The Astronomical Calculations: A Fiqhi Discussion Part 3

Moon sighting 3

The Unfounded Fear of Imitating the Jews

Another leading reason for rejecting the calendar based upon astronomical calculations, in view of many Muslim jurists, is to oppose the Jewish community in their adoption of a calendar based solely upon calculations. Many classical as well as contemporary Muslim scholars quoted the Prophetic narration that encourages Muslims not to imitate Jews but to oppose them in many of their religious customs and rituals.

The Jewish community had reportedly adopted the calculated calendar since the fourth century CE. Therefore, scholars like Ibn Taimiyyah and many others argued that accepting astronomical calculations as the basis of the Islamic calendar would be nothing short of imitating the Jews in their innovation and misguidance. Some contemporary jurists such as Maulana Abdullah Saleem contended that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) was aware of the Jewish innovation and specifically commanded the Muslim community not to follow that path. The Prophet said, “We are an unlettered nation. We neither write nor calculate…..” (Bukhari ).  This was a direct reference to the Jewish calendar and calculations.

It is pertinent to briefly analyze and discuss the Jewish calendar and its history to dispel the misconception that confirming the Muslim months by astronomical calculations will constitute a sharp deviation from the Prophetic Sunnah and an absolute imitation of the Jews in their changing the deen of Allah.

The Biblical Month

The Biblical month is a lunar month (Exodus 12:2). Since antiquity, the Hebrews had followed movements of the moon to determine their months and festivals. The earlier synagogue required human witnesses to actually sight the moon for the purpose of confirming the new month. The month used to be declared complete as consisting of 30 days instead of defective if no witness was brought on the 29th of the month. The Talmud states that

The commencement of the month was dated from the time when the earliest visible appearance of the new moon was reported to the Sanhedrin. If this happened on the 30th day of the current month, that month was considered to have ended on the preceding 29th day, and was called deficient. But if no announcement was made on the 30th day, that day was reckoned to the current month, which was then called full, and the ensuing day was considered the first of the next month. (The Soncino Talmud, Mas. Sanhedrin 10b, commentary on verse 2)

Mishna and Talmud, the Jewish jurisprudential sources, emphasize the rule of actual sighting:

But if it is always defective, why should they profane it?1 — Because it is a religious duty to sanctify [the New moon] on the strength of actual observation.2 According to another version, R. Nahman said: We also have learnt: “For the fixing of two New moons the Sabbath may be profaned, for those of Nisan and of Tishri.” Now if you say that the Adar which precedes Nisan is always defective, there is no difficulty; the reason why Sabbath may be profaned is because it is a religious duty to sanctify [the New moon] on the strength of actual observation. But if you say that it is sometimes full and sometimes defective, why should [the Sabbath] be profaned? Let us prolong [the month] today and sanctify [the New moon] to-morrow?3 — If the thirtieth day happens to be on Sabbath, that is actually what we do. Here, however, we are dealing with the case where the thirty-first day happens to fall on Sabbath [and we allow the Sabbath to be profaned because] it is a religious duty to sanctify on the strength of actual observation. (Soncino Talmud, Mas. Rosh HaShana, 20a, 1-3)

It is known that the Sabbath is so sacred to the Jews that profaning it carries the death penalty in Jewish Law. The Bible reports the following:

And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying, Speak thou also unto the children ofIsrael, saying, Verily my Sabbaths ye shall keep  for it is a sign between me and you throughout your generations; that ye may know that I am the LORD that doth sanctify you. ?Ye shall keep the sabbath therefore; for it is holy unto you: every one that defileth it shall surely be put to death: for whosoever doeth any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. ?Six days may work be done; but in the seventh is the Sabbath of rest, holy day to the LORD: whosoever doeth any work in the Sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death. ?Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant. ?It is a sign between me and the children of Israel for ever: for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed. (Exodus 31:12-17)

The Sabbath was allowed to be violated for the sake of giving witness to the actual moon sighting. There was a special Jewish court consisting of rabbis that used to verify these witnesses and announce the start of the new month. R. Gamaliel II (80-116 CE) used to receive the reports of the witnesses in person. The rabbis afterwards started using the astronomical calculations to negate the months. The later portion of Talmud reports that

When R. Zera went up [to Palestine], he sent back word to them [in Babylon]: It is necessary that there should be [on New moon] a night and a day of the new moon.5 This is what Abba the father of R. Simlai meant: “We calculate [according to] the new moon’s birth. If it is born before midday, then certainly it will have been seen shortly before sunset. If it was not born before midday, certainly it will not have been seen shortly before sunset.” What is the practical value of this remark? — R. Ashi said: To [help us in] confuting the witnesses.6 R. Zera said in the name of R. Nahman: The moon is invisible for twenty-four hours [round about new moon]. For us [in Babylon] six of these belong to the old moon and eighteen to the new;7 for them [in Palestine] six to the new and eighteen to the old.8 What is the practical value of this remark? — Rashi said: To confute the witnesses. (Soncino Talmud,  Mas. Rosh HaShana, 20b, 5-8)

Rashi, the famous classical Jewish authority on Biblical and Talmudic exegesis, explained the above verses as follows:

(6) Because if the conjunction is calculated to have been after midday and they claim to have seen the new moon before nightfall, they are not telling the truth. (7) Which would imply that in Babylon the new moon is not visible till eighteen hours after its birth. (8) Which would imply that in Palestine the new moon is visible six hours after its birth.” (Soncino Talmud, Mas. Rosh HaShana, 20b, 5-8) 

Later on, the testimony gave way to mere calculations though not without controversy, as the Encyclopedia Judaica reports:

