Saturday, August 18, 2012

Moonsighting revisited

It is no secret that Muslims are deeply divided and one of the times when this is most apparent in the West, where tribal differences or foreign alliances have not spilled over into civil war as in Libya, Yemen or Syria, is the time of starting and ending Ramadan. Since we have communities from around the world residing here, each retaining allegiances with their home countries, we often end up with two or even three different days for Eid to mark the end of the month of fasting. All attempts during the past two decades to unite those communities onto a common approach have failed so far. The prophet of Islam, peace be with him, stated that his Ummah would never unite upon error, so when we observe that unity continues to elude us we need to start asking whether maybe we have got the formula wrong by which we try to unite.

Irrespective of their country of origin, many Muslim organisations and mosques in the UK and other parts of Europe have in the past become dependent on funding from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States. There were strings attached, and the Saudi state mufti became equivalent to the pope: whatever was declared in Saudi Arabia became gospel in Europe. The funding may have dried up in places, but with the advent of satellite television and the broadcasting of live prayers from Makkah the idea that Muslims worldwide had to follow Saudi Arabia's lead because this is where the Kaaba, the house of God, is situated, became increasingly prominent. This argument does not have much merit Islamically. When the prophet Muhammad, peace be with him, migrated to Medinah, the Kaaba was still in Makkah, but decisions were taken in Madinah since the rulers of Makkah were misguided. For Muslims, what is right or wrong does not get decided by location but by principle; leaders are followed on account of their adherence to the Qu'ran and the example of the prophet not because they happen to be in charge of a particular place of worship.

Since both traditional taqlid, the following of a righteous teacher, and independent study are in decline, Islam in the West is increasingly dominated by the likes of Islam Channel, a purely commercial enterprise, and Sheikh Google. Many mosques in the UK advised their followers to break their fast several minutes too early this year by obtaining prayer times online from sites like IslamiCity  or IslamicFinder, for example. Their algorithms allow for the input of longitude and latitude but not altitude above sea level. The result are sea level prayer times for every place on earth. For Muslims relying on those times, the earth is flat, very flat. The prayer times provided by such online services are useful as a rough guide for people travelling to places unfamiliar, but not for more accurate religious observances. Sadly, they do not point this out in a disclaimer but instead call their prayer times "accurate". Details on the calculation of prayer times can be found at  and there is a Windows program to perform the calculations, written by Dr. Manzur Ahmed.  Longitudes and latitudes as well as altitudes can be obtained from Google Earth, so Sheikh Google still has his uses.

But back to the moon. There is the debate whether the month should start based on actual sightings or calculations. In spite of being often dismissed as problematic due to causing uncertainty until the day before the start of a new month, sightings are straightforward: either you see the moon or you don't. There is no room for ambiguity. Calculations, on the other hand, whilst permitting the publication of definitive advance calendars and more reliable forward planning, introduce ambiguity dependent on the calculation method used. Just as with prayer times, one can get it terribly wrong if one assumes that the earth is flat or, in this case, that the day can start at the same time everywhere upon the globe, ignoring the time zones which are responsible for a difference of up to twelve hours between locations.

Due to a lack of transparency, most Muslims believe that Saudi Arabia actually follows physical moon sightings. This is not the case. Saudi Arabia follows the Umm al-Qura calendar of Makkah, based entirely on calculations of the probability of sightings. Such probability predictions are nothing new and are available from various institutions dealing with astronomical data, e.g. the British Nautical Almanac Office. They present a graphical representation of where in the world the moon can be seen by naked eye or by telescope at a given date. So why does Saudi Arabia persistently pretend to see the moon well before it is physically possible to see it? An academic paper from the Netherlands describes the method used by which the Umm al-Qura calendar arrives at its lunar dates and why they do not match the actual moon, leading, for example in 2007 to a month of Dhu-l-Hijja lasting 31 days, whereas Islamic lunar months can only have either 29 or 30 days. The Saudis compensated for this by making the 19th of Dhu-l-Hijja 1428 last two full days, Friday 28 and Saturday 29 December. Initially the only condition stipulated by the Makkan calendar for a new month to start was that the moon would set after sunset. Since this lead to the anomaly that sometimes the month would start before the moon was even born (conjunction), the calendar was corrected in 2002 with the added condition that conjuntion must occur before sunset. Even then, when compared with the graphical data for probable visibility, the moon will in most cases be declared before the moon can physically be seen, because not much account is taken of the time lapse between conjunction and actual visibility.

This year sees an attempt at promoting the Umm al-Qura calendar of Makkah as a means of unifying Muslims. Even though in their explanation the promoters cite a Hadith by Kurayb indicating that different days of Eid at different locations were perfectly acceptable in early Islam [Kurayb said: "Umm Al-Fadhl, daughter of Harith, sent me on a mission to Mu’awiya in Damascus. I accomplished the mission and was still in Al Sham when Ramadan began. I saw the new moon there on a Friday evening. I returned to Medina and reached there towards the end of the month. I met Ibn Abbas who asked me: 'When did you observe the new moon (of Ramadan)?' I replied: 'We saw it during the night of Friday?' Ibn Abbas inquired: 'Did you see it yourself?' I replied: 'Yes, I saw it and other people as well. Thus they started fasting and Mu’awiya fasted too.' At this juncture Ibn Abbas said: 'But we saw it during the night of Saturday, and either we see it (again), or otherwise we will pursue the fast on the thirtieth day.' I asked: 'Do you not accept the observation by Mu’awiya and his fast?' Ibn Abbas replied: 'No! It is thus that the Messenger of God has ordered us." (Reported by Muslim, vol. 7, p.178)], they then move on to declare that to have the same Eid throughout the world would be desirable for Muslim unity. To achieve this, they are now basically satisfied for the moon to potentially be seen anywhere in the world, in other words, if it could have been seen in the far West of America, then this potential sighting is valid even in the far East of Asia, even though a physical sighting would be impossible. To avoid being caught out by time zones they extend the time window for moon visibility from maghrib all the way to fajr of the following day. Since they are not really bothered with looking for the moon but only with the calculated possibility of being able to see it, it will not matter to them whether the moon arrives after the announcement that it might have been seen. Islamically, however, this methodology is as flawed as that of the Umm al-Qura calendar itself: Since Tarawih prayers are prayed on the night before the 1st of Ramadan, a decision needs to be taken no later than Isha prayer, hence the actual time window for seeing the moon is two hours at most after sunset.

I sent an email enquiry about these problems to the sponsors of this new project of advocating the use of the Makkan calendar as global standard, but am not overtly optimistic as to this issue being resolved any time soon. Most Muslims still go with where the money is or ask Sheikh Google. And living in urban conglomerates with artificial lighting, sitting in front of satellite televisions or computer screens with ready-made fatwahs at the click of a button, it seems we can do away with the moon altogether. Next we might be given a uniform prayer time table because in some places on earth the days are too long and in others too short, hence why don't we all start and break fast with Makkah irrespective of the sun - saving us the headache of calculating accurate prayer times. And with the moon and the sun out of the way, we can follow the imam in the Kaabah on television for tarawih prayers without having to go to the mosque. This will cut down on the friction arising from the decision of which of competing mosques we should go to and thus further serve the cause of unity. Utopian Islam has finally arrived!

Eid Mubarak to all, whenever it might be.