The Sunnah Argument
Objective of the Sunnah
First, the Prophetic hadiths clearly ask for actual sighting of the new moon as a means of certainty and not as a precondition for the `ibadah (act of worship) of fasting. It is true that sighting was required by the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) as it was the only authentic method available during his time to confirm the presence of the new moon, the sign of the new month’s commencement. That is what the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said: “We are unlettered people. We neither write nor calculate.”
The month sometimes consists of 29 days and sometimes of 30. The `ibadat are connected with the time, which in Islamic understanding is connected with the moon and not with the sun, as the Islamic calendar is lunar, not solar. TheShari`ah does not want us to start fasting when the month of Ramadan has not even begun, nor to lose a day of Ramadan by celebrating the `Eid on the last day of Ramadan. That is why the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) advised us not to start or finish the month of Ramadan a day or two ahead of time. He wanted us to start and end Ramadan with certainty that the new moon is there.
Actual sighting of the new moon was the only mechanism then at the Muslims’ disposal to attain that certainty. That is why the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) emphasized so much upon sighting the new moon: not because sighting is the objective of fasting or in any way a goal of the `ibadah, but because it was a means to ascertain the presence of the new moon, the knowledge of which presenceis the objective of `ibadah. Now when that objective can be achieved through a more authentic and precise method — that is, astronomical calculations — then replacing actual sighting, which is a probable mean of certainty, with a more accurate method that is based on categorical certainty will not constitute any deviation from the Prophetic commandment or objectives of Islamic Shari`ah, but will complement them.
Second, if the actual sighting were such an objective or a prerequisite without which fasting could not be started, then it would have been required even on the 30th of Sha`ban. Nobody goes out to see the new moon on the 30th of Sha`ban or on the 30th of Ramadan. No jurists have ever required such a sighting because the sighting was prescribed for certainty of the beginning or end of the month, and not for the sake of sighting itself. Once that certainty is achieved by completing 30 days (as the Islamic month cannot go beyond 30 days), sighting is not even required and the new month is started. Everybody knows that the new moon must be above the horizon by the 30th of Sha`ban and nobody worries about seeing it. If seeing the new moon were a precondition for fasting, then fasting and sighting would go hand in hand, but we see that it is not. Therefore, sighting is not the prerequisite for fasting but is a means to achieve certainty that the new moon is above the horizon.
Third, if it is said that sighting is not required on the 30th of Sha`ban because the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said “complete thirty days if it is cloudy,” I would argue that this Prophetic statement commands us to complete 30 days if it is cloudy. It does not say “do not see the new moon on the 30th of Sha`ban if it was not cloudy on the 29th of Sha`ban.” Suppose it was not cloudy on the 29th of Sha`ban and the new moon was not seen that evening; then would not the hadith have required Muslims to see it on the 30th of Sha`ban had it been a precondition for fasting? The clause “if it is cloudy” covers only when it is cloudy but does not cover when it is not cloudy. Had the sighting been intrinsic to fasting, then it would have been required even on the 30th, especially when the new moon was not seen, not because some obscurities hampered its sighting, but because it was not above the horizon. But if we agree that sighting is not the precondition for fasting, but certainty is, then one can understand why sighting is required on the 29th of Sha`ban and not on the 30th of Sha`ban.
Fourth, sighting is not a prerequisite for fasting, even on the 29th of Sha`ban. Had it been a precondition, then no Muslim would be allowed to start the month of Ramadan except by sighting the new moon on the 29th of Sha`ban. Ibn `Umar, along with `A’ishah and Asma’ bint Abi Bakr (may Allah be pleased with them), used to start fasting the next day if it was cloudy on the 29th of Sha`ban and the new moon was obscured, the details of which will follow later. They would not fast that day as a supererogatory day of fasting but as a mandatory day of Ramadan.
That was the case with many of the Tabi`in (Successors; the generation after the Prophet) and a whole school of fiqh is based upon this opinion. Imam Ahmad, following the actions of these Companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him), adopted this position and the entire Hanbali school follows this position. It becomes important when we know that Ibn `Umar is the original narrator of many of the hadiths found in all the authentic sources of hadiths that require sighting as a means of fasting. For instance, 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).
Ibn `Umar’s Practice
As we see, Ibn `Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) would start the month of Ramadan by just counting the days of Sha`ban and without actually sighting the new moon if it was cloudy on the 29th of Sha`ban. This act of Ibn `Umar — the original narrator of the Prophetic reports that ask for the actual sighting to confirm or negate the month of Ramadan — explains the true meanings of those hadiths and repudiates the second most important argument of the majority that there is a cause and effect relationship between the actual sighting and the act of fasting. Logically speaking, sighting in itself cannot be the sole reason for prescribing the month of Ramadan or the act of fasting. It must be a means to achieve the goal of certainty. The following points must be kept in mind while discussing this matter.
It is a known fact among the jurists that sighting in itself is not a condition for the month of Ramadan, as Muhammad ibn `Ali ibn Daqiq Al-`Eid, the renowned Shafi`i authority, stated:
The actual sighting is not a prerequisite to the fasting. There is agreement (among the jurists) that if someone is imprisoned in the basement and knows, either through completing 30 days or through estimation by following the signs, that the month of Ramadan has started, then he is required to start fasting even if he has neither sighted the moon by himself nor has been informed by the one who actually sighted it. (Vol. 2, 8)
The famous classical Hanafi jurist Sa`d Ad-Din Mas`ud ibn `Umar At-Taftazani stated that all the Muslim jurists agree that sighting the new moon is just a means and not the objective in itself.
The meanings of the Qur’anic verse whoever witnesses the month mean being present in the month. Witnessing the month is just a means. The Prophetic statement “fast by sighting it” also leads to that. All the Muslim jurists agree that actual sighting is not the objective, but the objective is what the sighting proves, and that is the coming of the (new) month. (Vol. 1, 401)
The late contemporary jurist Dr. Mustafa Az-Zarqa argued that
It is an established fact that sighting the new moon in itself is not an act of Islamic worship. It is just a means to know the time. It was the only way available to a nation which knew not how to write or calculate. Its unlettered status was the sole reason for it to be dependent upon the naked eye, according to the text of the hadith that is the source of this ruling.
