On July 20, 1969, Yuri Gagarin stamped his name in our history books by becoming the first man to step on the moon. It is astonishing that today, almost 51 years later, Muslims have not solved the moonsighting problem.
In the Qur’an chapter 2 verse 185, it is said that ‘’…whoever witnesses the month should fast…’’. The most acceptable interpretation of this verse is that whoever is alive during the month should fast. However, some wrongly interpret the verse to mean whoever sights the moon of the month of Ramadan. The implication of this interpretation is that a person has to actually see the moon before commencing fasting. In other words, a member of the community must actually sight the moon before the community can begin fasting. And the people with such views use the following hadith as their proof: ‘do not fast unless you sight the crescent and do not break your fast till you sight the following crescent’.
As Muslims, our lives are guided by the Qur’an and the authentic traditions of the Prophet SAW. In addition, the consensus of the early Muslims (first three Islamic centuries) is also a source of guidance. The Quran is explicit in its explanation of the fact that the moon has phases that can be calculated. Quran 36:39 reads as follows: ‘And the moon-We have determined for it phases, until it returns (appearing) like the old date stalk’. This verse states in explicit terms that the moon has phases. Quran 55:5 reads: ‘The sun and the moon (move) by precise calculation,’. These two verses imply that the moon has phases that can be calculated. And this is precisely where science comes in, as the source and basis for the calculation of the phases of the moon, and astronomy is the name of the branch of science that does this precisely.
It is an interesting science that utilises mathematics, physics and even chemistry to study celestial objects, including the moon, our present concern. Since it has been established from the scripture that the moon has phases that can be calculated, it makes sense that astronomy can be a gamechanger in our moon sighting problem. At the least, it can be a sort of a guide on the time to look for the moon and even to gauge the credibility of witnesses who claim to sight the moon. Afterall, the date of the new moon can be accurately determined using astronomy and this is something that doesn’t change!
Time plays a major factor that determines when different types of worship are conducted. For instance, Muslims pray five times a day at different appointed times, they fast during the month of Ramadan and conduct the pilgrimage only at the appointed month and time. In Quran 2:189, Allah says: ‘they ask you (O Muhammad) regarding the new moons. Say, ‘they are measurements of time for the people and for Hajj’.’ The only way a worship is accepted is if it is conducted at the appointed time. Regarding the month of Ramadan, the crescent for the month can only be sighted at the end of the month of Sha’aban. That’s the only time that the moon can be called that of Ramadan and fasting can commence. After 29 or 30 days of fasting, the month of Shawwal begins.
On the 29th day of Ramadan, it is possible to sight the moon for the month of Shawwal. If it is not sighted on the 29th, Shawwal commences immediately after the 30th day of fasting, and there’s no need for sighting the moon because it is assumed that the month has commenced already. As a result, time is a moderator when it comes to commencement and endings of Islamic months and also worship in general. Sighting the moon is not the act of worship, rather fasting during the month is the actual worship. Sighting the moon only enables us to determine the time for worship.
This applies for all the pillars of Islam except shahada. Just as prayers are performed at specific times, zakat is also given only after the wealth is kept for a specific time. On the issue of moonsighting, barring the unfortunate circumstance of people commencing the fast on a wrong date, a person who claims to sight the moon on the 25th day of Ramadan will not be taken seriously. And this is how time is a moderator on this issue.
Our society has a history of not accepting change easily. We have a sort of inertia. We like maintaining the status quo because we get so used to our situation that we basically want to maintain it for as long as possible. In Nigeria, prior to the current sultan, we fasted 29 days for several decades consecutively. One of the reasons for this is because we always sight the moon whenever people are called to lookout for the moon. The society determines what is acceptable even in aspects of religion. Some societies have more affinity to science than others. Unsurprisingly, Muslims in the west are more inclined to accept scientific aids in the aspect of worship than Muslims in the east or in other parts of the world. Different societies accept different norms and behave differently. One of the reasons for our moon sighting controversy is the conservative nature of our society.
Ultimately, no matter how much one argues for the use of science to aid our religious activities, it is important to realise that science is just a tool and that man is responsible for the use of such tools. This responsibility makes it necessary for man to understand the science of the phases of the moon and to utilise such knowledge to determine the commencement and end of the month of fasting and the other Islamic months. As it is a tedious process, it makes sense to say that eventually we would have to accept astronomy in the matter of determining the time and duration of worship.
To an extent, we have already accepted science in a form, since most Muslims use the calculated times to pray their five daily prayers and this includes even the mu’azzins who are in charge of the call to prayer. Some mu’azzins do not even know how to determine the prayer time in the traditional way. Mobile applications such as MuslimPro are used by many in determining the time for the five daily prayers. In a similar sense, many good mobile applications are available for the tracking of the moon and determination of the beginning of the Islamic months. The era of technology is upon us.
The sooner we accept this the better. Accepting it will enable us to determine the extent of the involvement of science in our religious activities. Imagine a world with a unified Islamic calendar regardless of location. A world where we all celebrate both eids on the same day. This is possible because the actual new moon happens on the same day all over the world. This ideal situation can only happen if we accept the use of astronomy in determining our Islamic months. My belief is that one day we would use astronomy to determine the commencement of the fast without resorting to physical moonsighting. Our ability to be objective will determine how soon that day arrives.
*all translations of the verses of the Holy Qur’an were obtained from Sahih International.