Astronomical Calculations: A Fiqhi Discussion Part 1

A Telescope Under the Starry Sky

In August 2006, the Fiqh Council of North America announced the exact date for the start of Ramadan based solely on astronomical calculations rather than actual sightings of the new moon. Many around the world protested the validity of such a decision. The debate over visual sighting versus astronomical calculations is not new. This three-part series explores the arguments on both sides of the issue.

The preferred opinion among all the schools of Islamic fiqh in the past was that the month of Ramadan cannot be determined by calculations. Astronomical calculations, in the view of the majority of jurists, rest on mere assumptions and are hypothetical in nature. Therefore, significant acts of worship such as the beginning and end of the month of Ramadan cannot be based on probabilities and uncertain presumptions. Consequently, the months connected with acts of Islamic acts of worship (`ibadat) such as Ramadan, Shawwal, and Dhul-Hijjah, can only be determined either by practical sighting (ru’yah) or by completion of 30 days.

The majority of classical scholars argued that actual sighting is required by the Qur’an, the Sunnah, ijma` (consensus of the jurists), and the linguistic meanings of the word hilal (crescent moon). These four main arguments were usually presented to substantiate the claim that actual sighting by the naked eye is a prerequisite to the fasting of the month of Ramadan.

Arguments of the Majority

The Qur’an narrates

[Ramadan is the (month) in which was sent down the Qur’an, as a guide to mankind, also Clear (Signs) for guidance and judgment (between right and wrong). So every one of you who is present (at his home) during that month should spend it in fasting, but if any one is ill, or on a journey, the prescribed period (should be made up) by days later. Allah intends every facility for you; He does not want to put you to difficulties. (He wants you) to complete the prescribed period, and to glorify Him in that He has guided you; and perchance ye shall be grateful.] (Al-Baqarah 2:185)

The phrase “faman shahida minkumu ash-shahra” [So every one of you who is present] in the above verse is interpreted by the majority as requiring practical sighting of the new moon. Such an interpretation seems to be authenticated by the Prophetic injunctions such as the following:

The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Fast with sighting it (the moon) and break the fast with sighting it. Complete thirty days of Sha`ban if it is cloudy.” (Al-Bukhari)

The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Fast with sighting it (moon) and break the fast with sighting it. Count 30 days if the month is concealed from you (being cloudy).” (Muslim)

The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) mentioned Ramadan and said, “Do not fast until you see the moon and do not break the fast until you see it. Estimate about it in case it is cloudy.” (Al-Bukhari and Ahmad)

 Actual Sighting Is Required by Ijma`

The Hanafi jurist Abu Bakr ibn `Ali Ar-Razi Al-Jassas stated the following in his Ahkam al-Qur’an:

The statement of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) “Fast with sighting it” is in line with the Qur’anic verse that says [They ask you about the new moons. Say: they are timings for people and for Hajj] (Al-Baqarah 2:189). The Muslims have agreed about the meanings and relationship of the verse and the hadith with sighting of the crescent as a condition to the fasting of Ramadan. It proves that the sighting of the new moon is what is termed as witnessing the month. (Vol. 1, 279)

He concluded that actual sighting is the only method prescribed by the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) to confirm the month of Ramadan. If it cannot be determined by actual sighting on the 29th, because of unfavorable conditions such as cloudy weather, then completing 30 days of Sh`aban is required, and that is the original rule.

Al-Jassas further stated that

In light of the Prophetic hadith, the original rule is that the month consists of 30 days unless the new moon is sighted before that. We must count 30 days for every month we are at a loss to see the moon due to cloudy weather. This rule applies to all the months connected with Islamic rituals. Only the actual sighting of the new moon will make the month less than 30 days. (Vol. 1, 280)

He also claimed that there was a consensus among all the Muslim jurists not to accept astronomical calculations in confirming or negating the month of Ramadan:

The one who believes in stages of the moon and calculations of the stargazers is out of Shari`ah. This is not the area of ijtihad, as the Qur’an, the Sunnah, and the consensus of the jurists are absolutely against it. (Vol. 1, 280)

The reason for starting the months with actual sighting, according to Al-Jassas, is to begin the acts of worship with certainty and not base them upon mere probabilities (`Umdat al-Qari, Vol. 10, 265).