Actual sighting with the naked human eye was prescribed by the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) as it was the only method available to the Muslims of that time to confirm with certainty the beginning or ending of the month. The reason for such a need was also given by the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), and that was the unlettered status of the Ummah of that time.
The Verb Ra’a
Moreover, the verb ra’a, yara (seeing or sighting) is usually used in the above-quoted hadiths in the sense of actual act of physical sighting, but linguistically the verb is not confined to that. It has been used in a number of other instances in the Qur’an as well as in the hadiths where the meanings cannot be actual sighting but pondering or certainty. The verb seeing, along with its many derivatives, occurs in the Qur’an 328 times. In a number of these verses, the Qur’an uses the verb seeing in the context of pondering or ascertaining without resorting to sighting by human eyes. For instance, these verses use the verb not in the sense of actual sighting but in the second sense.
Didst thou not turn thy vision to those who abandoned their homes, though they were thousands (in number), for fear of death? Allah said to them: “Die”: then He restored them to life. For Allah is full of bounty to mankind, but most of them are ungrateful. (Al-Baqarah 2:243)
Hast thou not turned thy vision to the Chiefs of the Children of Israel after (the time of) Moses? They said to a Prophet (that was) among them: “Appoint for us a king, that we may fight in the cause of Allah.” (Al-Baqarah 2:246)
The same can be understood from the other verses such as 2:258, 3:23, 4:44, 4:49, 4:60, 96:9, 96:13, 107:1, and many more.
Also hadiths have used the same verb in relation to fasting. In the following hadith, actual sighting does not seem to be a goal. It is the certainty that matters.
We traveled with the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) while he was fasting. At sunset he (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Get down and mix the drink for us.” He was told, “What if we wait for the night!” He said, “Prepare the drink.” He was told that the daylight still seemed to be there. He again asked for the drink which was prepared for him. Then he (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “When you see the night approaching from there (and he pointed towards the east), then the fasting person should break the fast.”
In these hadiths the word ra’aytum is used by the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) in connection with breaking the fast of Ramadan. He said “if you see the night coming from the east.” If we were to take his words literally, then we would have to go out every evening to actually see the night coming from the east to break our fast. Presently nobody goes out in the evening to see the night coming from the east to break the fast. Muslims all over the world just follow the astronomical calculations and know the timings of iftar. At the time of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) Muslims did not have many choices. That is why they adopted the most certain method available at hand. Currently the method has changed and no jurist has any problem with that. The same is the situation with the timings of sahur and imsak (when eating must stop before dawn). The Qur’an says And eat and drink until the white thread of dawn appears to you distinct from its black thread; then complete your fast till the night appears (Al-Baqarah 2:187). Presently we do not follow this text literally but in spirit by following clocks and calculated timings.
Calculated Prayer Times
Furthermore, the Muslim Ummah for many centuries in the past followed the shadow of poles to determine the timings for the Zhuhr and `Asr prayers. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) himself ordered Muslims to follow the shadow of the sun to determine the prayer timings.
Currently we use astronomically guided schedules and clocks to determine the prayer times. The argument here is not that the prayers are connected with the solar system while the month of Ramadan is connected with the lunar system. Our argument is that the authentic texts of the Qur’an and the Sunnah are being implemented in the spirit but not in the letter because following them in the letter was not the objective of Islamic Law. The objective of the Law was to realize the goal prescribed by the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him).
For example, in the matter of breaking the fast, the objective is to make certain that the sun has set and the night has approached. In the matter connected with imsak, it is required to ascertain that dawn has arrived. In the Prophetic times, the same objectives were achieved through the means available to the people. The same objectives are currently achieved through astronomical calculations, and the entire Ummah has agreed upon the use of these astronomical calculations in the matters of deen that are, in turn, connected with the obligatory acts of fasting and praying. The objectives are constant while the means are variable according to the circumstances. This is the true spirit of Islamic Law: that it is flexible in the matters connected with some means so that it can always relate to modern developments and progress.
Some contemporary Muslims argue that Islamic Law has also fixed the means to achieve Islamic goals such as halal and lawful earning is a means to achieve the goal of feeding one’s family. A Muslim is not permitted to adopt an unlawful means such as stealing to achieve the above goal. Likewise, the objective of procreating cannot be achieved by unlawful means of adultery and fornication.
Feeding the family by unlawful means such as stealing or cheating is haram because Allah has clearly prohibited adopting such means in many verses of the Qur’an and through the Prophetic narrations. Likewise, fathering children through unlawful means is prohibited by the Qur’an. Do not even come close to adultery (Al-Israa‘ 17:32) is the Qur’anic dictum. That is why any such means will be prohibited because they are unlawful in themselves. There are different kinds of means mentioned in the Qur’an, such as those in the following verse:
Against them make ready your strength to the utmost of your power, including steeds of war, to strike terror into (the hearts of) the enemies, of Allah and your enemies, and others besides, whom ye may not know, but whom Allah doth know. Whatever ye shall spend in the Cause of Allah, shall be repaid unto you, and ye shall not be treated unjustly. (Al-Anfal 8:60)
Here Allah clearly mentions horses as one of the means of striking fear in the hearts of the enemies. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) explicitly asked for arrows as a source of power: “Certainly the might is consisting of archery; certainly the might is archery” (At-Tabari, Vol. 10, 21).
`Ikrimah, the famous first-century exegete, explained the verse as clearly requiring horses as the source of the aspired might.
In modern warfare we would look stupid if we followed the same means of might against the enemies of Islam. Those means were good to achieve the aspired goal in those days but are not appropriate for modern warfare. Therefore, adopting the new means of tanks, missiles, and combat aircrafts to achieve the desired goal of power and might will not be haram but obligatory to adopt to our times. There is no Qur’anic text that stops the use of such new means, and that is why it is obligatory to use them. Would anyone insist upon using arrows and horses in the battlefield because Allah and His Prophet fixed the means through the authentic Qur’anic and Prophetic texts?
