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Crescent Chronicles | A Brief History of Moonsighting in North America

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The city of Toronto has many distinctions; the CN Tower, Skydome – the crack smoking escapades of its mayor – just to name few. One distinction, unbeknownst to many, is the city’s unique position in Islamic history. Toronto is one of the few cities, if not the only, which hosts mosques that simultaneously follow all permutations of moonsighting opinions that have ever existed in Islam’s legal history; local sighting, global, Saudi-sighting, astronomical calculations – perhaps there are more. This represents a trend which has become common occurrence across much of the North America; Muslim communities split along lines of lunar dogmatism.

So, how did we get here? In 2006 the Fiqh Council of North America (FCNA) and Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) decided to switch to astronomical calculations, as opposed to moon sighting, as a means of tabulating the Islamic calendar. The unprecedented decision led to a considerable degree of controversy due to its unorthodoxy. However, what is not as well known is the history and the context which lead to this decision. I had the unique opportunity to sit with Shaykh Abdullah Idris Ali, former President of ISNA, who shared with me a brief history of the moonsighting methods employed and what eventually lead to the current climate.

The Early Days

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In the 1960’s and 70’s when the Muslim community of the US and Canada was still in its infancy, most mosques would rely on moon sighting reports from Muslim countries. Depending on the community, congregants would either rely on their country of origin (e.g. Pakistan, Egypt, Sudan) or follow the decision announced by Saudi authorities. ISNA itself relied on following Saudi Arabia in those days.

Given the diversity of immigrant communities, relying on Eid announcements from other countries would naturally lead to conflicts. As the Muslim community grew, the issue of establishing local moon sighting organizations was raised. Moon sighting committees such as that of Chicago and Toronto started to appear in the late 70’s and early 80’s. In Toronto, these early Muslims would go up to the CN Tower to search for the moon; one year they even chartered out an airplane to scan the skies for the crescent!

However, it soon became evident that sighting the crescent was going to be no simple task in North America. Mosques within the same city would follow different opinions; some relied on local sighting while others still placed their confidence on reports from Saudi Arabia or other countries. Two groups of people emerged and the trend of having two (or more) Eids thus began.

To get guidance on the subject, Shaykh Abdullah Idris wrote a letter to the late Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Shaykh Abdal Aziz Bin Baaz, seeking advice. Shaykh Bin Baaz responded stating that Muslims in North America should follow their local moon sighting instead of following Saudi Arabia. Based on his advice ISNA switched to local sighting in the 80’s.

Local sighting came with its own set of problems however. The lack of a centralized authority meant there were numerous local moon sighting groups; each having their own criteria and procedures. There were concerns about the criteria of accepting testimony and how to verify reports coming from distant places by inexperienced sighters. Sometimes an organization would announce Eid but the congregants would question the decision due to their lack of trust in the process.

The extent of the zone from which to accept moon sighting reports was another issue; what if reports came from outside mainland USA and Canada? Should reports from South America be accepted too? Furthermore, the timing difference from coast to coast, which can be up to four hours, was another problem. This would mean Muslim communities on the East coast would have to wait until midnight at times in order to receive sighting reports from California. The cumbersome process made any kind of planning for Eid and Ramadan extremely difficult for the average Muslim.

The Lunar Calendar Conference

Frustrated with the situation, a major lunar conference was organized in 1987 at the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) in Herndon, VA. Over $100,000 were raised to invite renowned astronomers from around the globe. Experts from NASA, US and Canadian Navies, Adler Planetarium, British Almanac and others were present at this conference alongside Muslim scholars; Dr. Muhammad Ilyas was the keynote speaker.

A number of key issues were discussed and addressed at this conference. For example, it was decided that sighting reports contradicting the calculated birth of the moon were to be rejected. Further, since the earliest recorded sighting of the new moon had been 12 hours after its birth, any reports before this time were highly questionable.

The idea of relying entirely on calculations to mark the beginning of Islamic months was raised as well during this conference. To make a decision on this matter a crucial question needed answering: is sighting the new moon simply a means of determining the start of the lunar month or is it in itself an act of worship which needs to be established? If it is only a means to calculate time, then the moon’s sightability can be determined to very high degrees of accuracy using modern astronomy and it removes the need for physical sighting. If, however, the sighting itself is considered a form of worship then it can’t be replaced by mere calculations.

The conference concluded with the aim of further investigating the use of astronomical calculations. The FCNA and ISNA returned to moon sighting as a methodology and this was continued throughout the 90’s and early 2000’s. During this time, they worked with astronomers and mathematicians to derive a method based entirely on astronomical calculations.

