Q: Many Muslims insist on naked-eye sighting of the moon to start and end the month of Ramadan, because of some purported ahadith on this issue (incidentally, this dogmatic position is conveniently ignored during the rest of the year). Some Muslim scholars and astronomers who do not insist on naked-eye sighting, instead use complex formula that determine the times and places when and where the moon can be sighted. However, this is not an exact science, since it has to factor in the position of the moon in relation to our location, angle of separation from the sun, etc. Needless to say, this is a complicated process that also causes problems.

The one thing that can be predicted with certainty is the birth of the moon and the time conjunction occurs. However, we are told that the Jews use calculations, therefore sighting is the only correct method as we have to be different from the Jews. Are these views in conformity with the sunnah?

A: The moon sighting was never meant to be a permanent injunction. The Qur'an mentions that the phases of the moon are a means of measuring the years.[Q10:5] There are two ways one may look at this ayah:

1) The phases of the moon are taken to imply that such sighting is by the naked eye, and such an understanding was simply to deal with the scientific level of that time. This is obvious, since Muslims in all of their other affairs of time do not rely on sighting, and go by calculations, proving that at least we have advanced in some areas, but chosen selective stagnation or retrogression in others.

2) The Qur'an is for all time, and the phases of the moon occur, so it does not have to be seen by the naked eye. Our present system of calculation allows us to know, with accuracy almost to the second, the position of the moon in relation to the earth at any given time, i.e. its phases. Therefore, calculations have taken the place of inaccurate, subjective eye-sighting.

Whichever explanation one chooses to follow, the result is clear, that the focus on sighting is a common practice, which has been given the status of a ritual, that is, to use Martin Buber's phraseology, "sanctification of the mundane." As for those who rely on ahadith, apart from the fact that they may be regarded as temporal, certainly the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.a.w) cannot by any means be deemed to be in possession of the scientific knowledge of today. Also, if one were to be broadminded enough to use western criticism methodology, do they not know that the only reason many of the ahadith were created was to put words in the mouth of the Prophet to support a certain position? The Qur'an does not ask us to freeze our epistemology, and if at the time of revelation, sighting was the means, so be it. Now we have moved forward.

The info regarding the knowledge of the Jews and the Prophet not wanting the Muslims to follow them is incorrect. All of the information about the Jews and the Muslims not following them is the work of later Muslims. The Prophet had nothing against Jewish practice except in the area of dogma, and the laws which they put upon themselves. The calculation of the moon sighting falls into neither category. As such, the chaos this brought about is evident.

Isn't this the same Prophet who reportedly sent people to see Jewish doctors? One has to be careful not to be anachronistic in assessing evidence. Even the most advanced meteorologist by today's standards cannot issue a verdict on the Prophet's time, unless he consults a Jewish source of the period. To the best of my knowledge, there is nothing. These are all ahadith of hate, created under the mitigating factor of polemic interaction, but they are un-Islamic, for they foment hate against a people whom Allah has not denied heaven (Those who believe, and the Jews and the Christians...). If we went against the practices of the children of Israel, we would also have to go against the practices of some of the Prophets of Israel. The Prophets fulfilled each other's sunna, so that leads to a dichotomous situation, does it not?

The Qur'an states that one of the signs of the benefits of Allah's creation is that we use the sun and the moon, etc. to know the reckoning of time. This presupposes the fact that the people were already using sightings. The question is which people - the people of the desert, the Arabian Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Why then would the Prophet have to tell them this? Were they suddenly, upon his coming, launched into an alzheimer like state of utter forgetfulness as to what they could and could not do?

The ahadith on the subject are all arguments in favor of political opponents and the little issues that beset the ummah. Therefore, the moon sighting is just another case of the Muslims mixing politics, religion, and ultimately the Prophet in their chaos, as is the matter of the Shia/Sunni rift. To conclude, people who have no understanding of Fiqh should not try to dictate proper Islamic practice. Let us start the Islamic month on the day following the calculation for the conjunction of the crescent, and leave the sighting and anti-Jewish polemic for those who wish to spread fitna.

Posted December 17, 1998