Sunday, November 12, 2006

Intricate Transition: From Moon Sighting to Astronomical Calculation*

[This article is a condensed summary of a scholarly paper entitled "Reading, Sighting, and Calculating." Please click here to view the full paper]

The Fiqh Council of North America's ruling in favor of using astronomical calculations for determining the beginning of the Muslim lunar month provoked a strong response, and the American Muslim community continues to be divided over this issue. Scholars on the two sides of the divide present arguments rooted in Islamic traditions, and often support their views by citing the same Qur'anic and Prophetic sources, or by referring to statements by early Muslim scholars.

It does not take much for an observer to realize that the division and disagreements are not about the sources themselves, but about how the sources are read. The division is between scholars who place emphasis on the apparent meaning of the text and those who emphasize its intended meaning and purpose.

The arguments for relying on sighting the new crescent as a means to determining the Islamic calendar confound religious duties with the empirical knowledge and practical skills required to identify the days on which these religious duties commence. Observing Ramadan and performing Hajj is ibadah (religious duty), but observing the birth of the new crescent to determine the beginning of the lunar month is not. The latter relate to the human capacity for determining the birth of the new crescent, and it is a function of the observer's scientific and physical capacity to identify the moment of the birth of the new crescent with increased precision. This capacity varies, needless to say, with the knowledge of the position of the new crescent in the sky, the sharpness of the eye-sight of the observer, the access to refined tools, the climatic conditions, etc.

Although some Muslims tried to root the practice of moon sighting, particularly for the month of Ramadan, in the Qur'anic and Prophetic injunctions, a closer examination of the Qur'an shows that it regards fasting of Ramadan and performing of Hajj as religious obligations, but considers the sun and moon movements as part of the natural order.

The Prophet, indeed, directed the companions to establishing the first day of Ramadan by sighting the moon, but then he stated that the reason for his directive was the inability of early Muslim community to provide accurate calculation. The community, he pointed out, was then illiterate and did not master reading, writing, or calculation. They had no experienced astronomers who have access to the knowledge, tools, and facilities to determine with accuracy the beginning of the lunar month. Consequently, moon sighting was the only tool available for the early Muslim community.

If the distinction between these two areas of knowledge is confirmed, then the only reason for moon sighting to be favored over astronomical calculation is when the former is more accurate in determining the birth of the new crescent than the latter.

Early Muslim scholars agreed, by and large, on Moon sighting as the only acceptable way for determining the beginning of the new lunar month. However, their consensus was greatly influenced by the state of the science of astronomy, as well as the lack of direct access by the scattered Muslim villages and towns to reliable astronomers.

The consensus reached by early Muslim jurists on rejecting astronomical methods resulted from the lack of any clear line of demarcation between astronomy and astrology. Most early Muslim scholars equated astronomy with magic and fortunetelling.

The basis of the historical consensus on moon sighting has changed. Today, astronomers can calculate with great precision the date and time of birth of the new moon. Moon sighting, on the other hand, has become less reliable, as the conditions of the sky and the observers have deteriorated markedly over the last two centuries. Muslims do not only live in middle latitude regions of mostly clear sky--as was the case in the early years of Islam--but also in high latitude regions where the moon can rarely be sighted, and in areas of high humidity and frequent rain. The sky conditions have worsened in most inhabited regions.

Observation of the new moon is quite disturbing in countries where Muslims do not employ the service of qualified observers using advance tools and facilities. Communities in the United States, for instance, rely on claims by ordinary Muslims with limited experience and astronomical knowledge. Even in Muslim countries where fairly advanced facilities are available, religious authorities accept the sighting of laymen with little or no training.

It must be asserted, therefore, that astronomical calculations provide a higher degree of certainty than an actual Moon sighting. For while astronomical calculation provide a precise date and time of the birth of the new moon, sighing the Moon produces, even with the use of advanced telescopes, less accurate and reliable results.

Yet the actual choice is not one in which we are asked to choose between astronomical calculation and moon sighting. The choice is really between calculations and individual testimonies. For several centuries, the Hanafi school of fiqh required that every qualified person must go to open fields outside his village and town to observe the new moon. Other school of fiqh required two qualified witnesses, in some cases one, to verify the actual sighting of the moon. The Hanafi school ultimately abandoned the group requirement, and followed the practice of verifying the sighting with two witnesses.