Under the patriarchate of Rabbi Judah III, (300-330), the testimony of the witnesses with regard to the appearance of the new moon was received as a mere formality, the settlement of the day depending entirely on calculation. This innovation seems to have been viewed with disfavor by some members of the Sanhedrin, particularly Rabbi Jose, who wrote to both the Babylonian and the Alexandrian communities, advising them to follow the customs of their fathers and continue to celebrate two days, an advice which was followed, and is still followed, by the majority of Jews living outside of Palestine. (Encyclopedia Judaica, Online Edition, “Calendar”)

Jewish Festivals

There were two practical problems that demanded dependence upon the calculations instead of practical moon sighting. The first problem lay in the fact that the Bible connected the Jewish festivals and holidays with certain crops and seasons. There were times when the lunar dates of holidays used to fall in the wrong season so that the crops and fruits required for the rituals were not ready. The rabbis were forced to introduce intercalation to avoid the Jewish festivals occurring in the wrong season. The Encyclopedia Judaica explains this:

It thus seems plain that the Jewish year was not a simple lunar year; for while the Jewish festivals no doubt were fixed on given days of lunar months, they also had a dependence on the position of the sun. Thus the Passover Feast was to be celebrated in the month of the wheat harvest, and the Feast of Tabernacles, took place in the fall. Sometimes the feasts are mentioned as taking place in certain lunar months (Lev. xxiii.; Num. xxviii., xxix.), and at other times they are fixed in accordance with certain crops; that is, with the solar year. (Encyclopedia Judaica, Online Edition, Calendar”)The exegetes of Talmud report the reasons for an intercalation as follows:

The solar year which consists of three hundred and sixty-five and a quarter days is divided into four equal parts, each period consisting of ninety-one days and seven and a half hours. These are called respectively the Nisan (vernal), Tammuz (summer), Tishri (autumnal), Tebeth (winter) Tekufoth. The lunar year which forms the basis of our calendar comprises altogether three hundred and fifty-four days. Though according to Biblical tradition our months are to be lunar (cf. Ex. XII, 2), yet our Festivals are to be observed at certain agricultural seasons; Passover and Pentecost in the Spring; Tabernacles, or Feast of Ingathering, in the autumn. In order to harmonize the lunar and solar years, a second Adar is intercalated once in two or three years. Our text lays down certain principles by which the Intercalations are to be guided. (Mas. Sanhedrin, 12b, commentary to verse 33)

It is clear that in the later periods of Jewry, the astronomical calculations were used not to determine or negate the new month in its relation to the new moon but in its relation to the holidays and seasons in which these holidays must fall. This point is amply made clear by the Talmud as the contemporary exegetes explain:

The Jewish year consists ordinarily of twelve lunar months .  In order to prevent the festivals from falling in the wrong seasons, it was necessary periodically to adjust the lunar calendar to the solar year: this was achieved by introducing an intercalary month (Adar II) between Adar and Nisan. (Mas. Chagigah, 14a, commentary to verse 43)

Therefore, the Jewish calendar became a lunisolar calendar instead of just the lunar calendar dependent solely upon the birth or sighting of the new moon. The Talmud explains that

The Jewish Calendar, while being lunar, takes cognizance of the solar system to which it is adjusted at the end of every cycle of nineteen years. For ritual purposes the four Tekufoth seasons, are calculated according to the solar system, each being equal to one fourth of 365 days, viz. 91 days, 7 1/2 hours. Tekufah[1] of Nisan (Vernal solar  equinox) begins March 21; Tekufah of Tammuz (Summer Solstice), June 21; Tekufah of Tishri (Autumnal equinox), September 23; Tekufah of Tebeth (Winter Solstice), December 22. Should the Tekufah of Tammuz extend till after the Succoth Festival, or the Tekufah of Tebeth till the sixteenth of Nisan, the year would be intercalated, so that the festivals might fall in their due seasons, viz., Passover in Spring, Succoth in Autumn. (Mas. Sanhedrin, 11b, commentary to verse 9)

The Jewish Sanhedrin also put the rules about when the intercalation is permitted and when it is not permitted:

Our Rabbis taught: A year may not be intercalated except where it is necessary either for [the improvement of] roads 22 or for [the repair of] bridges, or for the [drying of the] ovens 23 [required for the roasting] of the paschal lambs, or for the sake of pilgrims 24 from distant lands who have left their homes and could not otherwise reach [Jerusalem] in time. 25 But no intercalation may take place because of [heavy] snows or cold weather 26 or for the sake of Jewish exiles [from a distance] who have not yet set out. Our Rabbis taught: The year may not be intercalated on the ground that the kids 27 or the lambs or the doves are too young. 28 But we consider each of these circumstances as an auxiliary reason for intercalation. (Mas. Sanhedrin, 11a, 22-29)

The Sanhedrin gave the following three reasons for the intercalation.

Our Rabbis taught: A year may be intercalated on three grounds: on account of the premature state of the corn-crops; 7 or that of the fruit-trees; 8 or on account of the lateness of the Tekufah 9 Any two of these reasons can justify intercalation, but not one alone. All, however, are glad when the state of the spring-crop is one of them. (Mas. Sanhedrin, 11b, 7-10)

It seems obvious that here the process of calculation and intercalation is arbitrary. It gives a lot more significance to the holidays, crops, fruits, seasons, and many other such external factors rather than to the actual new moon itself.