This is what the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) says: “Begin fasting by sighting it and stop fasting by sighting it. If it is cloudy then complete counting thirty days of Sha`ban.” He (peace and blessings be upon him) has obligated us to count 30 days of Sha`ban when it is cloudy and also count 30 days of Ramadan in case it is cloudy (on the 29th of Ramadan) before starting the month of Shawwal. It is required so that we can start the acts of worship based upon certainty and stop the acts of worship based upon certainty. This is what the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) has manifestly commanded by another authentic saying: “Do not fast until you see the new moon and do not break the fast until you see the new moon.” And At-Tirmidhi has narrated on the authority of Abu Hurairah that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said “Count the moon of Sha`ban to determine Ramadan.” (`Umdat al-Qari, Vol. 10, 117)

Al-Jassas represents the majority view of the classical jurists. The official position of the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi`i and Hanbali schools of thought is that astronomical calculations are not the authentic way of determining the Islamic months. These months must be confirmed either by actual sighting or by completion. In the following pages, we will see how these classical scholars argued in favor of this established position.

Ahmad ibn Muhammad Al-Hamawi, another famous Hanafi jurist, stated the following:

For us, the condition for the fast and breaking the fast is sighting of the crescent, and calculation of the stargazers cannot be followed in this matter. In Al-Tahzib, according to the Shafi`i school, it is also stated that stargazing calculations cannot be trusted neither in the beginning nor in ending the month of fasting. (Vol. 2, 66)

Muhammad ibn `Abdullah Al-Kharshi presented the Maliki position in the following words:

The fasting cannot be observed by following the statement of a stargazer. Neither the stargazer nor any one else can fast based upon that because the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) has confined the fasting solely to the sighting of the witnesses or completing the 30 days. No other method is prescribed. Therefore, no attention should be paid to the statement or calculations of the stargazer regarding the month whether one believes in the preciseness of his calculations or not. (Vol. 2, 237)

The Maliki scholar Muhammad ibn Ahmad Ad-Disuqi elaborated the same by stating that only sighting or completion of 30 days are prescribed. He added that Imam Malik was of the opinion that 30 days should be completed for all the months when it is cloudy and there is no possibility of sighting the moon (Vol. 1, 509).

Imam Malik himself was reported to have said that if an imam does not follow the sighting methodology but prefers the calculations over that, such an imam is not to be obeyed or followed in daily prayers (Al-Baji, Vol. 2, 38).

Qadi Abul-Walid argued that one should make up for the days one has fasted based upon the calculations and not upon sighting or completion (Al-Baji Vol. 2, 38).

The Muslim Ummah Is Unlettered

Shihab Ad-Din ibn Ahmad Ar-Ramli, the known Shafi`i jurist, argued that

The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) did not depend upon calculations at all but absolutely negated it by his statement that “we are an unlettered nation, we neither write nor calculate.” … Ibn Daqiq Al-`Eid stated that calculations cannot be the source of confirming the fasting (of Ramadan). (Vol. 2, 59)

Imam Yahya ibn Sharaf An-Nawawi in Al-Majmu` also quoted the above-mentioned hadith and gave almost the same reasons for rejection of calculations. He added that

It would cause people hardship if they were required to follow the calculations, as calculations are known only to a few people living mostly in big cities. Therefore, the majority position is the right position and whatever else is there is rejected by the authentic sayings of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). (Vol. 6, 276)

Az-Zurqani also argued the same:

And it is not true that “estimation” means calculations, because if people were required to follow calculations, they would find it hard because only a few people know about calculations, and Shari`ah only requires people to follow what has been known by the majority of them. (152)

`Abdur-Rahim ibn Al-Hussain Al-`Iraqi, another renowned Shafi`i scholar, contended that clouds are very often in the horizon. The Shar`i reason for fasting is the actual sighting. The majority of jurists connected the fasting with actual sighting without resorting to any other method. This was the opinion of Malik, Shafi`i, Abu Hanifah, and the majority of scholars in the past and the present (Vol. 4, 113-114).

