Determination of the New Moon

With Ramadaan having started we thought it would be good to re-publish this article from Professor Abu Zafar, which was first published in ‘The Light’ magazine in 1982.

The article shows with conclusive proof that there is nothing “un-Islamic” about using modern methods to determine the new moon.

Observing the Moon

The Holy Prophet (pbuh) had this to say about observing the moon to determine the beginning or end of the month of Ramadaan:

  1. “Ibn Umar related the Holy Prophet (phub)) as saying : When you see it (the moon) start the fast, and when you see it (again) end it (i.e. Ramadaan) ; if it is cloudy then estimate it” (Bukhari).
  2. “We are an unlettered people ; we neither write nor keep account, Some­times a month is this much and some­times that much, so that it is sometimes twenty-nine and sometimes thirty days” (Bukhari).
  3. Look for the moon to start the fast and look for it to end it (i.e. Ramadaan), and if it is cloudy then complete thirty days(Bukhari).

Meaning of Ru’yat and Faqduru

The issue becomes clear if the words ru’yat and faqduru lahu meaning “seeing” and “estimate it” are ex­plained. Literally, ru’yat means to see with one’s eyes .or sense or heart. All lexicons of Arabic (al:Munjid, Aqrab al- Muwarid, al-Qamus, Lisan al-Arab, Mantah al-Arab) contain all of these alternative meanings. Further, Imam Raghib in the Mufradat gives examples of the various meanings in which the Quran has used this word:

“Ru’yat (or to see) is of many different kinds in accordance with human faculties. First, as perception, e.g. “you will surely see hell”. Second as imagination, e.g., “if only you could see him when he was taking the unbelievers’ soul”. Third, as intellect, e.g., “you do not see what I am seeing”. Fourth, as Understanding, e.g., “there was no shadow of doubt in what the heart saw” (Mufradat, Letter ra followed by ya, p. 208).

Therefore, ru’yat includes seeing by eye, by imagination, by intellect, or by understanding. So, ru’yat means to gain knowledge of a thing by any of the methods described above. The Holy Quran uses ru’yat (to see) thirty or forty different times in such a way that it cannot possibly mean “to see with the eye”. For example :

  • “Did you not see how your Lord dealt with Aad” (89 : 6).
  • “Did you not see him who argued with Abraham” (2 : 258).

In neither of these verses can one take “to see” to mean “to see with the eye”, for none of those who wit­nessed these events were alive at the time of the revelation of the Holy Quran. Therefore, in these verses, “to see” means to gain knowledge from historical or technical sources. So when the Holy Prophet (pbuh) said, “when you see the moon…” it means when you determine that the moon is new, by seeing it with the eye, or by some other method, then start and end the month of fasting.

Similarly, the other phrase of the tradition, faqduru lahu, literally means “estimate it”. Since the early days of Islam the elders of religion have been interpreting this phrase in two ways:

  • Abu Bakr Ahmad ibn All of Baghdad (d. 370 A.H.) famous as Imam Jasaas, writes in Ahlconi al-Qur’an (vol. i, p. 236) : “Some people say that this tradition means to rely on stages of the moon. Therefore, if the location is such that, had there not been cloud or dust, the new moon would have been visible, then both for the beginning and end of the month of Ramadaan, the order of “seeing with the eye” would be applicable ; otherwise not. Others contend that if it is cloudy then thirty days of Shabaan (month preceding Ramadaan) should be completed.”

We are not concerned here with a discussion of the correctness or other­wise of either of these interpretations. However, it is clear from this that from the very inception there were at least some people who felt that astronomical calculations could be relied upon. In fact both interpretations are correct because the two different traditions (numbers 2 and 3 listed in the beginning of this article) deal with two different situations. One relates to completion of thirty days for those places where as­tronomers or astronomical data are not available. The other to where such ex­perts or data is available, so that the day and the time of the new moon can be determined by computation.

