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Eid celebrations and the tale of moon sighting

Fareez Ahmed & Ashfak Siyal

The sighting of the new moon (crescent) has always remained a controversial subject across Muslim countries particularly Pakistan and Arab states.

In classical Arabic, the word crescent (hilal) characterises the first light of the moon. Thus the initial light of the moon is called crescent up to two or three nights until it grows up as a moon (qamar).

On May 12, 2021, the Central Ruet-e-Hilal Committee, a body formed to announce the sighting of the new moon, in Pakistan announced that Eidul Fitr would be observed on Thursday ie May 13 in the country as the Shawwal moon has been sighted. However, a few hours later there has been a backlash based report from Pakistan’s meteorological department moon could not practically be sighted on May 12 followed by a few more statements that have come in favour and against the decision of Eid.

In the olden times, the people of Arab yelled “Halla” amidst happiness while seeing the crescent which means to “shine”. Arabs called it the birth of the new moon. It was practiced in the early Islamic period that a person seeing the hilal would shout out to announce the beginning of the new Hijri month.

The sighting of the moon becomes a matter of great concern at the end of Ramadhan whereas no such controversy arises during the rest of the months.

Sighting of the moon through physical or astronomical precision has always caused confusion among the Muslim communities around the globe.

When we see the scientific calculations of travelling of stars, moons and assessment of the sun a need moon eclipse, falling and shooting of stars and shooting of meteors with accurate precision and exactness, it becomes difficult if not impossible to deny weather scientific calculations will fail to determine the birth of the moon.

Morocco has remained a citadel of Islamic jurisprudence and learning. The help of Morocco’s scholars was sought when issues that required Ijma or consensus surfaced until the new citadel Saudi Arabia came into being.

Almost all major school of Islamic thoughts ie Hanafi, Maliki, Shafai and Hanbali have agreed upon the visual sighting of the moon that requires testimony from the people who saw the crescent. However, the questions of qualification of the person testifying the sight, seeing the moon through a telescope, the geographical location and its implications on global or regional have remained debatable.

Interestingly, the perception of calculation was not limited to moon sighting but it applied to other things too such as the timing of the prayers.

The timings of prayers were also based upon visual sun sight and not on the hourly clock. However, the glass hour system prevailed in that time but a great scholar Imam Hanbal prohibited it and called it a Jewish practice. Likewise, the hours of Sehri and Iftar were decided according to sunlight.

Hijri calendar

Hijri calendar is a lunar calendar consisting of 12 lunar months in a year of 354 or 355 days with months having around 29 or 30 days based on the moon cycle. Besides, many civilians across the globe have different lunar calendars as moon cycle calculation is similar science that could be followed and does not need major technician knowledge or equipment, unlike the Gregorian calendar which is a solar calendar adopted across the majority of the world post-industrial revolution and colonisation.

Eid dates seem to be fixed with the moon cycles which are also fixed then why the different dates. This is due to the approach of identifying the Hijri months in other words recognising the moon cycles. There are primarily six approaches, they are

  1. Global moon sighting
  2. Regional moon sighting
  3. Local moon sighting
  4. Makkah-, Medina-based moon sighting
  5. Scientific/astronomical assisted moon sighting
  6. Scientifically calculated moon sighting

Moon sighting and scientific calculations

If we broadly classify the approaches we would see two types: moon sighting and scientific or astronomical calculations.

The astronomical calculation is a complete lunar calculation based on observation of the moon at the start of the year.

Scientific calculations also account for previous years observation of the moon cycles. The scientific calculation has different techniques and instrumentation according to such different communities have adopted their calendar building approach.

Some of the predominant countries that follow the scientific approach are Turkey, several Arab countries and Singapore.

What is the benefit?

Scientific or astronomical calculation brings a rigidly fluid lunar calendar by helping people to have fixed dates and in planning activities accordingly.

At the same time, today’s modern world has become highly mechanised around dates and time, which has lost its flexibility around days making it the Muslim community hard to celebrate Eid prior knowledge.

Yet, the Islamic calendar is required to accept folds of Islamic scholars and their opinions against scientific calculations and few for based Islamic jurisprudence which in turn is based on Quran and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad.

Moon sighting approaches

Moon sighting approaches involve observation of the moon by human beings with and without aid. The traditional approach is observing the moon from a high point of the city such as a minaret of the city’s main mosque or a hill or mountain of the religion.

Modern approaches involve the use of telescopes, observatory or aircraft. However, there is a difference between the Islamic jurisprudence scholars in the use of aircraft.

Nonetheless, all approaches need a human being who is trustworthy and according to some Islamic jurists, there is a need for more than one people for this task.

Once the base of moon sighting has been established, the second challenge is to what extent the ruling can apply, because observation of human beings limits the chance of finding the moon due to many reasons such as the weather condition and moon angle etc. Hence, there are multiple perspectives on it.

Global moon sighting

In this perspective, the moon is observed anywhere in the world, then the month is considered accordingly. This approach unites the Muslim communities as a whole, regardless of their time zone.

Regional moon sighting

As an approach or perspective to solve the global approach is to go for global regions which are in close time zones with a few hours variation such as the Asia Pacific or South-East Asia etc.

In the approach, different community groups consider different neighbouring countries based on their understanding which extends the time zone difference between them from a couple of hours to 5-6 hours or more.

Local moon sighting

On the other hand, local moon sighting approaches limit the application of moon identification which in turn affects the month ruling based on the local region or currently existing countries such as across Australia or Victoria or Pakistan or Texas.

Here again, there is an instance where two countries might have different dates of Eid even in the same region.

Makkah-, Medina-based moon aighting

Additionally, some communities follow the moon sighting observed in Makkah or Medina due to the importance of these two cities for the Muslim communities in many ways the beating heart of the Muslims.

Kerala is one such region in India that follows the Makkah- and Medina-based moon sighting.

Scientific/astronomical-assisted moon sighting

Finally, with regards to moon sighting, there is a hybrid approach of scientific or astronomical-assisted moon sighting.

In this approach, moon positioning and moon cycle calculation are conducted by scientific or astronomical means but the final moon observed by human beings is either assisted or unassisted.

For example, a particular high point is decided based on the astronomical calculation of the possibility of the moon and using a scientific telescope, the moon is sighted. Hence, the decision of the month is made by humans and after each month recalculation taken place.

In Islamic tradition, the key focus is on community and unity, apart from a different approach key essence is on celebrating Eid.

Eid is a day celebration as a community which could mean neighbouring communities may have different days and a country has a couple of days.

All these different approaches have a different foundation in Islamic tradition and Islamic jurisprudence.