Calculations Are Connected With Magic and Stargazing

Editor’s note: At the time of the Prophet and the scholars quoted here, astronomy and astrology were not distinct disciplines as they are today. We have used the word “stargazing” throughout this discussion rather than interpret the texts as “astronomy” or “astrology” according to context.

One of the main reasons for such a total rejection, in the view of these scholars, was the close connection between stargazing (astrology) and magic, which is forbidden by the Prophet of Islam (peace and blessings be upon him). Al-Hafiz ibn Hajar strictly prohibited the use of calculation by quoting the Prophetic sayings that warn Muslims about the evils of stargazing such as “no one would learn any part of stargazing except that he has learned a part of magic.” Caliph `Umar has been quoted as saying “Learn from stargazing whatever portion is helpful in guiding you through the land and ocean and then stop.” Therefore, any part of stargazing other than the directional symbols and signs, to Ibn Hajar, was un-Islamic (At-Talkhis, Vol. 2, 360).

Imam Ibn Taymiyyah, a renowned Hanbali authority, was the staunch opponent of using stargazing calculations to confirm or negate the Islamic months. He emphatically argued that calculations could never lead to a certain method of finding out the crescent and he, like Al-`Iraqi and Al-Jassas, also claimed agreement among the scholars about this matter. Ibn Taymiyyah contended that

The mainstream scholars of Shari`ah agree that using calculations in determining the new moon is forbidden. The wise stargazers also agree that there is no way to authentically determine the crescent through calculations. That is why the expert stargazers do not indulge in calculations but deny them. Only a group from the posterity, out of ignorance, has indulged themselves in that. This is basically changing the deen of Allah by misleading people and by following the misguidance of the Jews in this matter. (Vol. 6, 590)

Here Ibn Taymiyyah seemed to be referring to the Jewish rabbinical council’s decision to adopt astronomical calculations as the authentic source of confirming the Jewish lunar months.

At another place he registered his opposition to the use of calculations in the following strong words:

Undoubtedly the calculations are rejected by the Sunnah as well as consensus of the Companions, as the authentic hadith says. … Therefore the one who depends upon the calculation is a misguided innovator, not only mistaken in the matters of Shari`ah but also in the matters of logic and stargazing. (Vol. 25, 207)

Calculations Are Inaccurate

Ibn Taymiyyah also argued that knowledge of stargazing was misleading and in itself was a forbidden act. Its cons outweighed its pros. He quoted several narrations of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) to denounce stargazing (Vol. 1, 62).

He substantiated his point by a practical encounter that he had with the stargazers of his time. He concluded that the method of stargazing calculation was based purely upon falsehood and cheating:

This is how the stargazers are! I, by logical arguments, proved the wrong nature of their profession when I debated their chiefs in Damascus. One of them told me “by God, we concoct a hundred lies to be able to come up with one truth.” (Vol. 1, 62)

He further contended that

The arguments against this profession and its prohibition in Islam are too many. It is not a place to go into details of that. It is sufficient to quote what Al-Muslim narrated from the Prophet (peace be upon him): “One who asked a stargazer (`arraf) about something (unseen) will not have his prayers accepted by Allah Most High for forty days.” The term `arraf denotes the magician, the stargazer, and the others. (Vol. 1, 63)

This group of scholars suggested a number of punishments for the individuals who engaged themselves with stargazing and calculations. For instance, Muhammad ibn Ahmad Al-`Alish pointed out that nobody, neither the stargazer himself nor any one else, should fast according to the calculations. It was forbidden to approve of a stargazer. The stargazer should be killed without any chance of repentance if he openly propagates that the stars are directly involved in human destiny. He will be treated as an apostate if he conceals his beliefs but argues indirectly about the impact of stars on human life. He should be asked to repent and if he refuses to do so, he should be killed. He will be a sinful believer if he takes the stars as signs indicating the events in the world but believes that the actual power lies with Allah and not with the stars (Vol. 2, 113-114).

In view of Ibn Rushd, another renowned classical jurist, stargazers must be disciplined (Al-`Alish, Vol. 2, 114).