Likewise astronomical calculations are a means to achieve the aspired goal of certainty. The Prophetic tradition prohibited them because at that time the overwhelming majority of the Ummah was unlettered in the matters of sophisticated astronomical calculations. The same was true with the later generations of the Ummah. The majority of the classical scholars were absolutely right in rejecting calculations, as they were inaccurate and mostly done by astrologists and magicians.
But astronomical calculations in our time are no longer the work of magicians or fortune-tellers, but the work of bona fide scientists and astronomers who base their knowledge on scientific observations and facts. The margin of error in these calculations is close to zero. The arguments of inaccuracy and magic were rejected by jurists even in the classical times. What about in 21st-century America where the science of astronomy has reached a climax? For instance, Zain Ad-Din ibn Ibrahim ibn Nujaim argued that
Ibn Ash-Shihnah says that the magician and astrologist mentioned in the Hadith are the ones who tell about the unseen or claim knowledge of the future. The statement of such a person will not be accepted and approving such claims will constitute an act of disbelief. But calculations of the moons have nothing to do with that. They are based upon precise calculations and are not fortune-telling or things connected with the unseen. Do you not you see what Allah says in the Qur’an: (He prescribed for (the moon) computed stages so that you can learn about the numbers of years and calculations). (Vol. 2, 284)
Taqi Ad-Din `Ali ibn `Abdul-Kafi As-Subki (AH 683-756), discussing the hadith quoted above, put the point in a nutshell:
It cannot be that the Shari`ah has categorically prohibited use of astronomical calculations. That is not the case. How could it be while the calculations are being used in the obligatory as well as other matters (of deen). The oft-quoted hadith mentions writing and calculations. Now, when writing is not forbidden, how could astronomical calculations be! (Vol. 1, 211)
In regards to the hardship argument, it must be noted that we are living in a time when the entire world has become like a small village. In this age of communication, news gets all over the world not within minutes but within seconds. Therefore, the argument of hardship leveled by An-Nawawi and others loses its ground. In reality it is the other way around, as Dr. Al-Qardawi rightly contends (Vol. 2, 212–217). Muslims all over the globe, and especially in the West, suffer many hardships due to uncertainties connected with actual sighting. Some of them wait till midnight just to start their Tarawih Prayers or to decide about their `Eid Prayers. There are many hardships for the working class as well as for Muslim students. Therefore, dependence upon actual sighting rather than astronomical calculations is the source of hardships in our times.
It is also a historical fact that astronomical calculations and their use in the matters of deen and `ibadat is nothing new. They have been used since long ago to determine the times of the five daily prayers, sahur and iftar, and also to determine the direction of the qiblah. The jurists since the old times have not only accepted calculations without any problem but have required Muslims to learn about them.
The jurists have categorized the knowledge of stars into two categories. First is the calculation of celestial bodies and their movements to determine beginning of the months. The one who practices this kind of stargazing is called the astronomer. There is no disagreement among the jurists that such an exercise is permitted. It is allowed to learn such a science in an effort to know the prayer timings and the directions of the qiblah. Actually the majority of the jurists (jumhur) are of the opinion that it is obligatory that such knowledge be sought by a number of Muslims at all times. Ibn `Abideen in his Hashiyah says that “astronomical calculations are Islamically approved.” That is what the Qur’an precisely says: the sun and the moon follow meticulous calculations. The jurists have allowed depending upon calculations in relation to the timings of the daily prayers as well as directions of the qiblah. The astronomical calculations connected with the new moons, lunar and solar eclipses are absolutely correct. Almighty God has fixed a system for the celestial bodies and they always follow that system to the full extent. The same are the four seasons. The aspects of nature that are continuously repeating themselves are categorical in nature. Therefore, they should be relied upon in the matters of prayer timings as well as qiblah directions. (Al-Qaradawi,Vol. 14, 53)
And Ahmad ibn Muhammad Al-Hamawi, the known Hanafi jurist, stated the same in the old times:
The calculations related to the new moons and eclipses are based upon actual realities and experiments. They do not come under the category of prohibited acts by the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). This argument is substantiated by the fact that the jurists have allowed knowledge of calculations when it comes to knowing the timings of daily prayers and directions of qiblah. (Vol. 2, 66)
Perhaps these are the reasons that Mustafa Az-Zarqa was most amazed that a good number of present-day conservative jurists are so adamant about not accepting the astronomical calculations in confirming or negating the month of Ramadan while they are using the same calculations in acts of worship that are far more important in significance as well as frequency, such as daily prayers. The classical jurists were rightfully correct in their stance against these calculations during their times. The science in their times had not reached the levels of authenticity and certainty where it is in our times. They could not have based important acts of worship, such as the fasting of the month of Ramadan, upon calculations that were not 100 percent precise. Are we going to drag their opposition to calculations to the times where the reason they adopted such a view no longer exists? Cause and effect always go hand in hand. If the cause no longer exists, the effect must also go away (Az-Zarqa 157-159).
Weakness of Ikmal (Completing 30 Days) Argument
Completing 30 days in case of cloudy weather is the most agreed-upon position among the majority of classical scholars, but again, it is not the only categorical stance accepted by the Ummah. Leading authorities such as Ibn `Umar, Imam Ahmad, and others are reported to have started Ramadan and its fasting following the 29th of Sha`ban if it was cloudy, and to not have completed 30 days of Sha`ban, as most of the narrations report the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) requiring completion by the phrase “fa in ghubbiya`alaykum, fa akmilu `iddata Sha`bana thalatheen.”
It is ironic that Ibn `Umar himself is the original narrator of most of these Prophetic hadiths. In reality, the picture comes out quite differently when we discuss and analyze such Prophetic narrations in detail. In what follows I will try to analyze some of these reports in an effort to prove that no such consensus exists, even when it comes to the discussion of the ending of the hadiths, where there are a number of difficulties. These difficulties can be appreciated only when we study these reports in depth and compare the ending parts of these reports with each other.