Another issue that rose at this time was whether it made sense for North America to follow Saudi Arabia to determine the dates of Eid-ul-Adha. FCNA’s Dr. Muzzamil Siddiqui wrote to the late Shaykh Uthaimeen of Saudi Arabia to seek advice on the matter. To the surprise of many, he opined that for Eid-al-Adha, Muslims should rely on local sighting – even if this means having a different day of Arafat from Mecca.

FCNA continued its work on the lunar calendar. Abandoning moon sighting in favour of astronomical calculations is an unorthodox opinion that historically was never relied upon. To consult with other Muslim scholars on this issue, a delegation traveled across the Muslim world with this proposal. Shaykh Bin Baaz and other Saudi scholars didn’t demonstrate interest in the idea and told the FCNA to make their own decision based on their research. Similar responses were given by scholars in Pakistan, Egypt and Turkey; while some were receptive such as Shaykh Mohammad Al-Ashqar of Kuwait, most were either opposed to the concept or felt that it was something that needed more investigation.

After much deliberation and in light of the continued disarray on the moonsighting issue, the FCNA and ISNA adopted its position to use astronomical calculations in June 2006. It deemed that moonsighting itself is not an act of worship and thus one could rely solely on calculations to start the lunar month. The European Council on Fatwa and Research (ECFR), lead by Yusuf-al Qaradawi, also adopted this position shortly afterwards. As was expected, this decision stirred a major controversy among Western Muslim scholars. A war of academic papers and articles soon ensued but it did little to unify the fragile cohesion that was there in first place.

On Unity

Since 2006, a number of initiatives have take place to try to unite and better organize the moonsighting organizations within the US and Canada. Examples of these are the 2007 National Moonsighting Conference in California and the 2009 National Hilal Sighting Conference in New York. Furthermore, since the late 2000’s, some organizations have changed their positions from that of a local sighting to a global one. This would allow for a greater chance for congruency with FNCA’s calculations and also greater unity with the rest of the Muslim world. While these are welcome steps, there is still need for considerable work to unite the community on this issue.

I felt that ISNA’s decision further divided the Muslim community and asked Shaykh Abdullah Idris whether such an approach is counterproductive. He explained that considering the divisions on this issue, their hope is that overtime people will adopt FCNA’s opinion as the best alternative to the current debacle. Further, he stated that ISNA’s position is that if there’s a city in which all the mosques agree on a single moonsighting position, ISNA will switch to that position for the sake of unity there. This was attempted in Toronto but all the mosques which rely on moosighting there were unable to arrive at a unified position.

It is evident that the ultimate reason for the divisions on the moonsighting issue arise due to the lack of an agreed upon authority among Western Muslims. There are hundreds of independently run mosques across the Americas; uniting them under a single banner is no simple task.

While it is easy to have a dismal outlook on this debate, there is a positive way to look at this situation as well. As Shaykh Hamza Yusuf recently pointed out, Muslims arguing over something like moonsighting, which may appear as a trivial matter, is a sign of a serious community of believers. People disagree because they hold their convictions to be true, they care about their religion, and they strive to practice it in the most correct way. In a society where religion is increasingly viewed with an eye of irrelevance, it is refreshing to see a people who care enough about it to disagree over it.

I would like to thank Shaykh Abdullah Idris for taking the time to share the much needed information for this article. I undertook this project to document history and I’ve pieced together this chronology based on the best resources available to me. I am interested in improving it further and invite feedback from readers on any more details (e.g. dates,places,names etc) they may have or any chronological errors they see.

 

References

The Fiqh and Scince of the New Islamic Moon

IslamicMoon.com

ISNA’s on the astronomical moonsighting

Islamic Center of Wayland, Boston

Cesarean Moon Births, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf

Hilal Controversy in Toronto – The three positions: local, global, Saudi

International Symposium on Moon sighting and Science

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Waleed Ahmed writes on current affairs and politics for MuslimMatters. He focuses on Muslim minorities, human rights and the Middle-Eastern conflict. Based out of Montreal, he's currently pursuing a Ph.D. at McGill University in fundamental physics. Waleed also has a keen interest in studying Arabic and French. He spends his spare time reading, playing basketball and praying for Jon Stewart to run in the next presidential election. contact: waleed dot ahmed at muslimmatters.org

13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Abu

    July 26, 2014 at 2:21 AM

    Thank you for this write up. I was looking for references on early scholarly debates about moonlighting in North America and glad to find it in this article.

    • Avatar

      Anonymous

      May 5, 2015 at 4:22 PM

      If they went to sh bin baz and uthaymin to know if saudi sighting was ok why don’t u ask the current grand mufthi of the ruling of calculation?

      Also how did u come to conclusion that moon sighting is not a worship who gave these fatwa? Did the likes of those mentioned above by u gave that ruling? Why is there a separate dua for sighting the moo?

