The problem of sighting of moon and beginning of a month normally does not bother an ordinary Muslim except at the time of Eid. It is the sighting of moon that brings the gravity of the problem to the fore. A Muslim month begins with the sighting of the moon. Eid brings greatest spiritual joy to the Muslim community in the world. Most of the Muslims fast during the month of Ramadan and hence they are quite anxious to celebrate Eid at the end of their fasting. Sighting of moon becomes important on other occasions like Hajj. But since Hajj is performed in the holy city of Mecca under the domain of Saudis, it is Saudis who decide which day will be 9th of Dhu'l Hajj (the day of Hajj) and subsequent day the day of Eid al-Adhah. Any way Eid al-Adhah being on the 10th of the month, controversy, if any about sighting the moon of Dhu'l Hijjah is settled by then. But since the Eid al-Fitr is on the very first day of Sha'ban the controversy acquires added significance. Also people are anxious to celebrate Eid and every one waits with bated breath for sighting of moon. It is in this atmosphere that the controversy about sighting the moon acquires so much significance.
People differ from each other on the question of sighting the moon. Hilal committees also fail to come up with any satisfactory solution. They adopt even sectarian attitude. If the committee is dominated by Barelvis or Deobandis they give different verdicts. In different parts of Islamic world Eid is celebrated on different days and some times even in one city different sections of Muslims celebrate it on different days. And in some extreme cases in one family it is observed a day earlier or later. Even the Government finds it difficult to declare holiday and it has to change the day of the leave depending on whether moon is sighted or not.
The reasons for sighting the moon
Why moon is sighted for starting the month. The Arabs who had not cultivated astronomy, nor did they feel the need for it found it most practicable to sight the new moon for starting the month. The Arabian Peninsula was not primarily agricultural except in certain parts. It grew mostly date palms, which also did not depend on agricultural cycles or seasons. Thus in the absence of agricultural operations the variation of seasons posed no problems whatsoever. A particular month fell in winter and the same month after the cycle of 11 years will fall in summer. They lunar year has roughly 354 days whereas the solar calendar has 365. Where agricultural operations are basic to the economy of region, lunar calendar will pose certain problems for sowing, rain etc. So it is observed that wherever agricultural operations are involved solar calendar is more functional than lunar calendar. In countries like India where advanced knowledge of astronomy had developed a combination of lunar and solar calendars were worked out to avoid certain problems caused by solar calendar. India could not do only with lunar calendar either as it has been primarily an agricultural country. But as the solar calendar posed certain problems a combination of solar and lunar calendar was worked out and that worked well. That is why there occurs slight variation in the date of certain festivals like Deepavali etc. One year it occurs in October and another year in November. But season does not change.
The Arabs were not, as pointed out above, dependent on agricultural operations and hence they did not need any sophisticated calculations for sowing or cutting of crops which very much depend on fixed seasons. They found it most convenient to sight the new moon and begin their month. Moon is much easier to sight than movement of stars needed for solar calculations. Moon being satellite of earth is closest to it and hence quite prominent in size to the naked eye.
The Holy Qur'an is not only a book of guidance for humankind but also a book which tried to cultivate an objective scientific outlook among the believers for this universe. Even those who do not have faith in the Qur'an being a revealed Book of Allah will be surprised at the description of sun and moon and other stars and their creation in it. It is undoubtedly a book of spiritual guidance but it also deals extensively with this material world and imparts, at times in symbolic and at times in descriptive way, proper knowledge of this universe and reasons of its creation. The followers of the Prophet (PBUH) though not great scholars, physicist or astronomers but were, nevertheless, quite inquisitive about this universe and would ask questions to the Prophet (PBUH) and these questions would be answered by the Qur'an through revelation.
Before we take up the question of sighting of moon I would like to refer to an important verse about the creation of the universe and the attitude of the believers. In the verse 3:189-90 Allah says, "In the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of the night and the day, there are surely signs for men of understanding. Those who remember Allah standing and sitting and (lying) on their sides, and reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth: Our Lord, Thou has not created this in vain! Glory be to Thee! Save us from the chastisement of the Fire".