Al-Bukhari and Muslim
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 (the moon) and break the fast with sighting it. Count thirty days if the month is concealed from you (being cloudy).” (Muslim)
It is pertinent to note that the beginning part of these reports is quite consistent in almost all the hadiths, but the ending part has an array of variety. It seems that in the end portion of the hadiths, the reporters are explaining something rather than just reporting the exact words of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). Some of these reports are not as authentic as they seem to be.
In the above-quoted two hadiths, it is important to notice that Al-Bukhari and Muslim both are narrating from Abu Hurairah through Muhammad ibn Ziyad. The first part of the hadith is the same in both the narrations, but the ending parts are different. Al-Bukhari narrates “fa in ghubbiya`alaykum, fa akmilu `iddata Sha`bana thalatheen.” And Muslim narrates “fa in ghummiya`alaykum, fa `uddu thalatheen.”
The verb used by Al-Bukhari is “ghubbiya”(obscured from you) while Muslim used a little different construction: “ghummiya`alaykumash-shahra” (if the month is obscured from you). Secondly, Al-Bukhari narrated “fa akmilu `iddata Sha`bana thalatheen” (complete counting thirty days of Sha`ban) and Muslim narrated “fa `uddu thalatheen”(then count thirty), without using the phrase of Al-Bukhari “then complete thirty days of Sha`ban.” It is also a fact that some of these narrations require completing 30 days only for Sha`ban, while others require so for the month of Ramadan also.
Imam Ahmad has reported a number of these narrations:
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 the clouds come between you and the moon. And do not start the month ahead of time.” Hatim said it means “counting thirty days of Sha`ban.”
In the above, Hatim seems to be giving his interpretation of the hadith also.
Start fasting by sighting it and break the fast by sighting it. Complete the counting if the clouds cover it and the month is twenty-nine days, that is, it is incomplete.
It is interesting to note that both of the above narrations are from Ibn `Abbas. Imam Ahmad used the same chain through Samak and `Ikrimah, but again the ending parts of the narrations are quite different. In the first narration the ending is “if the clouds come between you and the moon. And do not start the month ahead of time.” Hatim said it means “counting thirty days of Sha`ban.” While in the second narration, the ending part is “Complete the counting if the clouds cover it and the month is twenty-nine days, that is, it is incomplete.”
In both of the above narrations, the narrator explains the idea with the word ya`ni (it means).
Ahmad reports in his Musnad the following hadiths from Abu Hurairah:
Fast with sighting it (the moon) and break the fast with sighting it. Count thirty days if the month is concealed from you (being cloudy).
Fast with sighting it (the moon) and break the fast with sighting it. Complete thirty days (of Sha`ban) if it is cloudy.
Fast with sighting it (moon) and break the fast with sighting it. If it is cloudy, count thirty days.
Two of the above are reported through Muhammad ibn Ziyad and one through `Ataa’. Interestingly enough, the ending parts of the narrations are also different from Al-Bukhari, who uses narration from Abu Hurairah through Muhammad ibn Ziyad as well: Al-Bukhari’s version is “fa in ghubbiya `alaykum, fa akmilu `iddata Sha`bana thalatheen.” The verb is “ghubbiya” instead of “ghumma” and it is “akmilu `iddata Sha`bana thalatheen” instead of Ahmad’s rendering, which is “akmilu-l-`idata thalatheen” or “fa`uddu thalatheen.”
Furthermore, in Ahmad the above three narrations from Abu Hurairah also show a little more variance. In the first two, the “fa akmilu” portion is common while the first report says “fa in ghumma `alaykum ash-shahr” while the second one just brings “fa in ghumma `alaykum.” The difference between the second and the third report is that the second report brings the rendering “fa akmilu-l-`iddata thalatheen” while the third report brings “fa `iddu thalateen,” and both of them use the phrase “fa in ghumma `alaykum.”
The Prophet said, “Do not fast until you see the crescent and do not break the fast until you see the crescent.” And said, “Fast by seeing it and break the fast by seeing it. If confusion takes place then count thirty days.” Shu`bah said, “To the best of my knowledge he said ‘Do not fast until you see the moon and do not break the fast until you see the moon.'” (Musnad Ahmad)
Shu`bah’s comment at the end of this narration is not clear when he said “he said.” Who is “he” referring to? Is “he” referring to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) or to Muhammad ibn Ziyad or to Abu Hurairah?
Shu`bah’s comment “to the best of my knowledge he said, ‘Do not fast until you see the moon and do not break the fast until you see the moon'” also clearly indicates that perhaps he was aware of the difference in various narrations when it comes to the last part of these hadiths. The beginning portion, both positive and negative rendering, seems to be agreed upon while the ending part is somewhat problematic in that it varies in different narrations. Most of these narrations do not agree with Al-Bukhari’s rendering but do agree to a greater extent with Muslim.
The following narrations present additional variations in the text of these reports.
The Prophet said, “Do not start the month — meaning Ramadan [ya`ni Ramadan] — a day or two ahead of time (except that if it coincides with one’s routinely observed days of fasting), observe fasting with sighting it (the moon) and break fasting by sighting it. Count thirty days if it is cloudy then break the fast.” (Ahmad)
The use of the phrase “ya`ni Ramadan” in the above narration indicates that the narrator is explaining something or giving his personal understanding of the issue and not just confining himself to transmitting the original text as it is. Moreover, this narration adds that the month of Ramadan should also be counted 30 days, which is not the case in the previously discussed narrations.