This is contrary to the Islamic calendar, which is based solely upon the new moon itself. Consequently, the fixation of the Jewish calendar through calculations is quite different than fixing the Islamic calendar based upon astronomical calculations that determine the actual birth of the new moon. The Jewish calendar is drastically independent of that factor, as is clear from the following Talmudic explanation:

The average year has six months of thirty days each, and six of twenty-nine days each. For there are about twenty-nine and one half days between one new moon and the other, whence a month of thirty days, to restore the balance, must be followed by one of twenty-nine days. However, there are more then twenty-nine and one half days between one new moon and the other, approximately twenty-nine days, twelve hours and forty minutes; furthermore, there are other causes influencing the fixing of the calendar, as the result of which the arrangement of six full and defective months undergoes certain variations, so that one year might have a larger number of full, the other more than the half of defective months. In the time of the Mishnah the Sanhedrin decreed the beginning of the new months on the basis of the testimony of witnesses who had actually seen the new moon. But even then conditions would arise (such as non-visibility of the new moon, due to cloudy weather) when the Sanhedrin would be guided by its own astronomical calculations. For such a decree the principle was adopted that no year may have more than eight, nor less than four full months. (Mas. Arachin, 8b, commentary to verse 10) 

Civil Authorities

The second problem that demanded dependence upon calculations was that the civil calendars were fixed by the local civil authorities. Quite often these civil authorities were very intolerant of the Jewish community. At times the conflict between the Jewish holidays and the civil holidays led to Jewish persecutions by the local authorities. Therefore intercalation was introduced to avoid conflict with the civil calendar and the ensuing Jewish persecutions. The Encyclopedia Judaica reports that “under the reign of Constantius (337-361) the persecutions of the Jews reached such a height that all religious exercises, including the computation of thecalendar, were forbidden under pain of severe punishment.”

Consequently R. Hillel II (330-365) published rules of calendar computations and also published a fixed Jewish calendar in 359 and modified it in 363 CE. The same fixed calendar is presently being used by the Jewish community all over the world.

Tracy R. Rich summarized how the Jewish calendar is actually computed.

The Jewish calendar is based on three astronomical phenomena: the rotation of the Earth about its axis (a day); the revolution of the moon about the Earth (a month); and the revolution of the Earth about the sun (a year). These three phenomena are independent of each other, so there is no direct correlation between them. On average, the moon revolves around the Earth in about 29½ days. The Earth revolves around the sun in about 365¼ days, that is, about 12 lunar months and 11 days.

To coordinate these three phenomena, and to accommodate certain ritual requirements, the Jewish calendar consists of 12 or 13 months of 29 or 30 days, and can be 353, 354, 355, 383, 384 or 385 days long. The linchpin of the calendar is the new moon, referred to in Hebrew as the molad.

A new month on the Jewish calendar begins with the molad, (pronounced moh-LAHD). Molad is a Hebrew word meaning “birth,” and refers to what we call the “new moon” in English. The molad for the month of Tishri (the month that starts with Rosh Hashanah) is the most important one for calendar calculations, and is referred to as Molad Tishri.

Note that the calculated molad (the birth of the new moon) does not necessarily correspond precisely to the astronomical new moon. The length of time from one astronomical new moon to the next varies somewhat because of the eccentric orbits of the Earth and moon; however, the moladot of Rabbi Hillel’s calendar are set using a fixed average length of time: 29 days, 12 hours, and 793 parts (or in Hebrew, chalakim). The amount of time is commonly written in an abbreviated form: 29d 12h 793p.

Rich also explains the practical steps involved in calculating the exact dates and months on the Jewish calendar:

  1. Start with a known molad (and the corresponding Gregorian date, if you wish to convert your resulting date to Gregorian).
  2. Determine the number of months between the known molad and Tishri of the year of the date you are calculating.
  3. Multiply the number of months by the length of the molad: 29d 12h 793p.
  4. Add the result to the known starting molad.
  5. Apply the dechiyot (rules of postponement) to determine the date of Rosh Hashanah[2] for the year of your date.

To get the Gregorian date, add the number of days elapsed calculated above to the Gregorian starting date.

A Simple Calendar

The Jews start their calendar with the supposed date of the beginning of creation as reported by the Hebrew Bible. We are presently in the Jewish year 5766 (2006). It is quite complicated to compute the Jewish years, months, days, and the process involved requires quite a bit of mathematical calculations rather than just the knowledge of astronomical calculations.

That might have been the reason that the Prophet of Islam (peace and blessings be upon him) expressed that “we are unlettered people. We neither write nor calculate.” The reference might have been to the sophisticated process involved in calculating the Jewish new month and the year as seen above. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) would not have depended upon the Jewish community and their process of calculation to establish the Muslim months. That is why he made the process simple by asking them to start the month by sighting the new moon, as the Muslim community of that time was not well versed in mathematical calculations.

Moreover, he (peace and blessings be upon him) wanted to connect the commencement of the new month with the birth or sighting of the new moon and not with the crops and seasons as the case seems to be with the Jewish calendar. He (peace and blessings be upon him) eliminated the arbitrary interference in the time due to external factors and wanted the time to be determined by the moon so that the Islamic acts of worship fall in their proper time rather than occurring in the superficially calculated time decided by human interference.

The Qur’an addresses this issue in the following verses:

[Behold, the number of months, in the sight of God, is twelve months, (laid down) in God’s decree on the day when He created the heavens and the earth; (and) out of these, four are sacred: this is the ever true law of God. Do not, then, sin against yourselves with regards to these (months) … The intercalation (of months) is but one more instance of (their] refusal to acknowledge the truth — (a mean) by which those who are bent on denying the truth are led astray. They declare this (intercalation] to be permissible in one year and forbidden in (another) year, in order to conform (outwardly) to the number of months which God has hollowed: and thus they make allowable what God has forbidden. Goodly seems unto them the evil of their own doings, since God does not grace with His guidance people who refuse to acknowledge the truth.](At-Tawbah 9:36-37) 

These verses refer to the arbitrary intercalation of the polytheists of Arabia in the months and the years as most exegetes have reported (for details, see Muhammad Asad).