This verse clearly says three things: 1) that in the creation of the heaven and earth and alteration of the night and the day there are signs (ayat ) for men of understanding (u'lil albab - people of intellect) ; 2) those who remember Allah whether standing or sitting or lying on their sides reflect on creation; 3) the men of intellect reflect and come to the conclusion that nothing has been created in vain by the Lord and the Sustainer of this universe. Thus sun and moon and stars and other heavenly objects have useful functions to perform. This verse and similar other verses in the Qur'an praise the quality of fikr, tafakkur (thinking, reflecting) which create knowledge and according to one hadith road to knowledge is road to paradise. Thus it is the duty of the believers that they should continuously reflect on the ayat (signs) of Allah and this universe is full of signs of Allah.
It was in this spirit that some m'uminun (faithfuls) asked the Prophet about various stages of moon (ahillah) and the Qur'an replied which is the Qur'anic basis of sighting of moon for starting the month. The relevant verse of the Qur'an is as follows: "They ask thee of thye new moon. Say: 'they indicate time (for various things) for humankind including the pilgrimage.'" Tabari throwing light on this verse indicates that it refers to sighting of moon for fasting, for breaking of fast, for hajj, for counting iddah of their women and other functions relating to din of Muslims. (see Jami` al-Bayan`an Ta'wil Ayah al-Qur'an by Tabari, Vol.II). The other commentators also hint at this. Thus Muslim calendar has to be a lunar calendar and moon fulfils an important function of indicating time as per the Will of Allah. Thus in changing shapes of moon one can fix time conveniently.
Muhammad Asad, a noted modern commentator of the Qur'an says, explaining this verse, "The reference, at this stage, to lunar months arises from the fact that the observance of several of the religious obligations instituted by Islam- like the fast of Ramadan, or the pilgrimage to Mecca - is based on the lunar calendar, in which the months rotate through the seasons of the solar year. This fixation on the lunar calendar results in a continuous variations of the seasonal circumstances in which those religious observances are performed?..(Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Qur'an).
But does it necessitate the sighting of the moon with the naked eye every time or its appearance at the beginning of the month can be calculated through mathematical and astronomical calculations? Here the differences start? The consensus among all Muslims, except the Shai'ah Isma'ilis, is on sighting of the new moon with ones own eye at the beginning of every year. Of course now some liberal Muslims are also insisting on knowing the position of the moon through calculations. All the ahadith in sihah sittah (the six most authentic collections of ahadith of Sunni Muslims as well as the authentic collections of ahadith of Shi'ah Imamiyah Muslims lay down sighting of the moon through ones own eye. It is only in the Shi'ah Isma'ili ahadith which do not require sighting of moon directly with ones own eyes. They have prepared a lunar calendar and follow it avoiding all the confusion in determining exact date of appearance of moon.
We would throw light on some of the ahadith found in Sihah Sittah about sighting of moon. Thus the hadith from Sahih Muslim narrated by Abu Hurayrah says, "Allah's Messenger (PBUH) said: Whenever you sight the new moon (of the month of Ramadan) observe fast and when you sight it (the new moon of Shawwal) break it, and if the sky is cloudy for you, then observe fast for thirty days."
Abdullah bin Abbas narrates a hadith reported in Sahih Muslim which says, "Kurayb said: Umm Fadl, daughter of Harith, sent him (Fadl, i.e. her son) to Mu`awiyah in Syriah. I (Fadl) arrived in Syria, and did the needful for her. It was there in Syria that the month of Ramadan commenced. I saw the new moon (of Ramadan) on Friday. I then came back to Medina at the end of the month.