On the authority of Qais ibn Talq who reported that his father said: The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Truly Allah has made these new moons as signs to mark fixed periods of time in (the affairs of) people. Fast by sighting it and break the fast by sighting it, and complete the number (of thirty days) if it is cloudy.” (Ahmad)
Abu Hurairah reported that 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.” (Ahmad)
`Abdur-Rahman ibn Zaid ibn Al-Khattab gave a khutbah on the day of doubt and said, “I sat with the Companions of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and asked them, and they told me that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, ‘Fast by sighting it, and break the fast by sighting it. If you are in doubt, then complete [atimmu] the thirty (days of Sha`ban) if it is cloudy, but if two Muslim witnesses testify [that they saw the new moon] then fast or break your fast accordingly.'” (Ahmad)
There are a number of additional issues discussed in this last narration. It addresses the issue of fasting the day of doubt and uses the verb phrase “wa in tashku laha.” Instead of “akmilu” or “`uddu” it uses the verb “atimmu.” Finally, it clearly goes into the fiqhi discussion of whether the month is confirmed by the witness of one or two Muslims. It sides with the jurists who go by the sighting of two rather than one witness, which is the opinion of Imam Malik. `Abdur-Rahman ibn Zaid ibn Al-Khattab does not mention the names of the Companions from whom he is narrating. He just reports that he has heard some Companions of the Prophet and they narrated to him.
Muhammad ibn Ziyad narrated that he heard Abu Hurairah saying: I heard Abul-Qasim (that is, the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him) saying, “Fast by sighting the new moon [al-hilal], and break your fast by sighting it, and count thirty (days) if it is cloudy [ghumma `alaykum].” (Ahmad)
It is significant to note that although Muhammad ibn Ziyad narrates it from Abu Hurairah, the same chain previously discussed in Al-Bukhari’s narration, the text is not exactly the same. It adds the word “al-hilal” before “li ru’yatihi,” uses the phrase “ghumma `alaykum” instead of “ghubbiya `alaykum,” and finally, uses the verb phrase “`uddu thalatheen” instead of Al-Bukhari’s version “fa akmilu `iddata Sha`ban thalatheen.” It differs from Muslim’s narration in that it brings “al-hilal” before “li ru’yatihi,” which does not occur in Muslim’s narration, and in that it uses “ghumma `alaykum” instead of Muslim’s “ghumma `alaykum ash-shahr.”
Al-Hasan reported from Abu Bakrah that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said what means (ya`ni) “Fast by sighting the new moon (al-hilal) and break your fasting by sighting it, and complete the number (of thirty days) if it is cloudy. The month is thus and thus (that is, it is either 29 or 30 days), and he (the Prophet)pointed with his hand fingers.” (Ahmad)
The use of the phrase “ya`ni” (it means) in this case indicates that the narration is not the exact transmission of the original statement but a somewhat modified version of the original one. It also adds “wa-sh-shahru hakatha, wa ha katha, wa ha katha, wa `aqada.”
Abu Hurairah reported that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “None of you should fast a day or two before Ramadan except if it coincides with a day that a person customarily fasts. Fast when you see the new moon and break it when you see it. If cloud obscures it, then complete the thirty days (of Ramadan), then break your fast.” (At-Tirmidhi)
In this report the emphasis is upon completing 30 days of Ramadan rather than Sha`ban, as is the case with the majority of the narrations quoted above. It also goes into the matter of fasting or not on the day of doubt or not.
Qutaibah narrated from Abu Al-Ahwas, from Simak ibn Harb, who reported that `Abdullah ibn `Abbas said: The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Do not fast immediately before Ramadan. Start the fast with sighting the new moon and break your fast with sighting it. If the sky is overcast, then complete thirty days.” (At-Tirmidhi)
Simak ibn Harb reported: I woke up one day while being confused whether the day was (the last) day of Sha`ban or (the first of) Ramadan, so I started the day as fasting. Then I went to `Ikrimah and I saw him eating bread and herbs, so he said, come and have lunch with me, so I told him I was fasting, thereupon he said, “I swear by Allah that you have you break your fast.” When I saw him swearing without making any exception, I went forward and asked him about his proof. He said, “Ibn `Abbas reported that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, ‘Fast by sighting it (the new moon), and break your fast by sighting it. And complete thirty days if it is cloudy, and do not immediately fast before the month (of Ramadan) starts.'” (Ad-Darimi)
On the authority of Hudhayfah, who reported that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Do not fast a day or two before Ramadan until you see the new moon or complete thirty days (of Sha`ban). Then fast until you see the moon (of Shawwal) or complete thirty days.” Abu Dawud adds: This hadith has been narrated by Sufyan and others on the authority of Mansur, who reported it from Rabi`i from a Companion of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) who was not named Hudhayfah. (Ad-Darimi)
It is clear from the above narrations that a number of additional alterations have taken place in the narration of the same Companion from the same chain. All these narrations agree upon the positive or negative formula of the phrase “sumu li ru’yatihi wa aftiru li ru’yatihi” and in the other aspects of the narration they differ tremendously. Some of the narrators are not even sure of the names of the Companions, or at least they do not mention the name of some of them as in the case of Hudhayfah, for instance, in the above narration by Ad-Darimi.
Rabi`i ibn Jarrash reported on the authority of Hudhayfah, who narrated that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Do not fast immediately before the month (of Ramadan) until you see the new moon or complete the number (of thirty days of Sha`ban). Then fast until you see the new moon or complete the thirty days.” (Ibn Hibban)
Ibn `Abbas reported that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Do not fast a day or two before the month (of Ramadan) unless it is a day on which a person customarily fasts. And do not fast until you see the new moon. Then fast until you see it, but if cloud obscures it, then complete the number of thirty days, then break your fast, then break your fast — the month has twenty-nine days.” (Al-Bayhaqi)
Significance of Variation
I have brought most of the reports narrated in the known books of Hadith regarding the issue at hand with the intent of showing the range of variation among them. It is clear from the hadiths quoted above that the first portion, “fast with sighting it and break your fast with sighting it,” is almost agreed upon while the ends of these hadiths have variations even with the same original narrator or with the same chain.
