Did the moon die?
I have written on this subject many times before but feel compelled to do so again due to an apparent lack of progress in a matter which goes to the core of Islamic practice. Remember, the days of Eid are, according to the words of the prophet Muhammad, the best days of the year. Yet, hardly a year passes without a dispute about when Eid should or should not be. Then we cry about lost unity, but little effort do we make to eradicate the disease: Our prophet also said that his Ummah shall never unite entirely on falsehood. Hence, our disunity is an indicator that we are failing somehow to follow the truth.
In these days of DIY Islam it might be worthwhile to remind ourselves that Islam is evidence-based and not subject to majority rule. Truth is distinct from falsehood, and the criterion of that distinction is given to us in the Qur'an and the Sunnah. The Qur'an tells us that there are 12 months, but it does not tell us when they start or end. The Sunnah, on the other hand, is unmistakable about starting and ending each month with the sighting of the new moon crescent. This does not just apply to Ramadan, it applies to all months, the month of Hajj included.
Since the disunity of when our most important days are to be celebrated has become ever more painfully felt especially in non-Muslim countries in the West where Muslims from different parts of the globe maintain differing loyalties, the dominance of Saudi Arabia as a country which has heavily invested in financing mosques in the West has frequently been questioned where Ramadan is concerned, but when it comes to Hajj there is the understandable notion that since Hajj takes place in Saudi Arabia, their decision should naturally be followed. Sadly, their decision is based on a falsehood or lack of understanding of basic astronomy.
The religious authorities of Saudi Arabia follow a predetermined calendar based essentially on the dates of the birth of the new moon rather than the probability of it being sighted anywhere in the world. They frequently support this predetermined date with alleged moon sightings without subjecting those to any kind of plausibility check. If people came to me and told me that they had just seen the sun set at the height of noon, I would laugh at their ignorance, but if someone in Saudi Arabia tells us that they have just seen the moon crescent before it was physically possible to have done so, the greater part of the world happily follows them in their delusion.
Does it matter? In Ramadan we look for Laylatu-l-Qadr, the Night of Power, which is described in the Qur'an as being better in value than a thousand months of ordinary days, during Hajj we have the Day of Arafat, the day prayers are most powerful compared to any other day of the year. What does it do to the power of our prayer if we ignorantly move these days forward or back on the diction of a regime which happens to have inherited the geographic location of the holy places but does not otherwise excel in its Islamic virtues? In the days of the prophet, pagan Arabs administered the Kaabah, which they filled with idols, and the pilgrimage, which they corrupted with unsuitable practices. The prophet did not ask for their authority to be followed merely because they held the keys to the House of Allah, he fought them until they submitted to the truth he had brought through divine revelation.
I have heard many arguments, why we should all follow the Saudi ruling regarding the days of Hajj, irrespective of whether they were sound or not. These range from the need for a central authority or "headquarters" through that unity is a more overriding concern than the accuracy of the date to the observation that due to modern satellite communications we can all watch the pilgrimage anywhere on the globe and it would be wrong to be at odds with them. All those arguments betray a lack of thought and deeper understanding. Do we follow Muslims in Mekkah during Tarawih prayers although we are still fasting at that time? Of course not. We can watch them beamed into our living rooms through satellite broadcasting, but we can only perform our own prayers when their right time has come at the location where we are. The earth is not flat and times are local. The very same applies to the days of pilgrimage and the days of Eid. For someone in Australia to celebrate Eid on the same day as in Saudi Arabia is the height of folly and complete disregard of how Allah has created the earth and the signs He has given us in the alteration of night and day frequently referred to in the Qur'an.
For those going on Hajj, they have no choice but to follow the dates scheduled for them whilst the responsibility for those who knowingly make them perform their rites on the wrong days is enormous. The prophet told us that if the sacrifice, the key ingredient of the pilgrimage tracing the footsteps of Abraham, is made before the day of Eid it will only count as a standard charity, not as sacrifice, so the correct date does matter. Fortunately, those who are not participating in the pilgrimage themselves, have no such constraints imposed on them. Based on the Sunnah, the dates for the starting of the months are local, not centrally determined, just as prayer times are local. The prophet did not teach us to start or end the month with Mekkah, he taught us to start or end the month with the new moon crescent, and as long as the moon continues to wax and wane, there is no reason to abandon this method.
In its more than fourteen centuries of history since the prophet Islam has had Caliphates ruling over vast portions of the globe. Yet in spite of such powerful central authority, Muslims all over the world would go to the top of their minarets and other high places to look for the moon crescent to determine when to start their months and their religious obligations. They did not simply wait for a central edict. During the reign of the Ottoman empire, for example, the last central Muslim authority before British cunning destroyed the Caliphate - and installed the first King of Saudi Arabia - Eid was not celebrated on the same day in Istanbul and Sarajewo or Samarkand. Why should this change, all of a sudden? Were our predecessors less observant Muslims than we are today?
So what about the argument that with modern technology we should base our dates on calendars and calculations that modern life demands that we do away with the uncertainty which relying on sightings produces? To start with, our predecessors who pioneered astronomy were much better versed in the relevant calculations than we are today and would never have made such basic mistakes as to confuse the birth of the moon with its first visibility. But more importantly, why should the natural religion Allah designed for us be subjected to the unnatural desire of secular man to control everything himself? Thus noon time happens to be at one o'clock on account of the so-called Daylight Saving Time (DST) which hasn't saved anybody a penny but put the time of day under the control of governments and bureaucrats. Like a friend of mine says, I get hungry at lunchtime and then suddenly, from one day to the next, they tell me to get hungry an hour earlier! Of course, it is inconvenient that Ramadan or Eid can take us by surprise when we like to plan every minute detail of our lives, but Allah is the best of planners. It is also inconvenient to have the obligatory congregational prayers squeezed into a lunch break on a busy business day on Friday, which is why the Nation of Islam aberrantly moved their congregational prayer day and sermon to Sundays, it's just so much more convenient. Once we hurry down that root it does not take us long to strip Islam of all that makes it unique.
And so it is a blessing that we are not united. Unity would be nice, but not at the price of surrendering the truth. And the truth is not found in calculations. It is contained in the Qur'an and the Sunnah, and only a revival of their teachings will bring us back together.