Al-Hafiz Ibn Hajar called them human devils as they based their calculations on mere conjecture, mere hunch, and anticipation. He also quoted the above-mentioned hadith that connects the knowledge of stargazing with the knowledge of magic (An-Nihaya fi Gharib al-Athar, Vol. 2, 205).

Summary of the Majority’s Arguments

The main arguments of this group of scholars against using calculation as a valid means of determining the Islamic month can be summarized in the following main points:

1. In the matters of confirming or negating the Islamic months, especially the month of Ramadan, sighting of the new moon is required by Islamic Law, as only sighting can guarantee certainty. Actual sighting, in the view of these scholars, seems to be the goal and not the means. By sighting they mean the actual sighting with the naked human eyes. This group of scholars claimed that there was consensus among all the classical Muslim scholars that the actual sighting or completion of 30 days was the only way to confirm. This classical majority group reiterated that the Prophetic narrations that call for estimation or calculation in case of cloudy weather must be understood in light of the narrations that require completion of 30 days. That is what they believed was the consensus. And Ibn Taymiyyah defined the consensus in the following words: “Consensus occurs when the Muslim scholarship agrees upon a ruling of one of the Islamic rules. No one is permitted to oppose such a consensus because the Ummah does not agree upon something inherently wrong” (Vol. 20, 10). He also argued that “the reality is that the one who goes against an established consensus in fact commits an act of disbelief. It is just like refusing an established religious text” (Vol. 20, 10).

2. Stargazing calculations are hypothetical in nature and mere conjectures. They can never lead us to an authentic method of determining the beginning or end of the Islamic lunar months. Some classical scholars such as Ibn Taymiyyah and Al-Jassas also seemed to claim an agreement among jumhur (majority of scholars) about rejecting the calculations all together.

3. Following calculations causes hardship for common people as the knowledge of calculations is limited to a few individuals, most of whom live in big cities, as argued by An-Nawawi.

4. Dealing with calculations and movements of celestial bodies is a profession of magicians and fortune-tellers, the aspects of divinations strictly forbidden by the Shari`ah. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) forbade that by saying “No one would learn any part of stargazing (astrology) except that he has learned a part of magic” (Abu Dawud). Abu Dawud also narrated that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) prohibited `Ali (may Allah be pleased with him) from keeping the company of stargazers.

5. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) clearly forbade Muslims to deal with calculations in relation to the month of Ramadan when he said “we are unlettered people. We neither write nor calculate.” On the other hand, he (peace and blessings be upon him) commanded Muslims to depend upon the actual sighting or to complete 30 days. Some contended that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) prohibited the use of calculations knowing that the Jewish community of

Madinah was using stargazing calculations to confirm the Jewish months. Actually the Jewish calendar was fixed by R. Hillel II in 363 CE, and the Jewish community of Madinah had access to that calendar. He (peace and blessings be upon him) intentionally stopped the Muslims from imitating the Jews by putting a stop to the use of calculations in the matter of confirming Muslim months. “We are an unlettered nation. We neither write nor calculate. The month is this way and this way. It means that sometimes it is twenty-nine days and sometimes thirty days” (Al-Bukhari).

6. Following stargazing calculations in the matters of deen such as the month of Ramadan and Shawwal would nullify the spirit of the acts of worship such as fasting. This goes against the clear commandments of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) as he said, “Do not start fasting until you see the moon and do not stop fasting until you see the moon.” Therefore, any Muslim who goes against these emphatic commandments of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and starts fasting based upon mere calculations must make up for the days observed.

7. The Arabic word for the new moon is hilal. The linguistic definition of the word hilal requires that it must be deflecting the light and be shining and not dark. Shining then is connected with human sighting. Therefore, we cannot start the new month until we see the new moon. This argument is based upon the following linguistic meanings of the word “hilal.” Ibn Manzur gives the following definition for “hilal”:

Al-hilal is the white spotlight of the new moon seen by the people in the beginning of the new month. It is said that the new moon is called hilal for the first two nights of the month and then it is called qamar. It is also said that the new moon is called hilal for the first three nights only. It is also said that the new moon is called hilal until it is a quarter moon. It is also said that it is called hilal until its glitter stands out brightly against the darkness of the night. This cannot happen until the seventh night. (Lisan al-`Arab)

Discussion of the Word Shahida

The following Qur’anic phrase is usually interpreted to mean witnessing actual moon sighting: [fa man shahida minkum ush-shahra falyasumhu] (Al-Baqarah 2:185). The linguistic meanings of the word “shahida” are “presence, knowledge, and announcement (informing others).” Ahmad ibn Faris, in Maqayis al-Lughah, wrote that “The meanings of “shahida” are confined to the three: presence, knowledge, and announcement. None of the word’s derivatives go beyond these three meanings” (“shahida”).