Therefore, as Dr. Ahmad Shafaat shows, perhaps the “amount of variation in language shows that transmitters of the Hadith are describing an idea freely in their own words rather than attempting to transmit the Hadith with faithfulness to the original words” (13). He also concludes that “Bukhari’s version is the result of some alteration during the process of transmission” (12). Let me point out here that it must have been an unintentional alteration, as the sincerity of these scholars is beyond any doubt.
Completing 30 days of Sha`ban or 30 days of Ramadan, in case the new moon is obscured, is the adopted opinion of the majority of jurists (al-jumhur). In view of this majority, there are only two methods of confirming the Islamic month, that is, either through actual moon sighting or through completion. It is quite pertinent to note here that the sighting portion of the hadiths is almost agreed upon (in positive as well as to a great deal in the negative form) while the completion portion of the hadiths is the only part that presents an array of variations, as seen above.
But these are exactly the same portions on the bases of which the majority rest their case, explaining away the more authentic rendering from Ibn `Umar “faqduru lahu,” as will be discussed. They contend that the meaning of the phrase “fa in ghumma `alaykum faqduru lahu” in Ibn `Umar’s narration is “complete thirty days and do not go with counting or calculations” as the literal meanings of the narration apparently demand. Imam An-Nawawi contended that
The majority (al-jumhur) has derived from the above-quoted clear and authentic Prophetic narrations that completing 30 days and counting 30 days (are the same). The explaining phrase “complete thirty days” explains away the general phrase “then count or estimate it.” (Vol. 6, 276)
It is pertinent to mention here that there is no consensus among the jurists even in this interpretation of “faqduru lahu,” as a leading authority in fiqh, Imam Ahmad, argues that it means “shorten the month” (An-Nawawi, Vol. 6, 276).
An-Nawawi himself reported that Imam Ahmad and a few others said that the meaning is not “complete 30 days” but “restrict it or shorten the month by considering the moon under the clouds.” That is why Imam Ahmad contended that fasting should be observed the next day, the day after the 29th of Sha`ban, if due to obscurity the moon is not sighted on the evening of the 29th of Sha`ban. Abu Dawud reports that such was the action and opinion of Ibn `Umar.
Ibn `Umar’s Narration
Ibn `Umar narrated that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “The month is twenty-nine, therefore do not start fasting until you see it and do not break fast until you see it. Count thirty days if it is cloudy.” He (Nafi`, the narrator from Ibn `Umar) said, “Ibn `Umar used to ask people to see the moon for him on the 29th of Sha`ban. If the moon was seen, then well and good. He would not fast if it was not seen and it was not cloudy or rainy. If (on 29th of Sha`ban) it was cloudy or rainy weather, he would start fasting (the next day).” He (Nafi`) also said, “Ibn `Umar used to break the fast with the people and not depend upon these calculations (his counting).” (Abu Dawud and Al-Bayhaqi)
Al-Bayhaqi also reports the same:
Ibn `Umar reported that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Truly the month consists of twenty-nine days. So do not fast until you see it, and do not break your fast until you see it, and estimate for it if it is cloudy.”
This narration is important from a number of perspectives.
First, it is quoted to prove that Ibn `Umar himself did not go by calculations. It seems that some of the jurists have explained the sentence “wa la ya’khuthu biha thal-hisab” (not depend upon these calculations) to mean that Ibn `Umar did not go by calculations. This interpretation is incorrect. Azeemabadi, the author of `Awn al-Ma`bud, clearly shows that Ibn `Umar used to break the fast with the rest of the Muslims and used not to worry about his calculations of the day he had started fasting for Ramadan. If Ramadan was 29 days, then his starting day was the 30th day for him. If Ramadan ended up being 30 days, then he considered his first day as supplementary fasting for Sha`ban. This is the correct interpretation of the quoted phrase.
Second, this is the only narration from Ibn `Umar on the subject of our discussion that brings the phrase “then count or estimate for it thirty days.” We will later see that this is the only narration from Ibn `Umar that requires counting 30 days in case of cloudy weather. All the other reports confine themselves only to the phrase “faqduru lahu” and are explained by the jumhur in light of this oddly attached report. This narration contradicts itself. Ibn `Umar’s action is posted against his own narration of “complete thirty days if it is cloudy.” He started fasting after completing only 29 days of Sha`ban if the horizon was obscured.
Ibn Qudamah argued that Ibn `Umar explained the true meanings of the hadith by his own action and that that must be taken as incumbent, as he is the original reporter of the hadith that requires us to estimate in case of cloudy weather and complete 30 days:
The meanings of “calculate for it” are to restrict the counting for it and Allah has said in the Qur’an the one whose sustenance was restricted meaning decreased or shortened and also the statement of Allah that it is Allah Who expands the sustenance for the ones He likes and decreases for the ones He likes. Shortening or decreasing in case of cloudy weather will mean to make the month of Sha`ban 29 days. Ibn `Umar has explained the meanings of the hadith by his action. He is the original narrator of this report and is better equipped to understand the true meanings. Therefore it is obligatory to return to his explanation. (Vol. 3, 7)
Abu Muhammad ibn Hazm said, “This Ibn `Umar himself narrated that fasting is not permitted until the new moon is sighted, then he himself does what we have just mentioned” (Vol. 4, 445).
Is Ibn `Umar going against the Prophet’s command that he himself is narrating by fasting on the day after the 29th of Sha`ban in case of obscurities? It is reported that many Companions of the Prophet and their successors fasted in case of obscurities so as not to miss a day of Ramadan. Ibn Qudamah reported:
If any obscurity such as a cloud or rain came between the new moon and its sighting, then fasting is obligatory. This day will be accepted as the first day of Ramadan. There are contradictory reports from Ahmad about this issue. The report which is reported by Al-Kharqi from Imam Ahmad is accepted by the majority of the teachers of our scholarship. And that is also the preferred opinion of Caliph `Umar and his son (`Abdullah), `Amr ibn Al-`Aas, Abu Hurairah, Anas, Mu`awiyah, `A’ishah, Asma’ (the two daughters of Abu Bakr). The same opinion was held by Bakr ibn `Abdullah, Abu `Uthman An-Nahdi, Ibn Abi Maryam, Mutarraf, Maymun ibn Mahran, Tawus, and Mujahid. (Vol. 3, 7)
Iman An-Nawawi reported that Imam Ahmad required starting the month of Ramadan if the new moon was not sighted due to obscurities on the 29th day of Sha`ban. That was the opinion of eight known Companions of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and seven of their successors (Vol. 6, 460).
