The sighting of the crescent
and the customary annual blunders!

By: A. Muhammad

It seems unthinkable these days to go through any Ramadan without the usual blunders by the religious hierarchy to whom is entrusted the task of informing people on which day to start their Ramadan fasting. It is also their responsibility to inform people on which day falls the annual Eid.
The trusting believers, in their respective countries, follow these verdicts on the basis that the religious authorities know what they are doing.
However, the fact that differing calculations are suggested every year, not only within the one community but also between neighbouring countries, can only mean that some of them are getting it totally wrong! But that is not all; on some occasions, some authorities suggest a start day and then amend their verdict within the same 24 hours. This has happened most recently in Egypt in June 2019 when the day of the Eid was selected, then changed to a day later!
This inexplicable pattern of behavior compels us to inspect how these timings are worked out, and more importantly, the legality of the methods used.
On deciding on who plays the role of arbitrator to judge among these factions, surely it would not be the wisest decision to seek the arbitration of any one sect or faction, nor the verdict of a third party or sect. Rather, the judge and sole arbitrator can only be the Quranic law of God endorsed in the Quran.

Shall I seek other than God as a 'hakaman' (lawmaker, judge, arbitrator) when it is He who has brought down to you the Book fully detailed?

Variations in the methods used

Ramadan is the ninth month of the lunar Islamic calendar, and according to the Muslim astronomers entrusted with the aforementioned task, Ramadan officially begins the morning after the crescent moon is visually sighted. But since the moon's visibility in different parts of the world varies based on weather and geography, in many areas, Ramadan does not officially start until religious leaders declare they've seen the crescent moon.

The Muslim population in the world follows various sects. Within each sect, there are also various 'mazhahib' (sub-groups). Among the various factions and sects, there are a number of methods they use. The following are two examples of such methods:

Method 1
According to this method, the month starts with the new moon and not with the first crescent.

Method 2
According to the second method, the crescent must be seen visually before the new month is declared to have commenced. But even among the followers of this method, there are sub-divisions:

1- The proponents of one method set a condition whereby it is required for the crescent to be present in the sky after sunset for at least one or two minutes.

2- The proponents of another method start by calculating the expected rising of the crescent then they set out to secure a visual sighting of the crescent. They set various conditions, such as:
a- The crescent must be viewed for at least 29 minutes.
b- The crescent must be at least 15 hours old so that it is possible to see it.
c- The longitude must be 8 degrees and the latitude 5 degrees.

These are the main procedures followed today in determining the start of the new Islamic lunar month, be it Ramadan or any other Islamic month. Interestingly, each group claims that they are abiding by the Quranic instructions. This cannot be the case since the Quranic instructions promote one method and not multiple methods.
The discrepancy in these calculations immediately tells us that some of these groups, if not all of them, are following non-Quranic sources:

Turn to Him, reverence Him, observe the Salat, and do not be of the mushrikeen among those who divided their religion and became sects; each party rejoicing in what they have.

The Quranic guidelines

The crescent marks the beginning of the month

They ask you about the 'ahhilah' (crescents), say, "They are timing devices for the people and for the Hajj."

The crescent (hilal) is the phase of the moon that immediately follows the 'new moon' (al-mahaq). The 'new moon' is totally dark and invisible. This happens when the moon is totally behind the earth, and thus no sunlight falls on the moon.
As soon as the thinnest crescent is formed, then according to 2:189, the new month is born.

2- The moon cycle is independent of the sun cycle

Neither is the sun to catch up with the moon, nor does the night overtake the day. Each one is swimming in an orbit.

The words above tell us that orbits of the sun and of the moon are independent of one another. What we derive from this verse in relation to the issue of the beginning of the Islamic month is that the presence of the first crescent in our sky is totally unrelated to the cycle of the sun in our sky. Ultimately, the first crescent can rise in our sky at night time and equally during the day.
When God stated that the crescent is the 'timer' for the lunar month (2:189), God did not place a restriction whereby only the crescent that appears after sunset is the timer.
To set a restriction that the month does not start unless the crescent is viewed after sunset is to set conditions never required nor authorised by God.

3- Does the Quran require visual sighting?

The majority of the factions contesting the task of deciding the new month insist that the crescent must be seen with the eye, either with the naked eye or through a telescope. If there is no visual sighting, the new month has not started yet.
As a result, every year they set out after sunset on their sightseeing expeditions, while the masses await their findings.
Before we even consult the Quranic verdict in this matter, we find that setting the visual sighting as a condition runs into various problems.

In many countries, especially those in the northern hemisphere where the skies can be cloudy for days at a time, it is not possible to secure a visual sighting of the new crescent. What would be the verdict then? Does the month not start until further notice?
God is all-Aware of all weather conditions at all geographic locations, and so God would not set a condition that at times cannot be fulfilled.
As it happens, the Quranic rules do not necessitate visual sighting.
Those who insist on the visual sighting of the crescent base their claim on the following verse:

Ramadan is the month in which the Quran was brought down providing guidance for the people, as well as clear proofs of the guidance and the Criterion. So those of you who 'shahida' (witness) the 'shahr' (month) shall fast it.

They interpret the underlined words to mean the visual sighting of the crescent.
When we analyse the keywords in this verse we actually find out double confirmation that visual sighting is not a condition:

1- The word 'shahida' (witness)
The proponents of the visual sighting claim that this word means 'seeing'. However, when we consult the Quran, we find that the word 'shahida' was never used in the Quran to mean 'see with the eyes'. Rather, this word is used consistently to mean 'to witness'.
The word used consistently in the Quran to mean 'see with the eyes' is: Yara.