Linguistically the above quoted Qur’anic phrase cannot go beyond the following three meanings:

1. Whoever was present in the month the Ramadan, then let him fast (the month).

2. Whoever had the knowledge of the month of Ramadan, then let him fast (the month).

3. Whoever received the knowledge about the month of Ramadan, then let him fast the month.

In no way or form it can be translated “Whoever sees the moon of the month of Ramadan then let him fast it.” It will be against all the established rules of Arabic language. That is why the Qur’anic exegetes have translated and understood the meanings of the phrase as “whoever was present in the month of Ramadan then let him fast the month.”

The Qur’an has used the same word in all the above three meanings. For instance, it says” [There is no god but He: that is the witness (shahida) of Allah, His angels, and those endued with knowledge, standing firm on justice. There is no god but He the Exalted in Power, the Wise”] (Aal `Imran 3:18). Allah Almighty does not witness with actual eyes, nor do the angels. Allah Almighty witnesses (shahida) means that He “explains or knows”. Jalal Ad-Din As-Suyuti explained these meanings by the following words: “Shahida here means that Allah explained to His creatures by the signs and arguments (that He is One).”

The same word is used about human faculties such as hearing and seeing. I am sure they do not have actual physical eyes to sight things.

[At length, when they reach the (Fire), their hearing, their sight, and their skins will bear witness (shahid) against them, as to (all) their deeds. They will say to their skins: “Why bear ye witness (shahid) against us?” They will say: “Allah hath given us speech, He Who giveth speech to everything: He created you for the first time, and unto Him were ye to return.”] (Fussilat 20-21)

In these verses the witness of the faculties of hearing and seeing, and the skins, is explained through the word shahida. No one can say that these faculties will witness with their eyes. This means that these faculties will explain or give knowledge of what the person did in the worldly life.

The following verse uses the word shahida for truth: [And those whom they invoke besides Allah have no power of intercession; only he who bears witness (shahida) to the Truth, and they know (him)] (Az-Zukhruf 43:86). Here again the witness of truth cannot be with naked eyes. The truth is not a physical entity that witnessing it would require sighting it. It clearly means “standing by the truth” or “acknowledging the truth” wholeheartedly.

The Qur’anic exegetes, in light of the clear Qur’anic and linguistic meanings, interpret the above-quoted verse of Surat Al-Baqarah to mean that “whoever was present in the month of Ramadan and was not traveling or sick should fast the month of Ramadan.”

Imam Abu `Abdullah Al-Qurtubi reported that the famous Companions of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) like `Ali, Ibn `Abbas, `A’ishah and others observed that the meaning of “shahida” is “to “be present” in the month of Ramadan:

`Ali ibn Abi Talib, Ibn `Abbas, Suwayd ibn Ghafalah, and `A’ishah, four of the Companions, and Successors such as Abu Mijlaz, Lahiq ibn Humayd and `Ubaydah As-Salmani have said shahida means “whoever was present when the month started and was resident in his city and among his family, let him complete his fasting … whoever was present in the month of Ramadan let him fast.” (Vol. 2, 290)

Al-Hafiz Ibn Kathir said, “By this verse Allah obligated the resident and healthy to observe fasting while giving concession to the sick and traveling persons” (Vol. 1, 360)

The same meanings of presence were given by him at a different place.

Jalal Ad-Din As-Suyuti said shahida means “present” (37).

Imam An-Nasafi gave the same meanings.

Imam Ash-Shawkani also said that the word means “present.”

Imam Ar-Razi had the same meanings for the word “shahida” (Vol. 2, 250).