Those who insist that Muslims abandon astronomical calculation and rely on individual testimonies are in actuality asking Muslims to abandon the certainty of reliable knowledge, for the inconsistency of unverifiable individual reports. Individual reports, every student of fiqh knows, produce uncertain knowledge (ma'rifah zaniyah). This is amply illustrated by the established records of Moon sighting testimonies. These testimonies have been exceedingly inconsistent, and have resulted in numerous contradictions and reversals.

There is an ample evidence to convince anyone who is familiar with both shari’ah injunctions and contemporary astronomy that astronomical calculations provide a more reliable and certain approach for determining the beginning of the Islamic lunar calendar. The fact that contemporary Muslim scholars are reluctant to embrace this certainty underscores the challenges facing contemporary Muslim scholarship.

The Fiqh Council of North America's decision to formally adopt astronomical calculation represents a major step forward in overcoming historical inertia. Although the decision of the FCNA has not so far brought about a consensus among North American Muslims, it has set the foundation for the development of a position that can potentially bring a new consensus in deciding the beginning of Ramadan and the two Eids for the world-wide Muslim community.

*This article is a condensed summary of a more elaborate scholarly paper on the question of determining the birth of the new Islamic lunar month. For full version of the arguments, please refer to Dr. Safi's article Reading, Sighting, and Calculating, at

This article appeared in the following publications:

The Muslim Oberver
Media Monitor Network
Milli Gazette
The American Muslim


Dr. Salman Shaikh said...

Bismillaah Walhamdulillaah WasSalaatu WasSalaam Ala Rasulillaah.
WaAlaykum AsSalaam w.r. w.b.

Br. Louay,

WHICH Calculations are you advocating ?

You mention in your article that:
Similarly, the impact of elongation on the visibility of the new moon (more accurately the waxing crescent) is estimated at 10 to 15 degrees.[20]

Unfortunately ISNA/FC is using a criterion which is MUCH earlier than this, apparently to match the erroneous Saudi dates. Could you influence them to use your criterion instead Insha'Allaah ?

Further, as you can see in my paper at website, there is still a wide Zone of Uncertainty in Calculation models and for about 30% of the occasions, calculations can NOT give you a definitive answer and the only recourse is sighting.

Jazakum Allaahu Khayran. WasSalaam.
Salman Zafar Shaikh, Ph.D.

Nafees Khan said...

We must keep pace!

Yes, we muslims have to keep pace with the advancement of science.
e.g. The earlier scholars did not comprehend completely the ayaaths and ahaadith related to embryology .Once Dr. Keith Moore explained in light of science, then one could see the accuracy of the ayaaths and ahaadith.

Iman Jones said...

Salaam alaikum Dr. Safi,

Thank you for the efforts you make on behalf of the muslim community, and may Allah SWT bless you and the leadership and members of ISNA and our other islamic organizations and help to you continue your work.

I have to say that your argument leaves out the third alternative, which most scholars who disagree with the Fiqh Council's decisions agree on, and which has been the practice through the ages. It is perfectly acceptable to use calculation to establish certainty, it is probably incumbent on us to do so, but the moon should be seen.

The Council's decision has not solved the problem of the disunity in the community. It has further polarized the community and it smacks of backpeddalling and cheap convenience.
I think the council and our muslim organizations would make greater stride towards achieving unity on this issue if they focused on educating our local imans and community leaders of the importance of using astronomical calculations to establish certainty in moon sighting. That way we would not have this travesty of communities and countries sighting the moon before it is born or when it is impossible to see due to geography or age. We would also be able to obey Allah and his messenger and actually see the moon.

To be a muslim is such a tremendous blessing, there is nothing more important, and if we have to sacrifice a day from work or school or make some kind of adjustment to perform our religous obligations correctly, it is ok. It is more than worth it. I say this as someone who was once not muslim. Also my experience is that where ever I have worked, when I requested in a non confrontational manner, space to pray, time off for eid etc. whether in someones office or a conference room, or even now when I close my own office door to pray, my collegues are overwhelmingly understanding, accommodating, and respectful.
I have also noticed that when muslims or other people are unwilling to sacrifice for or play down their religous obligations, they lose the respect of their peers and are viewed as wishy-washy.

Wa salaam
Sr. Iman

Ali said...