They used to postpone, calculate, and name or rename the months in accordance with their political, economic, and military situations. The Qur’an categorically rejects such an idea and brings the year back to its original form. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) openly emphasized this fact in his Last Sermon when he said, “Today, certainly the time has returned to its original form as God had created it to be at the times of creation of the heavens and the earth.” 

It is obvious from the above details that following astronomical calculations to determine the birth or visibility of the new moon will not constitute an imitation of the Jewish calendar. The process does share some elements of the Jewish calculations but is not identical with it in its entirety. The Jewish process is a lot more complicated and includes many factors external to the Islamic process. The Islamic mowlad is different from the Jewish mowlad. The Muslim calendar is purely lunar while the Jewish calendar is lunisolar.

The little similarity lies in trying to know the birth or visibility of the new moon through astronomical calculations. The rest of the factors are quite different. That much similarity cannot be labeled as following the Jews in their religious innovations, as some scholars hastily portray it. The same can be said about the actual moon sighting and requirements connected with human witnesses. The Jewish jurisprudence has required it since antiquity, and some of the Jewish sects and scholars follow that rule of actual sighting to the present times. Would observing the moon with human eyes, as many classical and contemporary Muslim scholars require, constitute a Jewish imitation that would also be forbidden by the Islamic Shari`ah? I am sure the answer would be no!

Weakness of the Linguistic Argument

The definition of hilal as a new moon of the first two or three nights of the month is based upon cultural meanings and not upon the linguistic roots of the word hilal. The original linguistic meanings of the word hilal are not intrinsically bound to the light or appearance. The word hilal is derived from the Arabic root hallala. Ibn Manzur explains the meanings of that root:

The extreme pouring down rain is the root of this word. The first pour of rain is called hilal. It is said that hilal is what you receive the first from that rain. Its plural is ahillah. When the rain comes down with drops full of noise, that rain is also called hilal. The root of the word hilal consists of the two original meanings: the beginning or starting part of something and the raising of voice.

When the sky rains with noise or when a person talks with a loud voice or when a baby cries with loud voice, all these are referred to with the same root verb. These linguistic usages coincide with use of the word in many hadiths (Ibn Manzur).

Ibn Manzur shows that the origin of the word hilal is from “raising of voice.” The same verb is used to define a person who raises his voice. Everything that makes noise can be called muhill. After a lengthy discussion of the various usages of the root word, Ibn Manzur concludes that the origin of the root is from “raising the voice.” He concludes by saying that “Abu al-`Abbas said that the hilal is named hilal because the people raise their voices to inform others about it (the new moon).”

It should be clear by now that the original meanings of the word hilal are connected with the first signs of something and with the raising of voices, not with glittering or shining of the new moon. The new moon was then called hilal because it was the first sign of the new month and because when it appeared people raised their voices to inform others about the arrival of the new month. There was no method available to the people of previous generations except seeing it with the naked eyes. That is why they defined it as something seen rather than known. Moreover, the above- mentioned two meanings happen only at the time of the first few days of the new month; therefore, the new moon was called hilal. Had the name hilal been given to the new moon because of its light, then the full moon had more rights to be called hilal than the crescent because it shines more and has more light than the crescent. 

Presently the new moon without light can be called hilal when the new moon can be determined by the astronomical calculations and the people can talk about it and inform others about it.

Arguments of the Group That Permits Use of Calculations

Precisely Calculated Orbits

This group of scholars argued that calculations are a definitive way of knowing the movements of celestial bodies and are more accurate than just sighting the moon with naked eyes. Neither the Qur’an nor the Sunnah ban the use of calculations in the matters of deen, as has been elaborated above. The Qur’an clearly states that the sun and the moon have precisely calculated orbits and that they follow them meticulously to the seconds:

[The sun and the moon follow courses (exactly) computed.] (Ar-Rahman 55:5)

[And the moon, We have measured for it mansions (to traverse) till it returns like the old (and withered) lower part of a date-stalk. It is not permitted to the sun to catch up the moon, nor can the Night outstrip the Day: each (just) swims along in (its own) orbit (according to law).] (Ya-Sin 36:39–40)

The Qur’an also states that Allah created specified orbits for the sun and moon so that human beings can know the number of years and the calculations:

[It is He Who made the sun to be a shining glory and the moon to be a light (of beauty), and measured out stages for it; that ye might know the number of years and the count (of time).] (Yunus 10:5)

The theme that [ye may know the number of the years and the calculations] occurs also in Al-Israa‘ 17:12.

These scholars also argued that actual moon sighting was prescribed by the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) to confirm the month of Ramadan as it was the only available method to attain certainty. Sighting the new moon is not `ibadah (an act of worship) in itself. It is a means to achieve the goal of certainty, as was shown in Part 1. Now if the goal of certainty can be achieved by a different and more accurate method, then, following such a method will be as Islamic as sighting the moon with the naked eyes. These scholars believed that, currently, astronomical calculations were more precise than the sighting method. Therefore, the Islamic months should be confirmed by the calculations and not by the actual sighting.

