THE POLITICS OF MOONSIGHTING
By Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute
Sr. Samira Hussein is an activist in the public school system in Montgomery County, Maryland, where I live. For a long time her efforts to get the public schools to avoid scheduling exams on Muslim holidays was frustrated by the Muslim community’s inability to produce an advance calendar of holiday dates. She would ask the schools to let Muslim children have the Eid days off and the response was, “Sure, what days are those?” When no Muslim organization would admit to knowing such a date, the school officials would, understandably, protest they can't schedule around an unspecified date. .
Thanks to the American Muslim Council’s (AMC) decision to publish a calendar of important Muslim dates that employs a convention of defining the mutla` (the geographical boundaries of the community to be used in defining the location of admissible sightings.) in a way that permits rigorous advance calculation, the state of Maryland now advises its public schools to avoid scheduling tests on the Muslim holidays. Given the obvious advantages, one must ask why have not other Muslim organizations embraced this convention?
Everyone knows that the Islamic calendar is based on the moon. If there is anyone left who still thinks that the continuing recurrent confusion over the dates of the Eids is due to scientific uncertainty or fiqh ambiguities they are sadly mistaken. The confusion is political, pure and simple. My recent experience at the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) symposium on the Islamic calendar has confirmed a conclusion that I reached years ago.
While jurists and scientists pontificate over whether the masses are ready for meaningful calendar reform, the masses continue to ask two questions and two questions only: (1) when is the beginning of the month? And (2) has the moon been sighted yet? There is no juristic or scientific reason not to give them straight answers to both of these questions.
Some persons are under the impression that the confusion is due to a fiqh disagreement over whether the birth of the new moon rather than the first sighting should mark the new month. This is not true. Currently accepted fiqh requires that moon sighting, which occurs many hours after birth, mark the new month. The real misunderstanding is not over astronomical new moon versus sightable new crescent, but over whether the sightability of the new crescent is calculable with sufficient precision as to calculate a fixed calendar in advance or even to form the basis for rejecting spurious sightings.
Some persons are under the impression that the confusion is a scientific dispute over the precise conditions under which sightings are predictable. This is also fallacious. Although there is some disagreement among experts as to the precise size of the zone of uncertainty between the location at which sighting is impossible and the location to the west where it is certain (apart from weather conditions), the size of this “zone of uncertainty” is much smaller than most people realize.
At the symposium held in Plainfield, Indiana two substantive decisions urged by the astronomers present were agreed to by the participating fiqh council. (1) That henceforth, the fiqh council would not even consider sightings made before the moon was sufficiently distant from the sun that the hilal is not obscured by the mountains on the moon. When the mountains cover what would have been a hilal crescent were the moon a smooth shiny body, the moonlight cannot be seen at all and sighting is utterly impossible. If ISNA and any other organizations that join with it in reviewing professed sightings abide by this decision, a significant step will have been taken forward in minimizing the confusion in North America. (2) That henceforth, ISNA will no longer automatically accept Saudi declarations as to the date of Eid al Adha, but will declare its own date based on the same LOCAL criteria used to determine the Eid al Fitr. This would remove the source of the falling out between ISNA and the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) regarding a unified position as to the dates of the Eidain. Nor would this alienate the Saudis, for their own fuquha advocate ikhtilâf-al-mutali` (local sightings) both for themselves and for others. Thus on one recent occasion Saudi Arabia did not accept a reported sighting from Yemen, despite the fact that it is a neighboring state.
Despite these achievements, the main thing that the fiqh council requested from the astronomers was not supplied: Give us a calculation of the dates in advance. The astronomers' slowness to comply gives the false impression that they are in disagreement over the scientific principles that allow a calendar to be calculated in advance. On the contray, the astronomical model that was used to calculate the calendar of important Islamic dates published by the AMC does not differ in any important way from the model published by Khalid Shaukat on his moonsighting website in predicting whether the moon is visible from any given point. The only important difference between Shaukat’s calendar and AMC's lies in the definition of the mutla`.
It is time for the Muslim community to accept the fact that our disagreements are political rather than scientific or juristic. If we would publish a calendar in advance, the first of the two questions “when is does the new month begin?” would be answered. Even if we put an asterisk in that calendar, warning that actual sighting may occur a day later in certain cases, that would reduce the confusion to at most an ambiguity between two days once in a while. This would leave the other problem, answering the question of “Has the new moon been seen?” Of course the reason this is a political problem is that people are in the habit of calling their home countries and asking relatives if the new moon was seen there and accepting hearsay reports that it has. Restricting the mutla’ to North America has not solved this problem in the past. The strong, albeit emotional desire of Muslims to celebrate the Eid on the same day as other Muslims have not been successfully dealt with by competing claims of "leadership."
AMC has already made the bold move of answering the question "When will the month begin?" We must now offer a consistent answer to "Has the moon been sighted?" by stationing observers at the place where the moon can first be seen before dawn breaks over the East Coast. Adopting a variable western boundary for the American mutla’, one that by definition allows a sighting such that the new month date coincides with the birth of the new moon before sunset in Mecca will solve the main problem. With one small change in this definition, namely coincidence with the birth of the new moon before sunset AND moonset after sunset in Mecca, this would make our calendar identical to the Umm al Qurra calendar (the Saudi civil calendar), removing yet another political source of friction. Such a system meets the needs of both those who demand a pre-calculated calendar and those who demand a sighting as a matter of `ibâda.