.

What if on a clear sky a moon is not seen on 30th; or someone claims to have seen it on 28th; or a few claim to have seen it but others from several places say: Not seen? 'Hisaab' is handy to rule out the mistakes.

It is also not true that the Ummah was unanimous in rejecting the calculations for determining the beginning of an Islamic month. Here is a summary of what the 'Salaf' and the Fuqaha said: Prominent Tabi'in like Mutraf b. Abdullah, Muhadditheen like Ibn Qutaiba, Fuqaha like Imam Abu Hanifa, Imam Shafi'i, Ibn Suraij, Ibn Daqiq al-Eid, Daudi and others permitted the use of calculations for determining Ramadan and Eidain dates despite the fact that the calculations in their days were not very accurate.

Imam Abu Hanifa is quoted in Qaniyah as saying: There is no harm in depending on the words of the astronomers (for determining the month). Ibn Muqatil went a step further.

He says: There is nothing wrong in depending on the words of the astronomers, and asking them about the dates if a group of them agrees on the same.

Remember they accepted moon's 'Hisaab' hundreds of years ago when it was not precise. As mentioned above, the calculations for the 'New Moon' phases was known for thousands of years.

But precise calculations for a crescent moon was unknown. By the ninth century the Muslim also learned how to calculate the New Moon phase. But for the next thousand years they were unable to find exactly when a crescent will always be visible

Almost all of them from Al-Biruni onwards wrote something on the topic of moonsighting. None of them was exact. For exact calculations they lacked the information about all the factors affecting the moon's visibility from the surface of the earth.

That is the reason the Fuqaha and Qudat continued to rely on witnesses instead of 'Munajjimeen', despite the fact that in many instances the witnesses were 'false' or mistaken.

Dr. Kamal Abdali (1977) was the first to compute the parabola of the moon's visibility. Later, Khalid Shaukat refined the calculations and reduced the zone of uncertainty.

Strenuous efforts since 1981 by the observers of the Crescent Observation Committee Intl. to watch the moon and report the earliest sighting confirmed the exactness (Qata'iyat) of moon's calculations.

Now several reliable programs are available to predict the crescent's visibility and for checking the accuracy of the witnesses.

False Witnesses

It is also not true that The Messenger (saw), Khulafa al-Rashidun, Companions, and all Fuqaha always accepted an 'Adil' Muslim's claim of sighting when strong circumstantial evidence called for its rejection.

Umar (RA) rejected Anas (RA) because he could see how he mistook a white hair from his eyebrow for a crescent moon.

Muslim authorities around the world consistently evaluated the witnesses and rejected their testimony when doubtful. A false witness results in several sinful acts:

  1. We start Ramadan on the last days of Sha'ban.
  2. Eid al-Fitr is celebrated on the last day of Ramadan (when the Muslims must be fasting).
  3. Hajj on 7th or 8th of Dhul-Hijja (invalidating it, as the Wuquf in Arafat should be on 9 D.Hijja)
  4. Adha (Sacrifice) on 9 D. Hijja (making it invalid).
  5. Messing up all other important Islamic occasions from Lailatul-Qadr to Ashura fasting, etc.

Above all, witnesses have been creating confusion and dissension for decades. Every year Muslims start Ramadan and celebrates Eidain on two, three or four different days. All claim their witnesses to be 'Adil' (reliable).

How did the Salaf deal with the crescent moon being sighted in different locations?

If there is only one moon how can the Muslim not see it in towns and countries located in the west of where it was seen first? Why can we not see it on the 30th day on a clear sky? Let us consider a very crucial Hadith.

"...I saw Ramadan crescent in Syria...on Friday night. Then I reached Medina by the end of the month. Ibn Abbas (RA) inquired about it...When?...We saw it Friday night. "Did you see it Friday night? Yes, I did, and so did people (in Syria /Damascus). They fasted, and also Mu'awiya (RA) (the ruler)... But we (in Medina) saw it Saturday night....We will continue fasting until we either complete 30 days or see it (here in Medina)..."