The group permitting the use of astronomical calculations quoted the following Prophetic narrations to prove their point:

The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) mentioned Ramadan and said, “Do not fast until you see the moon and do not break fast until you see it. If it is cloudy then estimate it.” (Ad-Darimi)

“The month (sometimes) consists of twenty-nine days. Therefore, do not fast until you see it and do not break the fast until you see it. Calculate it if it is cloudy.” (Ad-Darimi)

“Do not fast until you see it and do not break the fast until you see it except that if it was cloudy. Calculate about it if it is cloudy.” (Ibn Hibban)

Three Interpretations

An-Nawawi stated in Al-Majmu` that jurists have given the following three interpretations of these Prophetic narrations. Imam Ahmad interpreted the hadiths as demanding the start of Ramadan following the 29th in case it is cloudy, as was discussed above. Mutarrif  ibn `Abdullah, Ibn Suraij, and Ibn Qutaibah interpreted them as demanding the use of astronomical calculations when the horizon is cloudy. Malik, Abu Hanifah, Shafi`i, and the majority (jumhur) said that one should complete 30 days and then fast. That is, in their opinion, the meanings of estimation mentioned in the hadiths.

Al-Mawsu’ah al-Fiqhiyyah (The Fiqh Encyclopedia) gave this explanation in the article “Ru’yat al-Hilal” (Moon Sighting):

This opinion holds astronomical calculations as a genuine method of estimating the stages of moon. It has been attributed to Mutarrif ibn `Abdullah ibn Ash-Shakhir from the successors, Abu Al-`Abbas ibn Suraij from the Shafi`i school, and Ibn Qutaibah from the Hadith scholars. Ibn `Abdul-Barr denied that Mutarrif espoused such a view. He also rejected what Ibn Suraij had attributed to Shafi`i because it had been known that he was with the majority (jumhur) opinion. Ibn Rushd has narrated the statement of Mutarrif that astronomical calculations can determine the new moon in case of obscurities. He has also narrated that such a view is attributed to Shafi`i in one of the reports. The known opinion from Shafi`i is that fasting cannot be observed except through actual moon sighting or through witness of a trustworthy Muslim, as the majority of jurists contend.

An-Nawawi also told us that, linguistically, the word used in the hadiths means estimation or calculations (Vol. 6, 276).

Linguistically and contextually, the word in the above hadiths leads to the meaning of taqdir as Abu Sulayman Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Ibrahim Al-Khattabi (d. AH 388) preferred: that is, it gives a sense of counting and calculation in case of cloudy weather or lack of visibility. That is why scholars like Al-Khattabi, Ad-Dawudi and many others took it to mean that if it happens to be cloudy on the 29th of Sha`ban, then going with the authentic astronomical calculations is not only permitted but required by the Sunnah.

Al-Baji reported that Abu `Abdullah Muhammad ibn Sa`id Ad-Dawudi Az-Zahiri had leaned to such a meaning of the hadiths (Vol. 2, 38).

Ibn Daqiq Al-`Eid reported that some Maliki scholars from Baghdad and some leading authorities from the Shafi`i school had adopted this position especially in regards to the astronomer himself. The astronomer is required to start fasting on the day his calculations determine it to be the first day of Ramadan (Vol. 2, 8).

Mutarrif was reported to have said that the astronomer must follow his calculations.  Abu Al-`Abbas ibn Suraij, the renowned Shafi`i scholar of the third Hijri century, took the position that “calculate” is an address to the people who posses the knowledge of calculation and “sighting” is for use by the common Muslims (Al-`Eid, Vol. 2, 32).

Imam Shihab Ad-Din Abi Al-`Abbas Ahmad ibn Idris Al-Qarrafi, a well-known Maliki jurist, narrated that the Maliki school permits use of calculations in determining the month of Ramadan (Al-`Eid, Vol. 2, 33).

Although this interpretation is at odds with the majority opinion, it is in line with the linguistic meanings of the words “Faqadaru Lahu” The same phrase is used in the famous hadith of the Dajjal (antichrist) in which the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) informed the Companions that at the time of the Dajjal, the real time will seem to extend so tremendously that a day, during that period, will be equal to a year, a month, or a week. The Companions asked how to perform the five daily prayers then. In response the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) replied, Faqduru lahu,” meaning to calculate for it. There is no way to interpret the phrase as 29 or 30 days or completion. It definitely means to estimate. The hadith is as follows:

An-Nawwas ibn Sam`an narrated: The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) mentioned the Dajjal and said: “If he comes forth while I am among you, I shall contend with him on your behalf; but if he comes forth while I am not among you, a man must contend on his own behalf, and Allah will take care of every Muslim on my behalf (and safeguard him against his evil). He who among you will survive to see him should recite over him the opening verses of Surat Al-Kahf, for that will protect him from his trial.” We said, “(O Prophet of Allah), how long will he stay on earth?” He said, “For forty days; one day like a year, one day like a month, one day like a week, and the rest of the days will be like your days.” We said, “O Prophet of Allah, will one day’s prayer suffice for the prayers of the day equal to one year?” Thereupon he said, “No, but you must make an estimate of the time (and then observe prayer).” (Abu Dawud, #4317)

An-Nawwas ibn Sam’an narrated: The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) made a mention of the Dajjal one day in the morning. He sometimes described him to be insignificant and sometimes described (his turmoil) as very significant (and we felt) as if he were in the cluster of the date palm trees. When we went to him (to the Prophet) in the evening and he read (the signs of fear) on our faces, he said, “What is the matter with you?” We said, “O Prophet of Allah, you mentioned the Dajjal this morning (sometimes describing him) to be insignificant and sometimes very important until we began to think as if he were present in some (near) part of the cluster of the date palm trees.” Thereupon he said, “I harbor fear in regard to you in so many other things besides the Dajjal. If he comes forth while I am among you, I shall contend with him on your behalf, but if he comes forth while I am not among you, a man must contend on his own behalf and Allah would take care of every Muslim on my behalf (and safeguard him against his turmoil). He (the Dajjal) will be a young man with twisted, cropped hair, and a blind eye. He will appear on the way between Syria and Iraq and will spread mischief right and left. O servant of Allah! Adhere (to the path of Truth).” We said, “O Prophet of Allah, how long will he stay on earth?” He said, “For forty days; one day like a year and one day like a month and one day like a week and the rest of the days would be like your days.” We said, “O Prophet of Allah, would one day’s prayer suffice for the prayers of day equal to one year?” Thereupon he said, “No, but you must make an estimate of time (and then observe prayer).” (Musnad Ahmad, #17300)

Therefore, the interpretation of “Faqadru lahu” as calculating the month or the stages of the moon is perhaps more appropriate than the other two interpretations. That is why some known authorities in the three schools of fiqh have no problem accepting the astronomical calculations in this matter. 

