Our young people are furious about our absurd behavior, and non-Muslims laugh at us. It is twenty-first century, and yet Muslims still cannot determine the correct dates for their most important celebrations.
Year after year, Muslims face the same confusion over when to begin and end Ramadan and the Eidain, for all attempts to solve a simple calendar issue have failed. In North America and Europe especially, Muslims have fistfights every year over this issue. Each group claims that its fixed date was correct, and that those who did not follow that date were wrong and misguided. As usual, each group claims to posses the sole perfect secret formula for date determination. Why is it impossible for Muslims to agree on such things?
Let’s start with some basic facts.
1. Earth has only one moon, the rotation of which is fixed and known: a synodic month of 29 days, 12 hours, 42 minutes, and 2.8 seconds. Its exact position, angle from the sun, and altitude above the horizon, whether it sets before or after sunset, and all other relevant data can be exactly calculated.
2. Its conjunction (the new moon) date, time, and location can be calculated for more than 2,000 years in advance. But the new moon is not visible, and hence is not the hilal mentioned in the Qur’an and the Sunnah. On calendars, its date is marked as a black circle.
3. The moon’s earliest visibility (hilal) can be approximately calculated. Every month, the hilal becomes visible in a different location on the globe. For example, it may appear first in the northern hemisphere as far north as Nova Scotia (Canada) in the summer, or as far south as New Zealand in the winter. It never first appears at the same place twice, even in 1,000 months. (There is no reason to accept the continuous claims from Makkah or the Middle East that the crescent moon was seen there first.)
Without going into finer details, we also know that:
* Each lunar month is never more than 30 days and never less than 29 days.
* A crescent moon (hilal) is always seen on the 30th evening. If the horizon is clear, it will be visible to every observer without binoculars or a telescope. If it is not visible, it is not the 30th day.
* A hilal is not visible at or before sunset. On the 29th day, if it appears, it will be very low on the horizon and usually can be seen 20-25 minutes after sunset, when the western horizon is dark enough for our eyes to notice the contrast of a dim silver crescent moon against the bright lower sky. On the 30th day, it will be visible some 8-15 minutes after sunset.
* Once a 29-day hilal is visible, you can see it for a few minutes. It will not disappear in seconds, as many witnesses claim. A 30th-day hilal is usually visible for much longer, until almost 3-4 minutes before the moon sets.
*If the hilal is first visible at point A, then all places of A (in the visibility parabola) will see it after sunset. If it is not visible in a clear sky, then it can be safely assumed that the hilal was not seen at point A.
Most of the problems over fixing the calendar arise because Muslims use different criteria, such as:
a. The new moon (conjunction) date is used as the first date of the month.
b. Moonset is considered to occur with or after sunset in Makka, Cairo, or some other location.
c. Witnesses testify that they saw a moon.
d. The 30 days of the lunar month have been completed.
We know that the new moon date cannot be used to fix the first day of a lunar month, for it occurs at all times of the day and night, whereas the Islamic month starts from sunset. Thus, the new moon cannot be the hilal.
If moonset occurs with sunset or 15 minutes after sunset, this does not necessarily mean that the synodic lunar month has been completed. The new month cannot begin while the previous synodic month is incomplete. A new lunar month starts 15-35 hours after the synodic month is over, as indicated by the new moon represented on all calendars. The hilal is usually seen when the new moon moves approximately 12° away from the sun and attains an altitude of 10° above the horizon at sunset.
Most Muslims could have had Eid al-Fitr on Sunday, November 14, 2004, and Eid al-Adha on Friday, January 21, 2005. Instead, we celebrated Eid al-Fitr on four different days (from Friday to Monday, November 12-15, 2004) and Eid al-Adha on two (January 20-21, 2005).
Saudi authorities (Majlis al-Qada al-A`’la) asserted that many witnesses in the kingdom testified before the relevant authorities that they saw a Shawwal 1425 hilal on November 12, 2004, and a Dhu al-Hijja hilal on January 10, 2005. Saudi authorities are fully aware that a witness’ testimony is nothing but zann (whim), whereas the moon’s calculations are yaqeen (exact). It was their Islamic duty to disregard these reports, as they contradicted an established fact.
On November 12, 2004 (the calculated, but invisible) moon had set 10 or more minutes before sunset in Saudi Arabia and most Middle Eastern countries. How could anyone see a visible crescent moon after sunset? Moreover, seeing a crescent moon before sunset is simply not possible. The same is true for January 10, 2005. The moon set before sunset in Saudi Arabia and many other Middle Eastern countries.
Now, if all Saudis had testified about these miraculous sightings, the Majlis should still have rejected their claims, for the rules of testimony about a crescent moon cannot be quoted to disprove a fact (moonset before sunset) or prove a falsehood (seeing a hilal above the horizon when the new moon never rose above the horizon).
Local or Global Sighting
Many Muslims follow Saudi dates because they believe in a global (as opposed to local) sighting of the new moon. This is just another fallacy. The moon, like the sun, becomes visible over the globe during the same 24 hours. If the moon is visible in Saudi Arabia, it will certainly be seen in North America on the same day in the evening, for the moon reaches here 8-11 hours later. It will be brighter and higher on the horizon. If the moon seen in Saudi Arabia is not seen in North America the same evening, then the claim of its sighting is incorrect.
On the other hand, it is quite probable that Muslims in North America, even in western Africa, can see a hilal a full day before it is visible in Saudi Arabia. Do you ever wonder why the claim of first visibility always comes from Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, even though this is against the very rule of the moon’s rotation, as explained by Allah and confirmed by modern lunar calculations?
Saudis also argue that “the 30 days of the month have been completed” to declare the beginning of a new month. This is against the basic facts of the moon’s visibility. The Messenger told us that a lunar month cannot be longer than 30 days. If a crescent moon is not visible on the 30th day on a clear horizon, then it is not the 30th day. If it was the 30th day, then the hilal would have been visible. Kuraib’s hadith confirmed this fact long ago. If it were cloudy all over Saudi Arabia on 30th evening (an impossibility), then a moon will be seen everywhere west of Saudi Arabia, where the horizon’ is clear.
For the beginning of Ramadan 1425 in North America, confusion was created because a lone couple claimed to have seen a crescent moon for 2-3 minutes immediately after sunset. The shape of the hilal was described as 10 to 12 to 2 or 9 to 12 to 3 on a clock. There was no reason to accept this testimony, for a hilal of this shape cannot appear anywhere in the world. The crescent moon is never visible during the first 5 minutes after sunset. Moreover, if it is really visible, then every town and village west of the initial sighting will also see it. If it is not seen anywhere on a clear horizon at places to the west of the claimed point, then the witnesses were mistaken.
The relevant authorities must know the basics of moonsighting to determine the dates correctly. Their disputes among themselves are creating difficulties for millions of Muslims around the globe.