Moon sighting
Clerics of Pakistan's Moon Sighting Committee use a telescope for the new moon that signals the start of Islamic month Ramadan, in Karachi on May 5. Image Credit: AP

Dubai: A Pakistani minister has taken a brave step to set up a scientific committee for moon sighting, taking the job away from the religious scholars who have objected the move.

The objective of the new initiative is to end the controversy over moon sighting and the confusion amongst people, especially on the occasions of announcing big events such as starting of Ramadan and Eid Al Fitr. Moon-sighting committee normally meets every month to decide the beginning of the lunar Islamic month, but they come into limelight only on big occasions.

According to a notification tweeted by the Minister, the committee would determine the exact dates of Ramadan, Eid Al Fitr, Eid Al Adha and Muharram for the next five years with 100 percent accuracy through technology..

Pakistan and many other Islamic countries face problem over moon sighting issue as Islamic scholar often disagree and clash over the official version. The new committee has been formed to predict key dates and months of the Islamic Calendar, with an aim to put an end to moon-sighting controversies in the country.

The controversy over Ramadan surfaced again this month as the official moon-sighting committee said the Ramadan in Pakistan began on Tuesday while the controversial cleric Mufti Shahabuddin Popalzai from Peshawar disagreed with the official announcement and said Ramadan in Pakistan started on Monday. As a result, a large number of Muslims who follow Mufti Popalzai fast on Monday while the rest of people began fasting on Tuesday.

Who are the committe members

The Ministry of Science and Technology Committee members include: Dr Mohammad Tariq Masood, Joint Scientific Adviser, Ministry of Science and Technology; Waqar Ahmad, Lecturer, Meteorology Department, CUI, Islamabad; Nadeem Faisal, Deputy Director, Meteorology Department; Abu Nasan, Deputy Director, Meteorology Department; and Ghulam Murtaza, DCM, SUPARCO, Islamabad).

The Minister had also earlier questioned the wisdom in spending large sums of money on moon sighting every year, saying that the Ruet-e-Hilal (moon sighting) committee should carry out the sighting voluntarily.

" The gathering of religious scholars just for the purpose of sighting moon burdens national exchequer and is waste of public money. It is time to utilise science and technology to end the controversy

- Chaudhry Fawad Hussain, Minister of Science and Technology in Pakistan

"The gathering of religious scholars just for the purpose of sighting moon burdens national exchequer and is waste of public money. It is time to utilise science and technology to end the controversy

Hussain revealed that around Rs4 million were spent on the moon sighting procedure every year, and that it was time to utilise science and technology to end the controversy.

Religious scholar's objection

His move to set up a scientific moon sighting committee created a lot of stir across the country as many considered his move as against the Islamic norms but others welcomed his initiative.

Islamic scholars who argue that the moon must be physically seen to decide the beginning of the fasting month, have already started criticizing the minister and the government.

Mufti Munib-ur-Rehman, the chief of the central Ruet-e-Hilal Committee, asked the minister to refrain from commenting on “religious matters” and appealed to the premier to let “only concerned ministers speak on religious issues”. The cleric added: “Our moon-sighting announcements have never been wrong. Everyone bears witness when the moon is sighted.”

“‘The minister is unaware of the system and if he is interested, we can make a 100-year lunar calendar for him,” he added.

He advised the minister to not distort Pakistan's history and asked Prime Minister Imran Khan to instruct his ministers the same.

Why the confusion

Every year in Pakistan, as in many other Islamic countries, members of the moon-sighting committee gather to view the new moon through a telescope and collect evidence from across the country to formally announce the new moon to mark the beginning of Ramadan and Eid. It is because Muslims follow a lunar calendar and a moon-sighting method that leads to different dates in different countries.

Astronomers believe modern technology can help solve this problem. “The calculations about new moon are absolutely accurate and are universally accepted,” says Air Commodore (Rtd) Khalid Marwat, president of the Karachi Astronomers’ Society. “However, seeing the new crescent moon can be tricky since it’s quite faint and sometimes not visible to the naked eye because of haze, clouds or air pollution.”

Despite modern techniques and calculations, many scholars maintain that seeing the moon with the naked eye should be the condition for announcing the start of new months. This belief is based on the tradition since the times of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) more than 1,400 years ago. Most countries follow Saudi Arabia’s traditional moon-sighting system. Other states follow local sighting, accept neighbouring countries’ sighting or have their own criteria.

Two Muslim associations, the Fiqh Council of North America (FCNA) and European Council of Fatwa and Research (ECFR), recognise astronomical calculation as the standard to determine the beginning of months. For these scholars, the presence of moon above horizon at sunset is the basis. “It is sufficient to know that the New Moon is on the horizon, irrespective of its sighting,” according to FCNA.

(With inputs from Sana Jamal, Correspondent in Islamabad)