  • Hadrat Matarrif ibn Abdullah of Basra (d. 87 A.H.), a leading personage from the generation after the Companions, gave the same interpretation (Hadaita al-Mujtahid lil-Qurtabi, 275) : “When the new moon is hidden by clouds then the knowledge of the movement of the sun and the moon shall be referred to.”
  • Some members of the Shafi’i school of jurisprudence also agree with this. ‘ala I-madhahib al-arba’ (vol. i, p551) states : “An astronomer, and any one who has faith in such computation, can rely on a statement (of the appearance of the new moon).”
  • Imam Subki Shafil considered computation to be more reliable than the evidence of two eye-witnesses. In Rad al-Mukhta; (vol 100, publish­ed in Egypt) it is said : “In a writing of his, Imam Subki Shafi has also inclined to relying on astronomers because computation is definite…”
  • Qazi Abdul Jabbar and the author of Jam’ al-Ulum also adopted this position. In vol. ii (p. 100) of the above mentioned book we also find : “Qazi Abdul Jabbar, and the author of Jam’ al-Ulum have already been quoted as saying that there is no harm in relying on astronomers.”
  •  In the same place the author of Quniya is quoted as giving the view-point of Ibn Muqatil as follows: “He used to consult astronomers, and when a group of them concurred he used to accept their advice.”
  • Allaraa Subhi Mamsani quotes Ahmad Shakir’s Awail al-Shahor in falsifatu al-Shri as saying that it is a unanimously agreed principle of juris­prudence that an effect remains only for the duration of its cause, and then it ends. He then goes on: “And it is on the basis of this principle that some jurists declared the use of astronomical computation to be lawful in determining Muslim months, particularly the month of Ramadaan. The explanation is that the tradition which commands that only “seeing with the eye” of a new moon can be relied on, was related to a special reason. That was that the nation being addressed was unlettered and could not compute. Now that this nation has come out of its state of illiteracy and  is literate and can compute with certainty, it now becomes incumbent that they should refer to certainty (computation) to determine the new moon, and only on the previous method where astronomical computation is not known.”
  • According to Muwahib al-Din, a commentary of the Hadith collection Mu’ atta of Imam Malik, (vol ii, p. 85) : “Ibn Arabi has quoted Ibn Suraij’s statement that “fagduru lahu” (estimate it) is for those who have knowledge of astronomy, and fakmilu al-‘iddah (“complete the term” of thirty days) is addressed to the ordinary people.”

Use of Knowledge

There is nothing in Islam which makes the use of knowledge for religious purposes illegal. Here four examples are quoted. Firstly, law of heritage is a religious matter. However, the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) himself used the science of physiognomy to deter­mine lineage.

Secondly, punishment of a thief is a religious matter in Islam. However, if a thief is apprehended by the use of fingerprints or tracker dogs this would not be unlawful.

Thirdly, determining times of daily prayers is a religious matter. Scholars of the past had decreed that the use of computation was unlawful even for this. Yet, today we find such time tables in every mosque and every home.

And, fourthly, determination of, the times of starting and ending a daily fast is a religious matter and yet we find that these time tables are published months in advance. What makes these lawful?

Indeed, the scholars should direct themselves more to declaring the computed timetable for prayers unlawful, rather than the determination of the new moon by computation. For prayer has a higher place in Islam than fasting and it is said that after death one will be questioned about prayer first!

Astronomical Computations

In this day and age, astronomical computations are as certain as two plus two makes four, and experts can compute times of all events related to heavenly bodies so that there is not a hair’s breadth of difference between the occurrence and the computation. The Lord did not create these bodies to deceive us, or so that we may ignore them. On the con­trary, they were created so that we may make use of them to determine the calendar.

..and ordained for it stages that you might know the computation of years and the reckoning (10 5),

These stages are predestined so that there can be no deviation and this leaves no doubt in computation. That is why the Holy Quran exhorts us to use rather than ignore them.

Declared Unlawful

Time is the best dispenser of religious decrees. When the loudspeaker was in­vented its use was, declared unlawful for sermons, but now it is used even for prayers. Paper currency was also declared unlawful, yet there is not a single Mus­lim country without it now. Of course, there are differences of opinion on all matters of jurisprudence; if these are going to make us unacceptable to each other then we will have to wash our hands of all of these. Indeed, as As­tronomy and astronomical computation have reached a pinnacle, and the time when, as they improve in scholarship, all Muslims accept them is not far, these problems will, in fact, find their own solution automatically and the world will bow its head to the commandments of Islam. It is a sad commentary on our intellectual state that at a time when men are landing on the moon we are involved in heated debates on whether it is lawful to determine a new lunar month by computation! May Allah grant us the wisdom to understand and act upon the Holy Quran and the traditions of the Holy Prophet (peace and bless­ings of Allah be upon him).

The question was whether ru’yat can be applied to determine the new moon by astronomical knowledge. In the light of the Holy Quran, traditions of the Holy Prophet (pbuh), and the views of the elders of religion, our honest opinion is that, because knowledge of astrono­my has reached such a level of certainty, there is no danger to our faith to do so.




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