There is a single report from Hammad that Ibn `Umar narrated from the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him): Ibn `Umar reported that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “The month is twenty-nine, so do not fast until you sight it (the moon) and do not break the fast until you see it. If it is cloudy, so estimate for it thirty days.”

This narration from Hammad (as discussed above also) is the only report which brings the phrase “estimate for it thirty days” instead of “estimate for it.” It is an oddly detached report. It has come through only one narrator and cannot be accepted against such a variety of reports from Ibn `Umar through Nafi`, the golden chain, as the scholars of Hadith name it. Ibn Qudamah observed that

The report from Ibn `Umar that “count for it thirty” opposes the other agreed upon authentic narration from him. It also goes against Ibn `Umar’s opinion and his madhhab. (Vol. 3, 7)

As-Subki’s Argument

Imam Taj Ad-Din As-Subki, a well-known Shafi`i scholar, discussed this issue of calculations in great detail. He categorically rejected even the trustworthy witnesses if the authentic astronomical calculations negate the possibility of sighting the moon. He emphatically argued that 

There is another scenario and that is if the astronomical calculations prove it impossible to sight (the moon) and this is known through categorical inferences such as the moon being too close to the sun at the time of sunset, in this case it is not possible to see it with our human senses because such a sighting is impossible. Now if one person or two or a group of untrustworthy individuals come up with the witness that they have sighted it, their witness must be rejected. This is because the astronomical calculations are precise while human witness and news are hypothetical; the hypothetical cannot contradict something categorical let alone supersede it. For a witness to be accepted it is required that what is being witnessed about is possible Islamically (legally), logically, and sensually. Therefore, if the astronomical calculations prove sighting  impossible, it would be impossible to accept any claim of that Islamically because what is being witnessed is not there, and Islamic Shari`ah does not come up with something self-contradictory and impossible in itself. (Vol. 1, 209) 

His main argument was that the astronomical calculations are precisely accurate while there is always possibility of confusion, mix-up, or mistake in the matters of sighting with human eyes. Therefore, the Shari`ah would not prefer a probable method over a certain and accurate method.

He further argued that the Shari`ah did not require us just to accept the news of human sighting whether true or false. We cannot base our acts of fasting just on the claims of the witnesses. The Shari`ah did not ask for that. Verification of the news is a requirement. How many times we have seen people giving false witnesses some times unintentionally and at times intentionally due to some hidden motives. He advised the authorities to take the astronomical calculations into consideration, especially in negating the witnesses who claim sighting the moon when the astronomical calculations prove otherwise. He also advised not to give too much attention to the views that prohibit the use of calculations in the matters of deen. According to As-Subki, the Shari`ah has not forbidden calculations at all:

It is obligatory upon the ruler not to accept the witness of such people if he knows by himself or through a trustworthy person that the calculations prove impossibility of actual sighting. He should neither accept such a witness nor give any ruling based upon such a claim. The month should be considered continuing until the otherwise is proven, as the Shari`ah requires. And we do not say that the Shari`ah has abolished use of astronomical calculations at all. (Vol. 1, 209)

As-Subki was careful enough to differentiate between the categorically precise calculations and the ones based upon anticipation or probability. He asked the judges to use their sense of judgment when the calculations are probable.

There are many types of calculations. We have no doubt in our mind that the human witness cannot be accepted against accurately precise calculations. But when the calculations are not certain but probable, then weight should be given to the human witness and his capability of sighting such as strength of vision, etc. In such a case the judge must use his judgment to the best of his ability. (Vol. 1, 210–211)

He concluded that calculations are more certain than the human eyes and that probability of mistake is greater in the second case in contrast to the first case, that is, calculations (Vol. 1, 210).

As-Subki knew that this issue had not been discussed in such details in his madhhab or before his time, but he felt comfortable saying what he had concluded based upon his deep understanding of the issue at hand (Vol. 1, 211).

As-Subki seemed to  be quite ahead of his times and to have generated a heated debate on the issue of calculations with some scholarly individuals. He was considered a mujtahid of his madhhab. He interestingly concluded the discussion with the following comments:

Some recklessly ignorant may have hesitation in accepting what we have said. He might see it abhorrent to resort to calculations in its entirety or partially and may be stuck with the idea that whatever is witnessed by two people is proven. No conversation can take place with such a rigid person. We are talking to the ones who at least enjoy the basic logic. We cannot talk to the ignorant ones. (Vol. 1, 217)

Agreement With As-Subki

Dr. Al-Qaradawi pondered what would have been the opinion of Imam As-Subki regarding astronomical calculations and their authenticity in the matters of even `ibadat, had he seen the scientific revolutions of our times (Vol. 2, 222).