Abdullah bin Abbas asked me (about the new moon of Ramadan) and said: When did you see it? I said: We saw it on Friday night. He said: (Did) you see it yourself? I said: yes, and the people also saw it so they observed fast and Mu'awiyah also observed fast. Thereupon he said: But we saw it on Saturday night. So we shall continue to observe the fast until we complete thirty (fasts) or we see it (the new moon of Shawwal). I said: Is the sighting of the moon by Mu'awiyah not valid for you? He said: No; this is how the Messenger of Allah (PBUH) has commanded us. Yahya ibn Yahya was in doubt (whether the word used in the narration by Kurayb was Naktafi or Taktafi
This hadith clearly shows that there used to be controversies of the same nature during those days also about sighting of moon. Syrians began fasting on one day and the Medinians on the other day. The Syrians broke fast on one day and the Medinians on the other day. Similarly we find another hadith in Sahih Muslim also narrated by Abdullah ibn Abbas. According to this hadith "Abul Bakhtari reported: We went to perform Umrah and when we encamped in the valley of Nakhlah, we tried to see the new moon. Some of the people said: it was three nights old, and others (said) that it was two nights old. We then met Ibn Abbas and told him we had seen the new moon, but that some of the people said it was three nights old and others that it was two nights old. He asked on which night we had seen it; and when we told him we had seen on such and such night, he said the Prophet of Allah (PBUH) had said: Verily Allah had deferred it till the time it is seen, so it is to be reckoned from the night you saw it."
This hadith introduces yet another problematic. That one should begin the month only after seeing the moon oneself in a place even if it is two or three days old in another place. This will create complete confusion in reckoning dates. In one place if month begins on a particular day and in another place two or three days later how one will ensure any uniformity in reckoning days? How one will maintain any uniform records? We find a hadith in Al-Muwatta of Imam ibn Malik narrated by Abdullah ibn Umar. This hadith says, "The Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, once mentioned Ramadan and said, 'Do not begin the fast until you see the new moon, and do not break the fast (at the end of Ramadan) until you see it. If the new moon is obscured from you, then work out (when it should be)".
Another hadith in Mishkat al-Masabih narrated by Abu Hurayrah says, "Allah's Messenger (PBUH) said, 'Calculate on the basis of the new moon of Sha`ban when Ramadan begins."
No doubt these ahadith require us to see the new moon with ones own eye before starting a month. But we also have to take the context of these sahih ahadith into account. It is important to understand why the Holy Prophet ordered us to see the moon with ones own eyes? Was there any alternative available from which he chose sighting of the moon giving up another possibility? No hadith tells us of that. As pointed out above in the pre-Islamic period also the Arabs used to begin their month by sighting the new moon which was the only practical method available to them to determine their months. The Arabs were far from developing any calendar, which they did not need also. Firstly, they had no agricultural operations and secondly they had no pressing economic necessity for developing calendar in other economic field like commerce etc. As we know necessity is the mother of invention, there will be no invention, if there is no necessity. Also, in the pre-Islamic period there was widespread illiteracy and illiterate people cannot develop something like a calendar which requires advanced knowledge of mathematics and astronomy.
The Prophet continued the same as during his time also no advancements either in science or in the field of economy had taken place. He saw no need for developing a calendar. Islam stressed significance of knowledge so much so that the Prophet of Islam said the ink of a scholar was better than the blood of a martyr. But it takes time for people to acquire knowledge in all fields. His companions wanted to learn from the Prophet as much as they could about religion and about Shari'ah. They were not so much interested at that time in physical sciences like mathematics and astronomy as in religious sciences. They felt need for physical sciences later when they expanded their commerce, their knowledge of universe, and their knowledge of physics, chemistry, geology, astronomy and mathematics. They achieved many breakthroughs in these fields.
Thus developing a calendar had not much priority during the Holy Prophet's time. There was the prevalent method to determine the beginning of a month and in the absence of advanced knowledge of astronomy the Prophet continued it. He saw no harm in doing so for the people of Arabia. It was, after all, the only practical method available for people without much knowledge. As the Arabs used camel for transportation, as it was the only means of transportation available then, they do not hesitate from using modern means of transportation and communication today. The Holy prophet also used camel, as it was the only available means then? Does any religious leader of the highest significance today in the world of Islam hesitate to use these modern means of transportation and communication? Certainly not. Because be it camel or jet plane, they are the means, no the end. Even today in backward areas most primitive means of transport or communications like camel or bullock or donkey are used. So the most advanced as well as the most primitive can coexist depending on the need of the society. During the Holy prophet's time also advanced calendar existed in India and in the Roman world. But in Arabia the primitive method of sighting the moon was used and the Prophet continued it as it very well served the practical need for determining the month in Arabia. The Qur'an also said that the moon is for determining the time for Hajj and other needs of the people.
