"Eid is on Tuesday. What d'you mean, we're having our on Wednesday. How come? Hey that's when our mosque is doing it so don't ask me!"
How many of us have had this kind of chat year in year out? Why do we have Eid on two separate days? Why can't the ulema agree to have it on one day? What are the arguments and debates behind the scene? Who's to blame?
The following saying of the Prophet (SAW) should make this clear: "Fast after sighting the moon and end the moon after sighting it. If it is cloudy then complete thirty days of shaban." (Bukhari)
So if it is this easy then why the punch-ups, the heated debates and the great divide in the Muslim community? Well you see, there are two interpretations of this hadith. One group of scholars stick to the literal meaning of "ruyat" (sighting) as meaning "mushahada" observing with the eye.
They say that the moon should be seen with the eye and there is no room for astronomical calculations. The second group say that ruyat should not be taken simply in its literal sense and therefore it is allowed to use astronomical data (using observatories) for sighting the moon.
Now let's see what these groups have to say. The first group ( A ) of scholars mostly belong to the Deoband School and are represented by their national body Hizb-ul-Ulama. They have gathered fatawas (legal opinions) from Saudi Arabia, India and Pakistan in which they reject the use of astronomical data.
The main fatwas comes from Sheikh Abdullah Bin Baz (Mufti of Saudi Arabia), he clearly states: "there is no room for observatory in moon sighting"
The Mufti of Darul Uloom Deoband says: "I have known for very early on that Saudi Arabia does not follow any calculation or astronomical table in determining the beginning of the month, but they employ the Shariah system of witnessing"
To strengthen their arguments they have gathered 48 eyes witness accounts of moon sighting when according to astronomical data the moon was not capable of being sighted. So basically this group follows the Saudi Arabia decision for moonsighting.
The second group of Scholars (B) is represented by Jamat-e Ahle-sunnah. They argue that "sighting" in the hadith can mean knowledge through astronomical calculaitons. They argue that this is necessary particularly for the Muslims in the northern hemisphere where the sky is often cloudy and seeing the moon by eye is very difficult.
Sheik ul-Hadith, Sheik Miraj-ul-Islam (Minhaj-ul-Quran International University, Lahore) states: "If we take ruyat (sighting) in the hadith to mean knowledge and it can be ascertained from the observatory that the moon has appeared on the horizon but due to cloudy skies or the brightness of the sun it can not be seen by the eye, in that sae the Ulema should accept the astronomical data and announce the beginning of Ramadan"
When is comes to the question "hen can the moon be sighted", the Jamat-e Ahle-Sunnah argue that the moon has to be 16 hours old to be visible. They argue " ..the mere existence of the moon on the horizon is not sufficient, if we are to decide about the moon in light of astronomical data then it must be capable of being sighted.
Because if it is capable of being sighted then somewhere in the world it will be seen. According to our view, if the moon has not been observed by the eye or is not capable of being seen (is less than 16 hours old) then it is wrong to begin the Islamic month"
Group B criticise the Saudi Government and Scholars for creating the divide in the Muslim Ummah. "It is extremely saddening and unfortunate that the Saudi Government and many other eminent scholars who follow this opinion have adopted the beginning of the new month from the birth of the moon, regardless of whether it is capable of being physically see, as the Prophet strongly stipulated.
The (Saudi) argue that the presence of the new moon being on the Horizon for even a few minutes is enough to fulfil the Islamic criteria. However, astronomical data proves that a few minutes in not enough for physical observation with the eye because the rays of the sun will overshadow it"
From what we've heard so far the biggest debate is whether it is allowed to use astronomical data to establish the sighting of the moon. Let's dig out some further arguments to understand this issue further.
The opponents of validity of astronomical data quote some traditional supreme jurists, for example Mullah Ali Qari, a Hanafi jurist who says "..tere is a consensus in the Ummah that calculations of astronomers are unacceptable"
In their defence group B argue that "..many Muslim scholars have permitted the use of information for scientific observatory to establish the sighting of the moon" They quote scholars such as Imam Shafi, Ibn Rushd, Imam Daqiqul Eid, Imam Qurtubi to name just a few.
They also argue that the reason why jurists were sceptical about astronomical data was because in the past their methods were not refined and accurate. But no one can say that about astronomy these days. It is an exact science.
Dr Yousuf al Qardawi, a distinguished contemporary scholar, says ".. since the reason for not accepting astronomical data is not longer valid, it is a requisite to use the calculations and prove the appearance of crescent by astronomical computation."
So, what now? Well the way things are going the only way we will have one Eid in the future is if one of the group compromises and agrees on one formula. Is this likely, to be honest is doesn't look like it. But look on the bright side, with Eid being on to two separate days, we can have an extra day off work/college, so it can't be that bad. ; - )
Let's just hope the scholars sort their act out.