Other scholars, such Al-`Abbadi and Ibn Daqiq, are also reported to have agreed with As-Subki on this issue. Zakariyya ibn Muhammad Al-Ansari reported that

Al-`Abbadi said that the witness of even trustworthy (people) would not be accepted if the accurate astronomical calculations refute the possibility of sighting. Their witnesses must be rejected due to the calculations, and fasting would not be allowed in such a case. Opposing this would be nothing short of stubbornness and haughtiness. (Vol. 2, 205)

Al-Qayubi said the same. Ibn Hajar Al-`Asqalani reported that Ibn Daqiq Al-`Eid said that if the astronomical calculations established the fact that the moon is there and can be sighted but the cloudy weather came between it and sighting it, in this case the fasting will become obligatory. This constitutes a valid Islamic reason to follow the calculations (Vol. 2, 360).

These are Ibn Daqiq’s words on the subject:

If the calculations show that the new moon is born and can be seen over the horizon but could not be seen due to obscurities such as clouds, then this makes it obligatory to fast. This constitutes an Islamic reason to confirm the month (with calculations). And the actual sighting is not a prerequisite to the fasting. There is agreement (among the jurists) that if someone was imprisoned in the basement and knew, 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 was informed by the one who actually sighted it. (Vol. 2, 8)

Even some of the Hanafi scholars such as Muhammad ibn Muqatil and others not only espoused the same views but they actually used to consult astronomers and accept their calculations regarding the lunar months.

Some of our scholars are of the opinion that there is nothing wrong in depending upon the astronomical calculations. Actually Muhammad ibn Muqatil used to inquire of astronomers about the calculations and depend upon that if the calculations were agreed upon by a group of astronomers. (Al-Hamawi, Vol. 2, 65)

Abul-Qasim `Abdul-Karim ibn Hawazan Al-Qushairy (d. AH 465), the famous Hanafi jurist and a known mystic, like Ibn Daqiq Al-`Eid accepted the calculations to confirm the month of Ramadan if it was cloudy. It being cloudy was a genuine Islamic reason to accept the calculations (Vol. 22, 33).

Muhammad Amin ibn `Umar ibn `Abidin narrated the difference of opinion in the Hanafi school about calculations:

There is a disagreement in regards to trusting the calculations. There are three opinions narrated in Al-Qunyah. First the opinion of Al-Qadi `Abdul-Jabbar and the author of Jam` al-`Ulum is that there is nothing wrong in accepting the calculations. It is narrated that Ibn Muqatil used to consult the astronomers and depend upon their calculations if a group of them agreed upon it. (Vol. 2, 387)

It is clear from the above discussion that well-versed authorities in the Shafi`i, Maliki, and Hanafi schools of fiqh have espoused the view that astronomical calculations can be used in some of the matters related to the beginning and ending of the month of Ramadan. It seems that all the above-quoted jurists supported the use of calculations to negate rather than confirm the month of Ramadan although jurists like Ibn Daqiq Al-`Eid and Muhammad ibn Muqatil Ar-Razi allowed using calculations even to confirm when the weather was cloudy.

Arguments of Modern Scholars

Things are changing drastically in modern times though. Among contemporary scholars, Sheikh M. Mustafa Al-Maraghi, Sheikh Ali At-Tantawi, Mahmud Shakir, Mustafa Az-Zarqa, Saraf Al-Qudah, and others have argued that modern science has reached such a level of accuracy and preciseness in the matters of astronomical calculations that there is no more need to sight the moon with the naked eye. The Shari`ah required sighting when the Ummah was mostly unlettered and mostly ignorant in astronomy and other sciences related to attaining accurate calculations. Now once we have reached the level of certainty in such matters, we must go with the calculations in determining the Islamic months without any need to resort to actual sighting.

Sheikh Mahmud Shakir contended that the command to depend solely upon the sighting came with a condition. The condition was that the Muslim nation of that time did not know how to write or calculate. Ibn Hajar’s explanation was reported by Azeemabadi:

The reference in the hadith is to the Muslims who were present with the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) when he uttered these words. It covers the majority among them (that they were illiterate) or it could be that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) is referring to himself. The Arabs were called illiterate because writing skills were quite lacking among them. Allah Most High has said [It is He Who has sent among the illiterate a messenger from among themselves](Al-Jumu`ah 62:2). This fact cannot be refuted by the claim that among the Arabs there were individuals who could write or calculate because the writing skills were very rare among them. And the reference to calculation in the hadith is to astronomical calculations. They did not know much about astronomical calculations except a very negligible portion of it. That is why the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) connected the ruling of fasting with actual sighting to avoid causing any hardship to them. (`Awn al-Ma`bud, Vol. 6) 

In view of this historical fact, Mahmud Shakir argued that it is an established rule of Islamic jurisprudence that the cause and the effect go hand in hand. Now once the Ummah has come out of illiteracy and started writing and calculating, the effect must also be modified. 

The Prophetic commandment asking to depend only upon the actual sighting came also with the specified reasons for doing so elaborated by the same text. The specified reason was that the Ummah of that time did not know how to write or calculate. And the cause and effect always go hand in hand. Now, when the Ummah has come out of its unlettered status and started writing and calculating, I mean that there exist a number of people among the Muslims who know these sciences, and it has become possible for all categories of Muslims to know the precise calculations about the beginning of the month, now once the Ummah can trust accuracy of the calculations just like their trust in actual sighting or even more, then it has become also obligatory that they follow the authentic calculations only and not the sighting to confirm the month of Ramadan. The only exception will be if the calculations were hard to come by. (7–17)

He further argued that the birth of the new moon is the beginning of the new month.

Now once it has become obligatory to turn to the astronomical calculations only, because the reason for its prohibition is gone, then it becomes obligatory also to turn to the accurate calculations which are connected with the new months and possibility or impossibility of sighting. Therefore the precise beginning of the new month will be the evening when the moon will be setting after the sunset even if a second after the sunset. (7–17)

Shakir claimed that starting and ending the Islamic months with astronomical calculations rather than actual sighting is the most appropriate fiqhi position in our times and that is in conformity with the true spirit of the hadiths narrated on this matter (7–17).