However, neither the Qur'an nor any hadith prohibits the believer from basing the calendar on precise mathematical and astronomical calculations. On the other hand, there are verses in the Qur'an which clearly indicate that Allah has fixed the movements of the sun and moon and that they cannot defy Allah's appointed course. There are several ayats to this effect in the Qur'an. Thus the Qur'an says, "(He is) the One who causes the dawn to break; and He has made the night to be (a source of) stillness, and the sun and the moon to run their appointed courses (husbanan) : (all) this is laid down by the will of the Almighty, the All-Knowing.: (6:96). Thus this verse makes it clear that the sun and the moon run on an appointed course fixed by Allah. The word husban has same root as hisab and means counting, reckoning, calculating etc.
Thus the sun and moon run according to an appointed course which can be calculated. The same words we find in the verse 55:5 "Al-shamsu wa'l qamaru bihusban" i.e. The sun and the moon follow an appointed course. Again in the verse 13:2 we find that " He made the sun and the moon subservient (to you). Each one runs to an appointed course (li ajalin musamman). In the verse 21:33 it is stated, "And He it is Who created the night and the day and the sun and the moon. All float in orbits (fi falakin yasbahun).
All these verses are enough to make it absolutely clear that sun and moon and in fact all the stars run their course and move in their own orbits. This is quite scientific observations in the Qur'an and this is what has been observed by the scientists and astronomers for centuries. And all the calculations of astronomers are based on the fact that these stars or satellites like moons do not deviate from their course nor shall they until Allah desires so. And all the calendars in the world are based on this fact. These calendars, whether solar or lunar, have never been proved wrong. Not only this the orbital course of suns and moons are so precise that solar or lunar eclipses are correctly predicted to a fraction of a second.
To witness moon is not a matter of principle; it is a method and a primitive method, of course. What is a matter of principle is that our calendar should be based on the movement of moon, not on sun i.e. we must follow a lunar calendar, not a solar one. The Islamic calendar is related to our religious rituals. The reason Allah chose a lunar calendar has been very well explained by Muhammad Asad as follows: "The reference, at this stage, to lunar months arises from the fact that the observance of several of the religious obligations instituted by Islam - like the fast of Ramadan, or the pilgrimage to Mecca?.is based on the lunar calendar, in which the months rotate through the seasons of the solar year. This fixation on the lunar calendar results in a continuous variation of the seasonal circumstances in which those religious observances are performed (e.g., the length of the fasting - period between dawn and sun set, heat or cold at the time of the fast or pilgrimage), and thus in a corresponding, periodical increase or decrease of the hardships involved." (see The Message of The Qur'an, pp-40).
Whether one agrees with Muhammad Asad or not the Islamic calendar will continue to remain lunar as it has been so desired by Allah in the Qur'an and so ordained by His Messenger. But only question is of precise determination of beginning of a lunar month. Whether it should be through sighting of a moon by ones own eye which causes great deal of problems - the altitude of the place of observation, weather condition (cloudy or clear), thinness of the size of moon etc. - or whether it should be based on calculation. The calculation of a lunar month has no where been prohibited. On the other hand, the Qur'anic verses quoted above. Lays stress on the fixed and appointed course of the sun and moon and other heavenly bodies. Also, breathtaking developments have taken place in the field of astronomy in our own time. Should we, then not, go for adopting a calendar based on calculation rather than sighting of moon causing great deal of problems? Have we not readily abandoned camel or bullock or horse in favour of car or aircraft for transportation? Can we not choose better and surer means for determining our months?
The Ulama earlier had rejected even use of helicopter for sighting the moon. But now many of them are coming round and accepting the use of helicopter. This is of course one step forward. In western countries where the number of Muslims is increasing very fast moon cannot be easily sighted due to weather conditions. It is often cloudy, especially in the winter season. The Egyptian calendar, which is a lunar calendar is highly reliable and can be safely used. It has been in use for centuries and its authenticity has never been questioned. This calendar can resolve most of our problems.