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When the Crescent Committee was founded in 2013, the Muslim community of Toronto was hopeful that this new initiative might resolve the long-standing problem of mosques declaring Eid on different days. This moonsighting organization was to follow global moonsighting as a methodology – if the crescent were to be sighted anywhere in the world, they would declare Eid. Global moonsighting was seen as a potential way of solving the yearly moonsighting debate which local sighting had been unable to solve thus far. It was hoped that this approach would also ensure congruence with Fiqh Council of North America’s (FCNA) lunar calendar which determines the Eid day in advance based on astronomical calculations.
This year, however, all those hopes were put to the test. Early afternoon on June 3rd, the 29th of Ramadan, the Crescent Committee (CC) started receiving reports that the moon was sighted in Saudi Arabia. Given that it was not possible for it to be seen there based on visibility charts, the committee required corroboration from another country in order to declare Eid. As the day progressed, they got reports from Iraq, Nigeria, Brazil, Mali and even from Maryland in the US. All those reports could not be relied upon because either the committee was unable to get in touch with their contacts in those countries or because the reports did not satisfy the criterion they laid out.
As they were sifting through the reports, the CC was shocked to learn that one of its founding members, the Islamic Foundation of Toronto (IFT), had already declared Eid! IFT is one of Toronto’s oldest and biggest mosques and their leadership decided to declare Eid based on the announcement from Mauritania. Mosques following FCNA’s calendar were already celebrating Eid the next day, so IFT thought it best to join with them with hopes of preserving unity.
With one of its own members having declared Eid and mounting pressure from the community given it was past 10 pm, the CC decided to wait to receive the final (hopefully positive) reports from California. This meant having to wait till sunset on the West Coast which would mean midnight on the East Coast. Unfortunately, even from California, there were no confirmed reports. Finally, at midnight, the Committee declared that they would complete 30 days of Ramadan and celebrate Eid on the 5th of June.
Alas, after spending a frustrating day waiting for an announcement till midnight, Toronto Muslims were told that this was going to be another year with two Eids in the city. This year, however, the split was not between proponents of astronomical calculations and moonsighting, but been proponents of the exact same moonsighting methodology!
Solving a 50-year old problem
This year’s debacle in Toronto represents nothing new. There have been numerous failed attempts to unite the moonsighting community. In 1995, the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and the Ministry of Warith Deen Muhammad joined hands to form the ‘Islamic Shura Council of North America’ with hopes of having a unified Eid declaration. Just like the Crescent Committee, this too was eventually disbanded due to dissenting voices. Other examples to unite and better organize moonsighting include the 2007 National Moonsighting Conference in California and the 2009 National Hilal Sighting Conference in New York. These attempts simply haven’t worked because there are far too many independent mosques and far too many moonsighting methodologies – uniting everyone in the absence of a governing authority is nearly impossible.
The story also highlights the three main problems that proponents of moonsighting have struggled to solve for nearly half a century in North America and other parts of the Western world. These can be summarized as follows:
1) Mosques declaring Eid on different days based on differing moonsighting methodologies. This has created notorious divisions within the community and has led to the awkward situation of families, often living in the same city, not being able to celebrate together. It can also lead to endless argumentation within families as to which mosque to follow with regards to this issue.
2) The unpredictability of the Eid date means that Muslims continue to have difficulty taking time off from work and planning family vacations. This problem is particularly challenging for the hourly-waged working-class individuals who work in organizations with little flexibility. The process of having to explain to an employer the complications surrounding Eid declarations can be a source of unnecessary hardship for many. It is not uncommon for many to take off a day which ends up being the ‘wrong day’.
3) Delayed announcements, especially during the summer months, due to process of receiving and verifying reports after sunset. Not knowing whether or not the next day will be a holiday, often until the late evening, has been a continued source of distress for families every year.
It was the desire the solve these very problems that brought together a group of visionary Muslim jurists and astronomers in Herndon, Virginia in 1987. Organized by the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT), the Lunar Calendar Conference was one of the first attempts to find an innovative solution to the problems posed by traditional moonsighting. A detailed history of the events leading up to the conference and its aftermath have been documented before. In short, Muslim scholars and mathematicians continued work on the astronomical lunar calendar for nearly two decades after the conference and it was finally adopted by FCNA and ISNA in 2006.
A valid methodology from the Shariah
While opposition to FCNA’s lunar calendar was quite strong when it was first introduced, there has been growing acceptance of astronomical calculations over the past 15 years as a result of continued research and education on this subject.
The use of calculations to determine the dates of Ramadan is something which numerous reputable scholars have allowed throughout Islam’s history . While this has always been the view of a small minority, championed mainly by scholars in the Shafa’i legal school, it is still based on a sound interpretation of religious texts. The difference of opinion on this issue arises from hadith of the Prophet where he stated, “If [the crescent moon] is obscured from you, then estimate it” (فإن غم عليكم فاقدروا له ). A detailed exposition in support of calculations from a classical perspective was recently presented by Shaykh Salahuddin Barkat.
Shaykh Musa Furber, one of America’s leading Shafa’i jurists, also comments on the towering figures from our tradition who supported calculations: “Since the time of Imām al-Nawawī, there has been an evident trend within the Shāfiʿī school of law for acceptance for the personal use of calculations for fasting. While a small number of earlier Shāfiʿī scholars did accept it, it seems to have been confined to a small minority within the school. It was not until the time of Imam al-Nawawī (may Allah grant him His mercy) that the opinion amongst scholars of the school started to shift towards accepting calculations as valid and even binding — even if limited to the calculator and whoever believed him. Although al-Subkī (may Allah grant him His mercy) is usually accredited with causing this shift, some scholars credit Imam al-Nawawī’s himself with starting this trend. The opinion was accepted by both Shaykh al-Islām Zakariyā al-Anṣārī and Imām al-Ramlī, though not by Imam Ibn Ḥajar (may Allah grant all of them from His mercy). These imams form the basis for reliable opinions in the late Shāfiʿī madhhab.”