There is no second opinion among the Qur’anic exegetes that the above phrase means anything but “whoever was present in the month of Ramadan and not sick or traveling should fast the month of Ramadan.” The same meanings are conveyed also by the context in which this phrase occurs in the Qur’an. Immediately after this phrase the Qur’an says [Whosoever is sick or traveling should make up for the missed days.] Imam Al-Alusi observed that

Linguistically it is not appropriate to say “whoever saw the moon let him fast and whoever is sick or traveling let him make up for when the second category enters the first category (meaning when the sick or traveling sees the moon).” The detailed conjunction “and” demands difference and variety. … That is why the majority of the grammarians view ash-shahr as the subject and see that the word fa means “as a result” or “consequently” the person should fast.

Al-Alusi showed that linguistically the phrase cannot violate the two established meanings. It has to mean either presence in person or through knowledge. The meanings will not give a sense of actual sighting of the moon whether we take the word ash-shahr as maf`ul fih or maf`ul bih [grammatical terms].

Ar-Razi also explained that in either case the meaning will be “presence” and not “witnessing the new moon with human eyes” (Vol. 2, 250).

It is a common practice among the Arabs to say “I witnessed the Friday Prayers or Hajj.” That does not mean that Friday Prayer or Hajj is something physical and the person saw it with his own eyes. It clearly means that he was present in the Friday Prayers or in the Hajj of such-and-such year.

It is very unfortunate that some contemporary Muslims try to impose their opinions upon the text of the Qur’an and do not let the Qur’an speak to them. They arbitrarily inflict their understanding of the issue upon the Qur’an itself and then present it as the authentic Qur’anic position. This case of actually sighting the new moon of Ramadan is a good example how some Muslims intrude on the divine writ by compelling the Qur’an to say what they think is right and should be said. It should be the other way round.

Ibn Abi Maleeka narrated that Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) was once asked about interpretation of a word in the Qur’an. He replied, “Which heaven will cover me and which earth will carry me and where will I go and what will I do if I end up saying a word in (explaining) the Qur’an that is against the intended meanings of Allah Most High?” (Al-Qurtubi, Vol. 1, 1)

It was not a very complicated word about which Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) was asked. He was asked about the meanings of simple words such as fakihah (fruit) and abba (fodder) in Surat `Abasa (80:31). He was not sure about the exact meanings in that context and was afraid to give an interpretation that might not be one hundred percent Allah’s intended meanings of those words (Al-Qurtubi, Vol. 19, 22)

This is Abu Bakr and these are simple words. What about changing the meanings of a Qura’nic verse to fit one’s own understanding or interpretation! May Allah protect all of us from indulging in such a disastrous adventure!

If we were to accept the interpretation of some contemporary Muslims that the word shahida means “sighting the moon of Ramadan with naked eyes,” then the question arises whether fasting is obligatory upon all those who sighted the moon of Ramadan? What about the sick, the traveler, the children under the age of puberty, the pregnant women and the elderly people? Would they be obligated to fast if they happened to sight the moon of Ramadan?

In addition to that, it would mean that only those people who saw the moon would be required to fast the month of Ramadan if we interpret the word shahida as “actual sighting”. The corollary would be that those who did not see the new moon would not be required to observe fasting. This would be an absolutely wrong understanding of the Qur’anic verse. Therefore, it is erroneous to connect shahida with sighting rather than presence. That is why Abu As-Su`ud, Al-Kashaff, As-Samarqandi, and almost all other Qur’anic exegetes clearly explained the phrase to mean “present.”

It is correct that some classical jurists explained this phrase in light of the hadiths that call for sighting the moon of the month of Ramadan such “Fast with sighting it (moon) and break the fast with sighting it. Complete thirty days of Sha`ban if it is cloudy” (Al-Bukhari).

Abu Bakr Al-Jassas argued that in light of the hadiths we can say that “sighting of the new moon is basically being present in the month” (Ahkam al-Qur’an), but he never claimed that the verse of Surat Al-Baqarah and the phrase mean only that. He never claimed that “sighting the new moon” would be the exact interpretation of the Qur’anic verse. This was his understanding of the verse and not the exact literal interpretation of the verse.

By Dr. Zulfiqar Ali Shah


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