Out of all the symbols that Muslims could have chosen to symbolize the unity of Islam, it is indeed ironic that they chose the crescent, which for many signifies the greatest manifestation of division amongst Muslims, at least in Western lands!
Yes, it's that time of the year again when brothers and sisters frantically begin calling family and friends, asking, “What did Shaykh so-and-so say?” and “Did they see the moon yet?” and, the single most effective question that seals the fate of one's own fast, “What are YOU going to do?” In this post, I don't want to go into a detailed tangent regarding which opinion is 'correct' or not, but rather lay out some of the issues surrounding the controversy, and offer some practical advice.
The precise conditions required to sight a credible hilal is just one of the many hundreds and thousands of issues of fiqh that our scholars have differed over, since the time of the Companions. And, in the multi-madhab milieu of North America, we are exposed to many such fiqh differences on a regular basis, to the extent that most of us have come to live with and accept the rich diversity of opinion present in our traditional legal schools of thought. However, what makes the issue of the moon-sighting stand out from the usual run-of-the mill fiqh issues is that it affects a joint and communal festival of the Ummah. Other issues, such as whether zakat should be given on jewelry, or whether the qunut be prayed in witr or Fajr, or the finer details of how one prays, do not affect the Ummah as a whole. Typically, these other differences can be left to one's individual preference with little or no detrimental effect on fellow Muslims. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of the date of the two Eids and the beginning of the month of Ramadan, as this difference will affect entire communities, and form fault lines between two neighboring masjids, or even within the worshippers of the same masjid.
But why is there such a controversy in the first place? Well, as is typical with such controversies, there are two primary reasons why such differences exist. Firstly, of the few hadith that we have regarding moon-sighting, various scholars have understood them in different manners, leading to a difference of understanding that manifests itself in contradictory opinions. Secondly, issues arose in later generations that the earliest Muslims were not exposed to, hence no explicit, unequivocal ruling exists regarding them.
The classical scholars of Islam were only concerned with a few issues, and their modern counterparts have added even more issues, apparently just to spice up the whole debate! To elaborate: classical jurists were primarily (but not exclusively) concerned with two issues. Firstly, what is the minimum requirement for the number of witnesses needed for verifying the beginning and end of Ramadhan? One for the beginning, and two for the end? Or vice versa? Or one for both? Or two for both? Or a large, unspecified quantity? Or, was it different for a clear day versus a cloudy one? Plenty of opinions within this issue, and even within one madhab it is common to find variant opinions. With regards to this issue, a number of authentic hadith appeared to give different rulings, hence scholars had to use their respective usool in formulating answers to this question.
The second issue that was of major concern to them was: should the Muslims of one province take into account sightings from a different province? Once again, a wide selection of opinions to choose from: each province should follow its sighting only; or only the sightings of the provinces neighboring it; or the sightings of all provinces within one matla (i.e., on the same longitudinal plane); or the sightings of all provinces as long as the news arrived in time. However, unlike the first issue, there exists no clear, unequivocal hadith dealing with the subject (albeit some narrations from the Companions exist). Hence scholars had to use analogy (qiyas) and other general principles to formulate their respective opinions. And once again, we find that even within madhabs there is a significant difference of opinion in the finer details of this issue.
These two issues are discussed in practically every book of fiqh. Other issues were not as pressing to the people of those times as these two, hence references to them are typically only found in the larger and more cumbersome commentaries. Such issues include: must one see the crescent from 'ground' level, or is it permissible to climb, say, a tall mountain to see the crescent? Or, what if an instrument, such a telescope (yes, later Muslims had telescopes), is used, does this count as an 'acceptable' sighting? Or, what if it is a cloudy night, can one refer to astronomical calculations and, based solely on such calculations, declare the beginning and end of the month? And more issues besides these, some of which are more relevant to our times than others.
In our times, even more issues have surfaced, the most important being: what if someone claims to see a crescent, yet astronomical data clearly tells us that the crescent was not born at that time, and hence could not have been seen? Should we give precedence to a visual sighting, or claim that such a person is mistaken? Another issue is the determination of the exact degree of the arc of elongation to claim that a new crescent has been 'born': 9 degrees, or 12, or more, or less?
As can be seen, putting all of the various issues together and calculating out all the possible scenarios, it is easy to extrapolate these differences into hundreds of opinions. The point that I wish to stress here is that many Muslims simply do not realize the level of complexity surrounding issues of fiqh, including this one, and woefully bemoan, “Why can't our scholars just unite on one opinion and save us from the hassle of disunity?!” As can be seen, it's not as simple as that, and indeed it is of the wisdom of Allah that such a rich diversity exists in fiqh.
Thankfully, on a practical level, the issue of moon-sighting never reached a level of complication involving all of the above factors. Rather, a few years ago, the single major issue that split the community was that of 'local' versus 'international' sighting (or, to be more precise, 'local' versus 'Saudi' sighting). Of recent, however, another major opinion has been added to the stew: that of completely ignoring sightings in the first place, and basing the beginning and end of the month solely on astronomical data.
As far as I know, no reputable Sunni scholar in our classical (i.e., pre-modern) history has claimed that a community could completely ignore visual sighting, and rely unconditionally on astronomical data. The fiqh details have been hashed out in enough articles, and it is not my intent to repeat them here (for those who are interested, see some of these articles below – in particular the article by imam Hamza Yusuf, and the one by Shaykh Haytham al-Haddad).
