Every year on the 29th of Shaban, Shawwal and Dhul-Qadah, Muslims all over the globe turn their heads towards the mighty skies for that blessed glimpse of a thin sliver outline of the new moon. Or in case of cloudy skies, we sit fixated in front of our television screens, awaiting the decision of the Ruet-e-Hilal committee, while getting phone calls with news of moon being sighted in northern Pakistan. In case the decision of the committee is otherwise, a nasty game of pointing fingers and labelling the detractors as Kafirs begins.

Moreover, non-believers from all over the world pick up this opportunity to spread discord amongst the Ummah by saying things like ‘Muslims can’t even decide on a single moon’. Just last year, Eid-ul-Fitr was observed on four different dates across the globe. This, plus the fact that we have been observing two Eids in Pakistan for a number of the past years, has left everyone wondering about the real story behind the moon fiasco.

To understand the issue, first, it is important to get some basic facts straight:

  • In Islam, the sole purpose of moon sighting is to begin or end the Islamic lunar month.
  • The Islamic moon is different from the astronomic new moon. The new moon is described in the Wikipedia as the lunar phase that occurs when the Moon, in its monthly orbital motion around the Earth, lies between the Earth and the Sun, and is, therefore, in conjunction with the Sun as seen from Earth. At this time, the dark (un-illuminated) portion of the Moon faces almost directly toward the Earth, so that the moon is not visible to the naked eye.
  • The Islamic moon needs to be sighted by the naked eye. There were no eye-glasses or optical aids in the days of the Prophet (sa) for sighting a moon.
  • Each locality has to go by its local moon to begin or end an Islamic month. This only makes sense, as no sophisticated means of communication existed in the days of the Prophet (sa) to get the news across.

There is a great deal of Hikmah in setting the moon as the deciding factor for the Islamic month, if we delve into it for a while. It is only the moon, which travels across the globe and is usually visible to the masses, without any complicated aids. Moreover, this method requires no communication satellites to spread the news, as every area can set their calendars by whenever the moon is visible to them. It also does not prefer one region over another, in order to prevent possible discord.

Sadly, with the passage of time and the advent of modern technologies, moon sighting has become a politically messed issue. Without going into complicated and confusing details, we will here try to determine, whether it is scientifically possible for a moon to be sighted at two different dates within a single country. Likewise, we will investigate the evidences our religion provides in support of this argument.

A narration of Ibn Abbas in Sahih Muslim indicates that local moon sighting alone was the prevailing method in the time of the Prophet (sa) and was a part of his teachings.

“There is a sighting of the moon for every town, the sighting at one town cannot be held valid for the other town situated at a considerable distance from it.” (Muslim)

Kurayb narrates that Umm Al-Fadl sent him to Muawiyah in Sham for something.

Kurayb says: “I went to Sham and finished the job. I was in Sham, when the month of Ramadan began, and we saw the moon the night of Friday. When I reached Madinah at the end of the blessed month, Ibn Abbas asked me about Sham. (After answering him), he then asked me, when we saw the moon. I said: ‘We saw the moon the night of Jumuah.’ He asked: ‘Did you see it as well?’ I said: ‘Yes, I saw it too and many others saw it, and we all fasted and so did Muawiyah (that is according to that moon sighting).’ Ibn Abbas said: ‘But we saw the moon on Saturday night; therefore, we will keep fasting for thirty days according to that, unless we sight the moon on the 29th.’

I asked: ‘You don’t think the moon-sighting of Muawiyah and his fasting is enough for you?’ Ibn Abbas replied: ‘No, this is how the blessed Prophet (sa) taught us.’” (Muslim)

This Hadeeth clearly shows that sighting of the moon in another locality should not be the determining factor; rather, a locally sighted moon is what sets the beginning or ending of a month. For example, if ample evidence suggests that the moon has been sighted in some parts of the country but not the others, common sense (and also in the light of the above mentioned Hadeeth) tells us that a locality will follow its own locally sighted moon, and no one else is obliged to follow it.

Scientific evidence is also in agreement of the above quoted argument. When asked about this, Dr. Shahid Qureshi (In-charge Institute of Space and Planetary Astrophysics, University of Karachi) said it is indeed possible to sight a moon on different dates in the same country.

The problem arises only when a certain area or province (NWFP in our case) decides to follow Saudi Arabia and takes their moon to set its own dates. This practice is a Biddat, as no evidence from the Quran or Ahadeeth can be found to support a global moon sighting. Many other countries are also indulging in the same practice, instead of following the Quran and Sunnah. Asking for a global moon sighting would be akin to asking people to pray at a universal time.

Whether or not to employ technical aids in sighting a moon, pre-determining moon’s visibility and developing a computable calendar all are sticky issues. Muslim jurists, scientists and politicians have been debating about these matters for decades, without reaching a solution acceptable to all. For the time being, understanding the basic fact that every area should follow its own moon would greatly help in easing the confusion, which arises every year.

Instead of resorting to fist fights and pointing fingers, we should get to the depths of the issue and avoid being misled by the propaganda to spread discord in the unity of the Ummah. Allah (swt) knows best!