Understandably, this opinion was considered weak and ignored through much of Islamic history. Some limited its scope and allowed it only when the moon was obstructed or for use by experts in astronomy. There really is no need for calculations in Muslim lands where there exists a centralized authority to sight the crescent and there are public holidays for the entire populace. However, in secular countries with Muslim minorities, this position must be revisited as it offers a very practical solution to the crises we find ourselves in.
Only one way forward
According to a 2011 survey of over 600 mosques in the US, the adoption rate of FCNA’s calendar stood at 40%. At the writing of this article nearly 8 years later, this number has likely increased to over 50%. The survey indicated that about 40% of the mosques followed local sighting while the remainder followed global sighting. Given the recent shift towards global moonsighting, it is likely that the moonsighting community is evenly split between the two positions at this time.
These statistics represent the only logical way forward to solve this decades-old problem: the most efficient way of achieving unity is by converging behind FCNA’s lunar calendar. This methodology is the only real solution to the crises we currently find ourselves in. Not only does it address all our needs, but this approach has also shown to provide immense ease and facilitation for Muslim communities that have followed it in the past 15 years.
The moonsighting leadership has failed to unite despite a half-century of effort; it is inconceivable at this point that this would ever happen. Even if it did miraculously happen, 50% of the community would still be following FCNA’s calendar and all three of our main problems will remain unaddressed. Additionally, with the current trend of uniting behind the approach of global sighting, ‘moonsighting’ has largely become an administrative exercise. It involves the hilal committee simply waiting for reports from abroad and trying to ascertain their veracity. Only a handful of communities go out looking for the moon and establish the sunnah of moon sighting in a bonafide sense.
In large communities where differing Eid dates is a reoccurring problem, advocating for the adoption of the lunar calendar must come from the grass-roots level. Muslims most affected by this problem should lobby their local mosques to change their positions and unite behind FCNA’s lunar calendar.
While it may seem impossible to get the leadership of mosques to abandon an old position, it has already been done. In 2015, nine major mosques in the Chicago area set aside their differences and put their support behind the lunar calendar. This is an incredible feat and has created ease in the lives of thousands of people. If similar initiatives are taken in other cities split along lines of lunar dogmatism, it is conceivable that the moonsighting issue could be resolved in North America within the next five to ten years.
The Prophet told us to calculate the moon if it is obscured by clouds. Today, the moon is not obscured by physical clouds but it is clouded by poor judgment, distrust, egotism, disunity, and pride. We must resort to calculations to determine the birth of the new moon, not because it is the strongest legal position or a superior approach, but because our status as minorities in a secular land necessitates it.
References: From SeekersGuidance: Scholars upholding this can be traced all the way back to the first Islamic century. The textual basis for this opinion is the hadith narrated by al-Bukhari, “When you see it [the new moon of Ramadan] then fast; and when you see it [the new moon of Shawwal], then break the fast. If it is hidden from you (ghumma ‘alaykum) [i.e. if the sky is overcast] then estimate it (fa-qdiru lahu);” (al-Bukhari, hadith no. 1900). The last verb, fa-qdiru, can be validly understood to mean calculation. Of the scholars who held this, are Abu al-‘Abbas b. Surayj (d. 306/918), one of the leading founders of the classical Shafi‘i school, the Shafi‘i scholar and renowned mystic Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri (d. 465/1072), the leading Shafi‘i judge Taqi al-Din al-Subki (d. 756/1355), the Shafi‘i legal theorist al-Zarkashi (d. 794/1392), the renowned Maliki legal theorist al-Qarafi (d. 684/1285), and some Hanafi scholars. The late Shafi‘i commentator al-Qalyubi (d. 1069/1659) held that all sighting-claims must be rejected if calculations show that a sighting was impossible, stating, “This is manifestly obvious. In such a case, a person may not fast. Opposing this is obstinacy and stubbornness.” See al-Mawsu‘ah al-fiqhiyyah al-kuwaytiyyah, c.v. “Ru’yat al-hilal,” vol. 22, pp. 31-4. The leading scholar of the late Shāfi‘ī school Muhammad al-Ramli (d. 1004/1596) held that the expert astronomer was obliged to follow his own calculation as was the non-astronomer who believed him; this position has been used by some contemporary Shafi’i scholars to state that in the modern world, with its precise calculations, the strongest opinion of the Shafi’i school should be that everyone must follow calculations; see ‘Umar b. al-Habib al-Husayni, Fath al-‘ali fi jam‘ al-khilaf bayna Ibn Hajar wa-Ibn al-Ramli, ed. Shifa’ Hitu (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2010), pp. 819-22. See also the fatwa of the Hanafi scholar Dr Salah Abu al-Hajj (http://www.anwarcenter.com/fatwa/معنى-حديث-لا-تصوموا-حتى-تروا-الهلال-ول) last accessed 9/5/2016) which states, after arguing against relying on calculations, “However, the position of [following] calculations is the position of a considerable group of jurists, so it is a respected disagreement in Islamic law, whereby, if a state were to adopt it, it is not rejected, because the judgment of a judge removes disagreement, and the adoption of a state is [as] the judgment of a judge.