In any case, the decision to follow calculations has been taken by a very large and reputable national body, and the decision to follow a national, visual sighting has been taken by other reputable institutions. Added to this, there are still communities who wish to follow an 'international' (i.e. Saudi) sighting, and there are even those who will only follow a sighting that occurs within their own city. Facing a myriad of options, it is the average Muslim who is left with the confusion of having to make up his or her mind and figure out what exactly to do.
Some words of advice:
Firstly, just for the record, in my humble opinion the strongest fiqh position, independent of other factors (see below), seems to be that we should follow a visual sighting within North America. If one trustworthy Muslim physically sees the moon, and it was seen at a time when we know from astronomical data that it was born and possible to see, then such a sighting should be accepted for all Muslims of this continent.
Secondly, this opinion is just at a theoretical level. At a practical level, it is essential that one looks at the situation of the community, and keep the best interests of the community in mind. So, if one is in a position of authority and respect, and his decision will have an impact on the community, then and only then should he research the various opinions and come to a conclusion that he will feel comfortable with asking others to follow, whatever that position may be. However, if one is not in a position of authority, and is just a regular Muslim following others, then in this case it is not the role of the average Muslim to perform ijtihad on such fine matters. Rather, one should follow the local masjid that he or she typically refers to for other issues, and that one feels a sense of affiliation with. A Muslim must realize that this issue, along with all other fiqh differences of opinion, are issues that should not cause disunity and hatred amongst the Muslims. Trusting an authority and following one opinion over another is a matter completely permissible, or even obligatory, in the Sharee`ah, but fighting and bickering and disputing with other Muslims is completely prohibited by the unanimous consensus of all scholars of Islam. In other words, even if two masjids are celebrating Eid on two different days, this should not lead to one masjid looking down at another, or feeling superior to them, or arguing with them.
Thirdly, if someone feels that he or she would prefer to follow an opinion that their local masjid is not following, based upon their fiqh preference, then even though this would not be sinful in and of itself (as there is no consensus in N. America regarding this issue, unlike in most Muslim countries), there is no reason to announce such a decision publically, or debate or convince others of the merits of one's own opinion. Rather, let the people do what they are doing, and this particular brother or sister may follow another opinion in private. This would be better to preserve the unity of the Muslims. Additionally, regardless of the actual day that one celebrates Eid, it is completely permissible, rather I would say encouraged, that one attends the Eid celebrations of the community on other days as well. Even if this means that one is fasting that 'Eid' day, there is no problem in attending the prayer, but of course the one who is fasting will intend it to be a voluntary (nafl) prayer, and not his own Eid. This would give the impression of Muslim unity, and increase the number of Muslims at all Eid festivals. (And hey, you get to enjoy the benefits of Eid twice!!)
Lastly, out of all of the hadith that should be emphasized regarding the issue of moon-sighting, I believe the following one is the most important, yet oft neglected as well.
Abu Hurayrah narrated, as reported in the Jami of al-Tirmidhi (2/37), that the beloved Prophet (salla Allah alayhi wa sallam) said, “The fast [starts] on the day that you all are fasting, and the [Eid] al-Fitr is the day that you all break the fast (i.e., stop fasting).”
Imam al-Tirmidhi commented on this hadith and said, “This has been interpreted to mean that one fasts and celebrates the Eid with the group of Muslims and their majority.” The famous Yemeni scholar al-San`ani wrote in his Subul al-Salaam, “This hadith proves that what counts for claiming that it is Eid is that the people agree to the fact that it is Eid. And so, if a single person sees the crescent (but is not followed for some reason), he still must follow the community (and not his sighting).” And the great student of Ibn Taymiyyah, one of the finest ulama that our history has seen, Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, wrote regarding this hadith, “This is a refutation of those who claim that someone who knows when the moon is born by astronomical calculations should follow it in starting and finishing the fast, ignoring the rest of the people. Another interpretation of this tradition is that one who witnesses the crescent and whose sighting is subsequently rejected by the judge should not fast, just like the people are not fasting” (Tahdheeb al-Sunan 3/214).
In other words, what this hadeeth tells us is that what's important regarding the beginning and end of Ramadhan is not when the moon is sighted or not, but rather following the community of Muslims and keeping the local Ummah unified. Therefore, even if the crescent was 'born' and could have been sighted, if the community does not fast on a particular day, for whatever reason, then it is not permissible for an individual to break away from the community and fast or break his fast separate from them.
Of course, in our times, even Muslims of one city are typically following different opinions, but if there is a clear and apparent majority, then this hadeeth should be followed and the individual should stick with that majority, regardless of the fiqh opinion that they are following.
Brothers and sisters, the beginning of Ramadhan is upon us, either tonight or tomorrow night. Surely this is not the time to bicker amongst ourselves, fighting over an issue of fiqh that will not be resolved for decades to come. Whatever opinion you follow, alhamdulillah good for you, just don't make an issue of it in the community.
This Ramadhan, let's permanently bid farewell to moon-fighting, and concentrate on having our sins forgiven and our fasts accepted.
May Allah bless us all in this Ramadhan, whenever it starts and finishes!!!
For the Hamza Yusuf and Haitham Al-Haddad articles referenced above please see our previous post on this issue
Rerun: Yasir Qadhi on Understanding the Controversies Regarding Moonsighting - MuslimMatters.org