Abu Dhabi: When early Muslims observed Ramadan, they relied on the same method to determine when it started — namely moon sighting using their own eyes.
Fast forward to today with Muslims having access to advanced technology such as telescopes, as well as advances in astronomical calculations, a debate is still raging over whether definite astronomical calculations should take precedence over sightings by eye.
A section of Islamic scholars believe that seeing the moon with the naked eye should be the standard for declaring the start of a new month. A smaller section advocates that we can rely solely on the astronomical calculations, and there is no need to visually see the moon.
GCC countries follow the moon sighting method, but Malaysia and Turkey follow the astronomical calculations method.
The division is between scholars who place emphasis on the apparent meaning of the text and those who emphasise its intended meaning and purpose.
Visual sighting or astronomical calculations
Dr Ahmad Al Kubaisi, a leading Muslim scholar, told Gulf News the Prophet (PBUH) said: “Start fasting on seeing it [the new moon of Ramadan] and break your fast on seeing it [the new moon of Shawwal]. And if the sky is overcast, then act on estimation [ie count Sha’ban as 30 days]. Here came the prophetic tradition of visual sighting of the new moon.
However, Dr Al Kubaisi added, due to the technological advancement, Muslims started to implement astronomical calculations and not to depend on visual sighting only.
“The Prophet [PBUH], indeed, instructed the companions to establish the first day of Ramadan by sighting the moon, but then he stated that the reason for his directive was the inability of early Muslim community to provide accurate calculation. The community was then illiterate and did not master reading, writing or calculation. They had no experienced astronomers who have access to the knowledge, tools and facilities to determine with accuracy the beginning of the lunar month. Consequently, moon sighting was the only tool available for the early Muslim community,” he said.
Dr Al Kubaisi added that the Prophet (PBUH), however, taught us that we are the Ummah of knowledge (Ilm). And we have to achieve progress, seek knowledge and be up to date with the reality of the time we live in. And therefore, Muslims established astronomical observations, and they invented the modern systems that help in sighting the new moon. They started to implement the astronomical calculations in conjunction with the visual moon sighting.
Dr Humaid Majol Al Nuaimi, Chairman of the Arab Union for Astronomy and Space Science and Chancellor of University of Sharjah, told Gulf News that astronomy was an accurate science that enables predicting with pinpoint accuracy solar and lunar eclipses based on scientific calculations.
Al Nuaimi explained the rotation of the moon around the Earth drives the Lunar Calendar, which is also the Islamic or Hijri Calendar. The time between two full moons is 29.5 days. When the moon comes exactly between the Sun and the Earth, it is called the “Conjunction” and it is said that a new moon is “born”.
At the conjunction point, all of the Sun’s radiation is reflected back by the moon and none reaches the Earth. Therefore, the moon is completely black to us earthlings and is thus invisible.
The time passed after the moment of conjunction is called the age of the moon.
“As far as sighting the moon goes, we could acquire a great deal of help from science. We could use calculations and modern simulations for knowing where and when to look for the moon, how high it will be in the sky, and what are the chances of its visibility. It is now possible to calculate the exact window of the moon’s visibility after sunset and even generate simulated images of the moon beforehand,” Al Nuaimi said.
The official moon sighting committee asks people to testify if they have seen the moon. This is where these simulated images can be used: anyone who claims to have seen the moon can be asked questions such as what time they saw it, how high it was, whether it was near or close to the sun, whether the cusps were upward or sideways, whether it was on the left side or right side of the moon, etc.
These questions are enough to filter out false claims of sighting.
Engineer Khalfan Al Nuaimi, chairman of the UAE Astronomy Group, said the UAE’s calendar set Monday, May 6, as the first day of Ramadan this year ahead of the moon sighting on Sunday.
“At Jebel Hafeet, on the border of the UAE and Oman, the moon’s visibility was not possible on Sunday.”
Big difference between birth of the new moon and moon sighting
Dr Humaid Majol Al Nuaimi, Chairman of the Arab Union for Astronomy and Space Science and Chancellor of University of Sharjah, said that although the scientific method of calculating the new moon’s birth is very accurate, even “up to the second”, that does not mean that the moon can be seen.
“There is a big difference between the birth of the new moon and the moon sighting; we can calculate the new moon for the next 10,000 years if we want… there are even websites that can do it,” Al Nuaimi said.
He added the formation of the new moon does not mean we can see it. We cannot see the moon unless it is seven degrees away from the sun and five degrees above the horizon.
Al Nuaimi explained that the viewer’s geographic location (longitude and latitude), the position of the moon in the western sky after sunset, and the visibility condition of the sky play a major factor in the new moon’s visibility.
“The sky should not be polluted, whether it is dust or light pollution, as that will affect the visibility of the moon.”