Sheikh Mustafa Az-Zarqa, after a detailed discussion of the issue, concluded that there is nothing in the Shari`ah rules that stops Muslims in our times from accepting astronomical calculations:

It is an established fact that sighting the new moon is not an act of worship in itself. It is just a mean to know the timings. It was the only means available to the unlettered nation which knew not how to write or calculate. Its unlettered status was the sole reason for dependence upon the actual sighting. This is clear from the text of the Prophetic tradition which is the original source of such a ruling. Islamically, what stops us now to depend upon the accurate astronomical calculations which can determine for us quite ahead of time the beginning of the new month? No cloud or fog can obscure our knowledge of the month then except the fog or dust on the intellect. (163–164)

After elaborating a great deal on the subject , Dr. Yusuf Al-Qardawi, , concluded that the Islamic religion that prescribed sighting the moon as a valid method to confirm the month of Ramadan would definitely prefer to accept astronomical calculations as a valid method also because there could always be doubts or mistakes in human sighting but not in the accuracy of the astronomical calculations. Therefore, accepting astronomical calculations is exactly in line with the true spirit of the Islamic Shari`ah. The Ummah can be spared countless confusions and problems by following the calculations.

Currently astronomical calculations are a better means to establish the months. It must be accepted, as it is a better choice than what the Sunnah has required us. In actual sighting there is always room for doubt or probability and that is not the case with the calculations. The Sunnah would not refuse a method which is superior and more perfect to attain the desired goal than the sighting itself. Accepting calculations can bring the Ummah out of this severe controversy which takes place at the times of confirming the month of Ramadan, `Eid Al-Fitr and `Eid Al-Adha. (Vol. 2, 215–216)

Dr. Sharaf Al-Quda argued that the texts (an-nusus) that permit use of calculations as a valid method of determining Islamic months do not differentiate between negation and confirmation. They are generic in nature and hence good for both negating and confirming the months. Actually, to him, the hadith allowing such a use does prove confirmation rather than just negation. He contended that

The Islamic texts did not differentiate between confirming or negating the months with the calculations. Especially the hadith “if it is cloudy then calculate for it” commands confirming the month with the calculations rather than the negation. Scientifically it does not matter whether we use the astronomical calculations for confirmation or negation. They are precise and accurate anyway. Therefore it is preferred in our times to equally depend upon the calculations for confirmation as well as negation of the months.

Dr. Mustafa `Abd Al-Basit concluded that following astronomical calculations was the original intent of the Islamic Shari`ah. Sighting was prescribed for the times when the Ummah was incapable of knowing accurate, precise calculations. The rule of sighting must give way to the original rule once the Ummah has attained the authentic knowledge of the calculations. The Islamic months must be confirmed by calculations to avoid the problems connected with the actual sighting (54 ff.)

Conclusion

In light of the above discussion, one can easily conclude the following:

  1. The claims that a consensus exists among all the Muslim jurists regarding absolute mistrust of astronomical calculations, in all forms and ways, related to beginning and ending of the Islamic months are unfounded, though the majority adopted that opinion because of the uncertainties connected with calculations in their times and because of possible negative ramifications in other fields of `aqeedah.
  2. A group of known authorities in three schools of fiqh — with the exception of the Hanbali school — from times old, argued in favor of accepting calculations in part or in totality.
  3. Modern science has attained such a level of authenticity in the matters of calculations that achieving certainty about the birth, presence, or absence of the moon on the horizon is not hard at all. This scientific method is definitely more trustworthy than the efforts of people to observe the moon with naked human eyes.
  4. The number of scholars leaning towards partial or total acceptance of astronomical calculations is increasing day by day because of the certainty and ease, and also because of the communal, financial, and social benefits connected with it.
  5. Some very conservative contemporary Salafi or Hanbali scholars, such as Mahmud Shakir, have also accepted this point of view and have actually advocated that this is the only authentic and legal way currently available to follow the Sunnah. Mahmud Shakir adopted this view in 1939.
  6. The new moon is just a sign of timings. It has a beginning and a clear end while going around the earth in its orbit. The beginning point is the birth point and is the most certain point that can be determined months and years ahead of time with the help of accurate astronomical calculations. Therefore, there is nothing wrong in accepting the birth of the new moon as the convention to start the new month. Actually, this is the only authentic and certain convention to determine the new month. Criteria of visibility are not agreed upon even by Muslim astronomers and scholars. Once it has been proven that certainty and not the actual sighting is the goal of the Islamic Shari`ah, then wasting our time on the issues of visibility and non-visibility will be a fruitless endeavor. We should take the birth as the accepted norm and announce the Islamic calendar long ahead of time.
  7. GMT is an arbitrary convention accepted by the international community to facilitate timings and dates. It has no Islamic implications whatsoever. On the other hand, Makkah, being the sanctuary of all Muslims, enjoys a lot more significance than GMT. Therefore, Muslims should take Makkah as the Islamic convention to determine Muslim months. The new month will start when the new moon is born before sunset in Makkah and stays in the horizon after the sunset even if for a small amount of time. The whole Muslim world would have the beginning of the new month within 24 hours of the birth of the new moon in Makkah.

Therefore, in my view, accepting astronomical calculations in confirming as well as negating the month of Ramadan is in line with the Sunnah and in no way or form constitutes any deviation from the spirit of the Islamic Shari`ah. In contrast, it is perhaps the only method available at our disposal which, if applied in spirit, can realize the Islamic goals of authenticity, certainty, and unity.

And Allah Almighty knows best.

By  Dr. Zulfiqar Ali Shah


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