Why are we going to this great ordeal to calculate moon sighting and divided the Muslim more than what they are divided, when Allah and his Prophet make it easy and clear for us as believers establishing the fast on the sighting the moon and break the fast on sighting the moon if it’s difficult to see the due to rain or clouds complete thirty day and then brak the fast.

farooq said...


Regarding the moon debate, astronomic calculations is definately the way forward. America is the ideal place to start especially with millions of disparate muslims in different professions etc making life easier. Muslims find it hard to contribute to Western society without bothering about issues such as the New Moon.
Anyhow, my concern is that this year the astronomers got it wrong.
Ramadhan cannot have started on was too early.
I have read an article in my mosque and a mullah did a speech when he made it clear Ramadhan started on Sunday.
There is also plenty of other stuff on the Internet saying the Saudis messed up with their pre-planned calendar.
The thing is apparently it takes at least 25-30 hours after the new moon is born for it to be sightable with the naked eye.
Critics claim the astronomers are taking the natural way out of a tested Islamic system for centuries.
I feel that Astronomy is fine for progressive muslims in the West but will mistakes such as this year be prevented in the future?


M. Ali said...

Unity Amongst Muslims Must Given Given Utmost Priority

I personally feel utmost priority must be given to unite all Muslims irrespective of geographical bondaries to up hold Islam. Only through total unity we Muslims can over come threats from the aggressors who are massacaring Muslims throughout the world under all kinds of pretexts.


Louay Safi said...

I would like to thank all those who took the time to comment on the article, and I am sure a lot of serious discussion is needed before clarity on this issue is obtained. There is also urgent need to educate the Muslim community on the basic aspect of the debate.

Before making comments of my own, I should once again acknowledge that there are legitimate disagreements on the method of deciding the birth of the new crescent moon. I also do realize that it might be humanly impossible to bring all Muslims to a singular understanding of, and agreement on, deciding the birth of the moon. My hope is that the majority of Muslims recognize the need to develop a scientific basis for ascertaining the birth of the new crescent moon, instead of relying on uncertain, and unsubstantiated, individual reports.

My argument is that the early consensus was influenced by the fact the early astronomical calculations lacked the accuracy that can be obtained today, and that there is, therefore, a need to build a new consensus based on the highly accurate astronomical calculation available to us today, and which was not available to early scholars.

There is no doubt today that the time of conjunction, i.e. the birth o the new moon, is calculated with great precision and accuracy. The main argument is over the criteria of sightability. Astronomers, such as Yallop and Udah, have developed highly accurate equations for calculating sightability. I have added an appendix to describe how the first sighting of the waxing crescent is calculated and calibrated with empirical data of actual sightings.

1. The main difficulty today is to get Muslims agree on a particular convention (i.e. a set of criteria) for ascertaining the birth of the moon. The Fiqh Council of North America has adopted three criteria: Astronomical calculations will be used to determine the beginning of the Islamic lunar months with the consideration of the sightability of the crescent anywhere on the globe.
2. To determine a lunar Islamic calendar, a conventional point of reference must be used. The International Date Line (IDL) or the Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) may be used.
3. The new Islamic Lunar month begins at sunset of the day when the conjunction occurs before 12:00 Noon GMT. If the conjunction occurs after 12:00 UT, then the month begins at sunset of the next day. The moon born before 12:00 Noon UT will be 18+ hours (or more) old at a point just East of IDL at local sunset. This convention has a basis of visibility at a point just East of IDL, and is born before the day begins at IDL.

The criteria combines a reliance on the very precise calculation of the time of conjunction with the time needed, based on actual sighting and first sighting calculation, for the waxing crescent to be sighted, i.e. 18 hours before conjunction.

Please review the full paper to detailed discussion on this issue at

Qamar Uddin said...

Predicted visibility of the crescent moon

I am in favour of using calculations to predict the visibility of the crescent, which will help us to reject the false sighting news from abroad. So the whole world should be able to start/end the lunar months on 1 or 2 solar dates (but not 3 - 4 days as it happens now!), which is in consistent with the scientific principles of the orbit of the sun and the moon (Qur’an 55:5).

I would humbly request FCNA to change their criteria to Yallop’s visibility code A - B over the matale/horizon of USA/CA only (and not the whole world!). This change will be in consistent with the actual/genuine visibility reports from other parts of the world (e.g. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh etc) who are not biased by the artificial lunar calendars used in some Muslim countries (who are responsible for the false sighting news).


Qamar Uddin, York, UK.

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