Azeemabadi, the author of `Awn al-Ma`bud reported
Its meanings have been narrated from Abu Hurairah and Ibn `Abbas. `A’ishah and Asma’, the two daughters of Abu Bakr, used to fast this day. `A’ishah used to say, “It is better for me to fast a day of Sha`ban rather than miss a day of Ramadan.” `Abdullah ibn `Umar used to fast the day of doubt if there were obscurities in the horizon such as clouds or rain. He would not fast if the horizon was free of obscurities and the people were at a loss to sight the moon. The same is the opinion of Ahmad. (Vol. 6, 457)
Some scholars have argued that Ibn `Umar and others used to fast the day of doubt with the intention of supplementary fasting and not as a day of Ramadan. This interpretation is incorrect also. They used to fast with the intention of fasting the day of Ramadan, as is clearly reported from Imam Ahmad: “It is obligatory to fast that day as the first day of Ramadan” (Azeemabadi, Vol. 6, 457).
The day of doubt is defined by Al-`Ayni:
The day of doubt is the day when people talk about sighting the moon but its sighting is not confirmed. For instance it was reported by only one witness and his report was denied, or two untrustworthy individuals reported and their witness was rejected. (Azeemabadi, Vol. 6, 457)
Third, the report establishes the fact that the original narrator, Ibn `Umar himself, did not accept the explanatory note as “complete thirty days” but went against it and fasted after the 29th day of Sha`ban in case of obscurity. How could someone claim that there is a consensus among the jumhur that “complete thirty days” is the true meaning of the Prophetic phrase “count for it”? Actually, there existed no consensus even among the Companions or their successors that the phrase “complete thirty days” is explanatory for the Prophetic phrase “count or estimate for it.” Had it been an accepted norm as An-Nawawi and many others contended, then `Abdullah ibn `Umar, `A’ishah, Asma’, Imam Ahmad, and many others would not have violated it by fasting after the 29th day of Sha`ban in case of cloudy weather.
Fourth, this position of Ibn `Umar and Ahmad of fasting on the cloudy day after the 29th without actual sighting the moon categorically refutes the argument of the so-called majority (al-jumhur) that either actual sighting by the naked human eye or completing 30 days is the only prescribed method for confirming the month of Ramadan as well as the other Islamic months. Ibn `Umar or Imam Ahmad started the month of Ramadan on counting 29 days of the month of Sha`ban. This method of confirming the month in case it is cloudy on the 29th of Sha`ban is neither by actual sighting nor by completion, but by mere “counting the days.”
Fifth, there is a hadith in Al-Bukhari, Muslim, and others that the Prophet himself started or ended the month without resorting to actual sighting or completing 30 days:
Umm Salamah narrated that once the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) took an oath upon not seeing his wives for a month. When the 29 days passed he came to them. He was told that he took an oath not to enter the home for a month. He said, “The month consists of twenty-nine days.” (Al-Bukhari)
Azeemabadi commented on this hadith:
He (peace and blessings be upon him) just counted the days and completed his month or started the new month without seeing the new moon. He (peace and blessings be upon him) did not say that he had seen the moon and none of his wives asked him whether or not he had seen the new moon. The hadith does not say that it was cloudy that evening. It is also clear that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) did not complete 30 days. (Vol. 6, 457)
Muslim narrated the same report from a different narrator, Anas ibn Malik. At-Tirmidhi authenticated the narration.
It seems from this hadith that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) determined the month just by counting 29 days and not by actual moon sighting or completing 30 days.
Discussion of the Above
By now it should be clear enough that the claim that the entire Ummah or all the jurists have a consensus that the Islamic lunar month cannot be determined without actual moon sighting or completion is not authentic and is simply not true. There are many instances of practical exceptions to this rule as is substantiated by the points discussed above.
Moreover, both of these interpretations — completing 30 days of Sha`ban and Ramadan in case of cloudy weather, the so called jumhur’s opinion; or starting Ramadan on the 29th day of Sha`ban in case the horizon is obscure, as Ibn `Umar and Ahmad contend — could lead to a number of practical difficulties of ending up fasting sometimes 28 and sometimes 31 days of Ramadan in reality.
Dr. Shafat Ahmad has done a thorough job of analyzing these difficulties:
The words fa aqduru la hu were meant to say what they say: estimate the duration. The actual method of estimation was left unspecified, since that would depend on the available information and analytical tools, which can change from place to place and time to time. However, people tried to make the phrase more specific and establish a simple rule applicable in all situations. One simple way to do that would be to give to the month a particular number of days in case of obscurity — 29 or 30. This raised the question whether the same number will apply to both Sha`ban and Ramadan. The following four answers were possible depending on whether in case of obscurity both Sha`ban and Ramadan are taken to consist of 29 days or 30 days or one of them is taken to consist of 29 days and the other of 30 days:
a) If there is obscurity on the 29th of Sha`ban, take that month to be 30 days and the same is true of Ramadan.
In this case, you would never fast more than 30 days but sometimes you will fast only 28 days. For, suppose that both Sha`ban and Ramadan are 29 days but it is cloudy on 29th of Sha`ban and clear on 29th of Ramadan. You will count Sha`ban as 30 days and in this way miss one day of Ramadan. But if the sky is clear on the 29th of Ramadan you will be able to see the hilal of Ramadan and therefore end fasting, even though you fasted only for 28 days. In places like Caribbean Islands, Trinidad, and Guyana where it is cloudy very often this process could lead even to less than 28 days of fasting.
b) If there is obscurity on the 29th of Sha`ban, take that month to be 29 days and the same is true of Ramadan.