    • Avatar

      Shahzad

      June 16, 2015 at 10:49 PM

      It seems to me the earlier Muslim immigrants were of the educated class, at least those from Pakistan, so they were more ok with the calculations. Then came the newer immigrants from less educated class, and they even to this day fight vigorously over traditions, which in the big scheme should be of little concern.

  2. Avatar

    Alizeh Khan

    July 26, 2014 at 9:20 AM

    Jazak’Allah Khair Shaykh for your article. Having been raised in Canada, and Toronto, I’ve seen my share of different decisions made within various communities. I think following one’s community regardless of the method (as Shuyook do their best to make that decision) is essential. For years my family, unsure of what to do (as my parents grew up in countries where moon-sighting occurred) we went with that method. But alhumdolilah when our Masajids near the Niagara area and East from there united for some cities to have a united Eid we followed our Masjid.

    Alhumdolilah praying together as a community, celebrating and rejoicing over the last ten nights together and making Dua after Katme-Qur’an is amazing, alhumdolilah.

  3. Avatar

    Mohammed

    July 27, 2014 at 2:44 PM

    JazakAllah Khayr for authoring this. We would never have known the stories of summiting the CN tower or chartering a plane to sight the moon.
    However what I find missing is the tradition of our prophet SAW to complete the 30 days of ramadan if we are unable to sight the moon on the 29th. Seems that much of the “difficulty” and “challenges” facing the NA muslim community were artifically constructed. Hard to imagine that we were less equipped to determine Eid in 1950 in North America than the Sahaba (RadiAllahu Anhuma) were in 14th centura Arabia.

  4. Avatar

    Nahyan Chowdhury (@Nahyan)

    July 27, 2014 at 10:24 PM

    Excellent article, thanks for taking the initiative. Jazakallahukhair.

  5. Avatar

    Frank

    July 28, 2014 at 4:22 AM

    I believe Local sighting is the closest to the sunnah. Or completing 30 days if necessary.

  6. Pingback: Crescent Chronicles: The Travails of North American Ramadan | Shanfaraa.com

  7. Pingback: CRESCENT CHRONICLES | A BRIEF HISTORY OF MOONSIGHTING IN NORTH AMERICA | PASS THE KNOWLEDGE (LIGHT & LIFE)

  8. Pingback: CRESCENT CHRONICLES | A BRIEF HISTORY OF MOONSIGHTING IN NORTH AMERICA

  9. Avatar

    GregAbdul

    January 8, 2015 at 2:14 AM

    al hamdulillah that you bring this up now. Please don’t do this kind of article in June when it is time for us to fast. Every single Western Muslim not only uses a calendar, we use the solar calendar. If we are sharp MAYBE we use the Hijra calendar as well, but calendars are a means of calculation. The moonsighters argument is essentially that calendars are haram two or three days of the year. I am an American Muslim. I use calendars and watches to calculate when I should do my ebadah. I love ISNA and I pray Allah continues to guide them. They are our national body. If Muslims want unity, then the simplest way is to get behind the head.

  10. Avatar

    Nasra

    May 5, 2015 at 11:02 AM

    Salaamu Alaykum,

    Jazaka Allahu Karen for posting this article!
    So…do I understand that we are still not united on this issue and we are going to continue to have two start dates of Ramadan, two Eid al-Fitr and two Eid al-Adha. SubhannAllah!! Wallahi it breaks my heart when I get all dressed up for Eid, happy and exiceted to go pray and see my brothers sisters in Islam and I encounter Muslims that are not celebrating Eid with me because of this issue!!
    Why is it hard for Muslims to support and rally behind their scholars and leading bodies? This is our state and we can never be the Ummah of our Beloved Prophet Muhammad Salal Lahu Alayhi Wa Salam. May Allah guide us all to that Ummah, Amiin.

  11. Avatar

    Sulayman

    August 21, 2018 at 12:12 PM

    Thank you for this article.

    I believe the biggest thing missing in this narrative is the issue with the demonstrably false reports from Saudi Arabia that have been going on for decades.

    This is what has been causing so much turmoil. All the failed efforts to unify, whether by calculation or global sighting, are reactions to the absurd early sighting claims that come out of Saudi Arabia. American Muslims have just been trying to find a way to match their dates with Saudi Arabia’s Ummul Qura Calendar and the bizarre early announcements they often generate to try to align with it.

    This is not a side issue. It is at the core of the problem that American Muslims have been grappling with all along.

    If you do just a little research you will find that the Saudis have miraculous world-record breaking sighting claims every year. Just look at this year for Dhul-Hijjah 1439. The claimed to have a sighting when the moon was less than 6 hrs old. That is impossible. If they had not done that, everyone would be on the same day.

    The Saudis are the root of our problem. The solution is local moonsighting. It is simple and it works.

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