When we use the term “#moonsighting” nowadays, nobody thinks about going out to the wilderness to sight, rather to the boardroom of a Masjid for a fight. However, what’s more unfortunate than a fight in the boardroom is the fact that this issue has become the cause of much disunity even within families in certain scenarios. A brother may be fasting on a Saturday, whilst his family may choose to fast on a Sunday.
At the crux of this disagreement lies the issue of whether we should establish Ramaḍān through astronomical calculations or through moon-sighting alone. Those who say we must establish it through moon-sighting will further disagree with one another about whether there should be a global sighting or a local sighting. And of course, they will disagree, yet again, about what exactly is meant by local sighting or what defines the term “local”. To the surprise of many, all of these issues are issues of discussion in the classical encyclopedias of Islamic law. However, disagreements of such nature in the past could easily be solved by some intervention of the Caliph.
After the disagreement is fully established, for some it is time to start dividing the Ummah in the name of the Sunnah. They feel that they must make tall claims about how this committee or that committee is opposing the Sunnah of our beloved Messenger . The response to this in short is that these issues are not conclusive. Traces of discussions on astronomical calculations and moon-sighting have always been found in the encyclopedic works of Islamic law.
Many of the people who have supported astronomical calculations in modern times are some of the biggest proponents of the Sunnah of our beloved Prophet . People who have dedicated their entire lives to the Sunnah have defended this idea. One scholar who particularly stands out, because of both his strong affiliation with ḥadīth studies and strong “unorthodox” position on astronomical calculations in establishing Ramadan is, Sh. Aḥmad Muḥammad Shākir (d. 1958). He is known to be the foremost Muḥaddith (traditionist) of his era. Sh. Aḥmad, despite his indispensable contributions to the Sunnah, strongly believed that establishing the month of Ramaḍān through calculations is a more accurate and better approach.
In fact, after explaining how the Muslims have went from the unlettered nation they once were to an educated and literate nation, he said, “If this is how the majority of them are [today] and the trait of illiteracy has remained no more, it is obligatory for them now to result to calculations.” In fact he went even further and said, “[They must] use calculations alone in establishing the [phases] of the moon. They should no longer use [the method of] sighting except when they are unable to establish it through calculations.” Sh. Ahmad believes this to be the most accurate of all positions and closest of them to the Sunnah. He says, “Indeed I find this position of mine to be the most just of all positions and the closest of them to a sound understand and accurate deduction from the traditions related to this subject.” [Awā’il al-Shuhūr al-`Arabiyyah]
This article is not to encourage an opinion over another. In fact, it is not even to establish my personal opinion on the subject. It is, rather, to instill humility within us and remind us of the fact that, like always, there is a deeper discussion about these issues among the scholarly class than what may surface in your casual family dinner a week before Ramadan.
Without a doubt this yearly fiasco has a major impact on the way Muslims view one another and the way non-Muslims view Muslims. On the one hand, those that feel that astronomical calculations are the way to go and moon-sighting is obsolete, anti-modern or at least unnecessary are viewed as progressive and unorthodox. On the other hand, those who staunchly believe that we must establish the month of Ramadan through moon-sighting alone are considered backwards, anti-modern and literalists.
For all of you who are confused on what to do this Ramadan, follow your local community mosque. If you have many community mosques which are local to you and each seems to have there own approach, follow the opinion which constitutes the majority view in your locality. The best way to put an end to this vicious debate is to implement this tradition of the Prophet -SAWS-:
(الصوم يوم تصومون والفطر يوم تفطرون والأضحى يوم تضحون)
“The fast should be [started] the day that all of you fast, `īd al-Fiṭr should be [celebrated] the day that all of you celebrate `īd al-Fiṭr and `īd al-Aḍḥā should be [celebrated] the day that all of you celebrate `īd al-Aḍḥā.” [Al-Tirmidhi]
Imam al-Tirmidhi said commenting on this tradition, “Some scholars have explained this tradition to mean that the fast and `id should be done with the community and the majority.” The Prophet didn’t leave anything good except that he guided us to it. This tradition is encouraging us to stick to the majority. Implementation of this tradition could very well be the long-lost solution for unity during the blessed month of Ramaḍān and other such occasions. If everyone sticks to the majority, slowly but surely the minority will cease to exist. I ask Allāh to empower us to implement the guidance of our beloved Messenger Muḥammad .
May Allāh bless you and your families with the opportunity to make the most of this Ramaḍān! Ramaḍān Karīm and Ramaḍān Mubārak!