Is Mu'awiya's sighting and fasting not enough... No. This is the way the Messenger Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam (Peace and Blessings be upon him) ordered us (to do). Kuraib's Hadith (Sahih Muslim, and four other Sihah) explains the following points:

  1. In Syria Ramadan crescent was seen on Friday, but in Medina on Saturday. (Medina is southeast of Syria, and was outside the visibility parabola for that evening. Hence the moon could not be seen there on Friday, the day everyone saw it in Syria)
  2. Ibn Abbas (ra) received the news (it was also an eyewitness account, a decision by the ruler, etc.) before the end of Ramadan. But people in Medina did not accept it as binding as they did not see it there on a clear sky.
  3. On Ramadan 29 ( which was Ramadan 30 for Kuraib, and all in Syria) Shawwal crescent was not visible in Medina.
  4. People in Medina insisted on "a visible hilal on Madinah horizon". They did it because this is what the Messenger Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam (Peace and Blessings be upon him) instructed them to do. (Another Hadith in Musannaf Ibn Abi Shaiba also confirms this. Ikrama and Salim asked the people in Medina to ignore the sighting in a nearby place because it was not visible in Medina.)
  5. The Muslims in Medina did not celebrate Eid the next day although 30 days of Ramadan were completed according to a confirmed sighting in Syria. Instead they kept on fasting.
  6. Ibn Abbas (RA) asked Kuraib to fast 31 days as the month was not over in Medina. (Subul as-Salaam)
  7. He rejected Friday's sighting in Syria to be universal and binding on all everywhere in the world.
  8. He also rejected that after completing 30 days of Ramadan a person can celebrate Eid even if Shawwal crescent is not seen on a clear sky where he is present.
  9. He affirmed that the Muslims should begin fasting and celebrate Eid only if a crescent is visible in the sky at their place. There is no justification to celebrate Eid if a crescent is not seen, even for someone who had seen it by his own eyes somewhere else at the beginning of the month.
  10. He rejected: a) The witness himself saw it; b) At .. all saw it.; c) The Muslim ruler saw it and fasted. etc.
  11. Ibn Abbas (RA) said: Fa la nazalu nasumu... "We will keep on fasting until we complete 30 days (by our sighting in Medina) or see it... La. Ha kadha amarana..."because this is what the Messenger Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam (Peace and Blessings be upon him) ordered us to do".

Shaukani and some others have argued to reject this Hadith on the following grounds:

  1. Ibn Abbas (RA) did not quote the actual words of the Messenger (saw). (There are several versions of the Hadith "La tasumu..", with phrase: Ha Kadha ... as quoted above in them.)
  2. He required a testimony by at least two witnesses. (The question was not about the number of witnesses, as there was only one. It was about the "Visibility".)
  3. It is an Ijtihad of Ibn 'Abbas and his Ijtihad is not binding. (Why did he use the phrase: "Amarana..." The Messenger Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam (Peace and Blessings be upon him)  ordered us...?
  4. Kuraib was not a reliable witness. (Ibn Abbas (ra) did not say anything about Kuraib being unreliable. If he was unreliable then why ask him?)
  5. Ibn Abbas (RA) believed in Ikhtilaf-i Matali'. (He said nothing about it. He could say something like: "Li kulli ahli baladin ru'yatuhum" (Sighting in each town is valid for the town only). Again, it is obvious that the question was: Moon was not visible in Medina.
  6. Kuraib's testimony was only a news, and not a Shahadah (eye-witness account). (If Ibn Abbas (RA) took it as a news only, then why did he continue asking questions?)

Obviously, none of these arguments is valid to reject an authentic Hadith reported in five Sihah. It must be accepted especially now when the physical facts of moon's visibility confirm every aspect of it. The facts are:

  • Visibility of the moon is the only basis to begin an islamic month
  • Muslims cannot act on the news from another place if they cannot see a moon on a clar horizon.
  • When a news from (Makkah, Houston etc.) is not confirmed by the visibility in their hometown the Muslims must disregard it.
  • After completing 30 days of Ramadan one cannot discontinue fasting if a moon is not visible in the sky. The news or the witnesses were false. A moon will always be seen if 30 days are complete.
  • The whole world will see a crescent within 24 hours.
  • Moon's visibility cannot extend eastwards from the initial point etc.

The world laughs at Muslims. We cannot make a reliable calendar. Every Islamic month has to be adjusted in every town around the world because we don't have a control over the clouds and dust.

We can easily avoid all heartaches by taking the help of moon's calculations. They are not secret and are available for use to any Muslim around the world.

You may test their accuracy by appointing a crescent observers group in your town. Moon's 'Hisaab' will unite the Muslims and help them plan ahead for correct Islamic dates.

May Allah open our hearts and show us wisdom. Amin


Very forcefully argued article.

However, the following "fact":

After completing 30 days of Ramadan one cannot discontinue fasting if a moon is not visible in the sky. The news or the witnesses were false. A moon will always be seen if 30 days are complete

 This seems to have been randomly inserted... I can't see the hadith evidence verifying this statement... unless I am missing something?

"For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens 'as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone'" - David Cameron, UK Prime Minister. 13 May 2015.