The following are examples of the use of the 2 words, starting with the word 'shahida':

'Shahida' Allah (God bears witness)
that there is no god except Him, and so do the angels and those who possess knowledge, upholding justice. There is no god except Him, the Dignified, the Wise. 3:18

On the Day when their tongues, hands, and feet will 'tashhad' (bear witness) against them regarding what they used to do.

In contrast, the word used consistently to mean 'to see' is 'Yara'. The following are some examples:

Then when you said, "O Moses, we will not believe you until we '
nara' (we see) God plainly." 2:55

'Tara' (you could see)
the sun, when it rises, receding from the cave towards the right, and when it sets it retreats towards the left, while they are in the hollow thereof. 18:17

The significance of God's choice of the word 'witness' and not the word 'see' must not be overlooked.
To witness something is to have certainty in its truth.
When we witness that there is no god except God (3:18), we do not see God with our own eyes, but we have certainty in His existence.
If we export this understanding of the word 'shahida' to the rule in 2:185, it would mean that God is telling us that when we have certainty about the start of the month, we should fast it. God is not short of words (18:109), if seeing with the eye is a necessity, God would have used the word 'see' and not 'witness'.
When it comes to the birth of the first thin crescent, it is actually far more reliable, and more certain to rely on astronomical calculations than rely on the naked eye.

The cycle of the sun in our sky, as well as the cycle of the moon and its phases, have always been calculated with great precision since the days of the ancient Greeks, well before the revelation of the Quran. The exact rising and setting of both the sun and the moon are calculated and known for many months in advance.

A vivid demonstration of this knowledge, which we rely on daily, is found in the tables that provide the exact times of the Salat. Such tables give the exact times for all the Salat for the whole year in advance. As we know, the times of the Salat are based on the journey of the sun in our sky, and particularly the rising and setting of the sun. These are calculated astronomically in advance.
The same precise knowledge is available regarding the rising and setting of the moon and its phases for many months in advance.

We never hear the Muslim astronomers saying that they will set out on sightseeing expeditions after sunset, following which they will inform us if the sun will rise the next day according to plan or not!
Why should it be any different for the moon? The same astronomers know the exact rising and setting times of the moon with great certainty.

2- The word 'shahr' (month)
Once again, we note another example of how God is deliberate in the words He uses throughout the Quran.
Since the requirement for starting the fasting is the presence of the crescent, why did God not use the word crescent in this verse, but instead use the word 'month'.
Once again, it is to confirm that the requirement is to have certainty about the start of the month, regardless of whether we actually see the crescent with our eyes or not.
Since God informed us that the crescent marks the beginning of the month, then why did God not simply say:
"those of you who see the crescent"?
In fact, God deliberately said:
"those of you who witness the month"
The reason can only be because seeing the crescent with our eyes is not a requirement. This leads us to the fourth Quranic guideline in this matter.

4- Astronomical calculations approved by God as a reliable tool

He is the One who rendered the sun to emit light and the moon a light, and He determined its phases that you may know the count of years, and for calculation. God did not create this but truthfully. He details the revelations for people who know.

The words in this verse bear a significant relevance to the subject at hand. The words
'phases' (of the moon) and the words 'for calculation' are indeed keywords.
This verse does not speak about visual sighting but about the astronomical calculations of the phases of the moon.

In addition, God tells us that the sun and the moon both run in accordance to orbits set with the utmost precision:

The sun and the moon, running with utmost precision. 55:5
It is the astronomical calculations that make us 'know' with the utmost precision the exact movements of both the sun, and the moon in all its phases.

For God to approve these calculations, and to ascertain their precision, does indeed beg
the question as to why some insist that the crescent must be seen with the eyes? The advantages of the astronomical calculations, which God approves for us, over visual sightings are:

1- Astronomical calculations are worked out for many months in advance and are always very accurate. They provide a tool of absolute certainty in comparison to visual sightings which are dependent on eyesight and weather conditions.
2- Astronomical calculations are the only possible means on days where the crescent cannot be visible.
3- The first crescent often rises during the daytime. The newborn thin crescent is always very faint and thus cannot be seen in the day time due to the light of the sun.

Since we are now assured that God did not make visual sighting a condition, nor did God specify that the crescent to look for is only the one that appears after sunset, astronomical calculations are the only accurate tool available to us on those days when the first crescent rises during the daytime.

Conclusion: Uphold the Quranic way

In all aspects of the religion, the law of God is always the easiest to follow. Yet, for some reason or another, it is an inborn habit of the human being to complicate the religion. This is done by introducing rules and conditions that were never authorised nor required by God.
According to the law of God presented in the Quranic verses above, the Quranic method to determine the beginning and end of Ramadan, as well as the beginning and end of any Islamic month is quite simple to follow:

1- The presence of the first crescent in our sky, immediately after the new moon, marks the beginning of the Islamic lunar month.
2- The presence of the crescent does not have to be after sunset.
3- The presence of the crescent does not have to be viewed with the eye, but can be confirmed by means of astronomical calculations.
4- Astronomical calculations give us prior knowledge of the exact rising and setting of all the phases of the moon for many months in advance.
5- Astronomical calculations are approved by God as the means available for us to know the exact start and end of every Islamic month.

If all Muslims were to abide by these simple Quranic guidelines, the result would be that the correct beginning of Ramadan, as well as its end, would be forecast for every geographical location well in advance. This would eliminate the usual annual blunders that are totally unnecessary and are indeed very disruptive to all.