In this case, you would never fast for less than 29 days but sometimes you would fast 31 or more days or have `Eid Al-Fitr in Ramadan. For suppose that both Sha`ban and Ramadan are 30 days and it is cloudy on 29th of Sha`ban and clear on the 29th of Ramadan. By the rule of restricting the month to 29 days in case of obscurity, you will count Sha`ban as 29 days and thus fast on the last day of Sha`ban, but since the sky is clear on the 29th of Ramadan you will know that Ramadan has not ended. So you will fast 30 days of Ramadan and one day of Sha`ban, a total of 31 days. In case it is cloudy for several months leading to Ramadan you will need to fast even more than 31 days.
c) If there is obscurity on the 29th of Sha`ban, take that month to be 30 days but if there is obscurity on the 29th of Ramadan take it to be 29 days.
In this case you will never fast for more than 30 days but sometimes you will fast 28 days.
d) If there is obscurity on the 29th of Sha`ban, take that month to be 29 days but if there is obscurity on the 29th of Ramadan take it to be 30 days.
In this case you will never fast for less than 29 days but sometimes you will fast 31 days. (16)
Shafat Ahmad makes a significant observation in the conclusion:
Today we all assume (a), that is, in case of obscurity we should take the month as of 30 days whether it is Sha`ban or Ramadan. It would therefore surprise some readers to hear that all of the above views have been held by Muslims. Indeed, the differences in the various narrations of the hadith about starting/ending Ramadan can be explained as attempts to reflect these interpretations. (16)
Weakness of the Ijma` (Consensus) Argument
In spite of this overwhelming majority, there have always been voices of dissent among the three schools of thought, with the exception being the Hanbali school (as will be seen in what follows). Known authorities in the Hanafi, Maliki, and Shafi`i schools have argued against the total rejection of calculations in establishing the commencement of Ramadan, etc. It is only the Hanbali school of fiqh, especially in the classical period, that seems to be enjoying a kind of consensus regarding absolute rejection of calculations in the above-mentioned matters.
A minute minority among the earlier jurists and an ever increasing number among the contemporary jurists disagree with the notion of complete dismissal of astronomical calculations. They, in opposition to the established opinion, argue that calculations are a definitive way of knowing the movements of celestial bodies and are more certain than just sighting the moon with naked human eyes. This group does not see any prohibition either in the Qur’an or in the Sunnah manifestly banning usage of calculations in the matters of deen. They actually find support for their arguments from within the Qur’an and the Sunnah, in addition to resorting to scientifically logical arguments.
There are two main groups among this category of scholars. The first group accepts astronomical calculations only in negating the beginning of the month. That is, if the calculations prove it is impossible to sight the new moon or negate the birth of the new moon, then they do not accept witnesses claiming the actual sighting even if the witnesses are trustworthy, righteous Muslims. This is an old trend among some of the scholars and can be traced back all the way to the first century of Hijrah. Mutarrif ibn `Abdullah (a Successor, Tabi`i), Abul-`Abbas Ahmad ibn `Umar ibn Sarij (d. AH 306), and Taqi Ad-Din `Ali As-Subki (AH 683–756) from the old times and contemporary scholars like Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qardawi, Director of the Sunnah and Seerah Research Center, University of Qatar, and many others have championed this position.
The second group accepts astronomical calculations both in establishing the beginning of the month as well as negating or dismissing any claims to sighting if the calculations prove otherwise. This is a recent phenomenon among recent scholars of the last century and contemporary scholars such as Dr. Muhammad Mustafa Al-Maraghi, Grand Imam of Al-Azhar 1935–1945; the celebrated Egyptian and encyclopedic authority and 1984 King Faisal International Prize-winner Sheikh Mahmud Shakir (1909–1997); Sheikh Mustafa Al-Zarqa(1901–1999); the Syrian-born judge, broadcaster, author, editor, teacher, orator, and 1990 King Faisal International Prize-winner Sheikh Ali Al-Tantawi (1908–1999); the contemporary Jordanian jurist Dr. Sharaf Al-Quda; and many others.
Therefore, the claims of the ijma` or consensus that actual sighting or completion are the only two methods accepted by the entire Ummah are not based upon the historical facts, as we will see in more detail in the following.
Moreover, there is no consensus among the majority (al-jumhur) about the exact nature of moon sighting, whether it is established through sighting of one or more witnesses or a multitude of people. There also exists a host of opinions about the criteria and characteristics of these witnesses, whether they be male, female, slave, or free. Yet there is no consensus about the number of witnesses needed for confirmation of the month of Ramadan and for the month of Shawwal. (Dr. Salah Sultan has a wonderful graph showing these differences. See his paper presented to the Fiqh Council of North America.)
For instance, the Hanafi jurists require witness of a large number of individuals in case the horizon is free from obscurities. They accept the witness of one trustworthy Muslim if it is cloudy, and that is only in the case of confirming the month of Ramadan (Az-Zuhayli 1651).
The Maliki jurists require a large number of witnesses in case the horizon is free from obscurities such as cloud, dust, or fog, etc., or at least two trustworthy Muslims or more in case it is cloudy. They, unlike Hanafi jurists, do not accept one witness in confirming Ramadan or Shawwal. The Shafi`i jurists accept one trustworthy Muslim’s witness in either case of cloudy or clear weather. That is the case for both Ramadan and Shawwal. The Hanbali jurists accept one trustworthy witness in confirming the month of Ramadan but require two witnesses in the case of Shawwal (Az-Zuhayli, 1652–53).
There is no place here to go into the details of the issues connected with the method of sighting. It is sufficient to note that in spite of apparent claims of consensus that actual moon sighting is the only way to confirm the month before the 30th of Sha`ban, there is tremendous difference among jurists in the details related to the same subject. Therefore, actual sighting cannot be called as the categorically absolute rule of Islam with no difference of opinion. At best it can be described as zanni or presumptive, and not a qat`i or categorical matter in the Shari`ah.
By Dr. Zulfiqar Ali Shah