By Nidhal Guessoum
May 03, 2018
For Muslims, May 15 will be the “night of doubt,” with the wait to know whether the next day will be the start of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, or whether it will be postponed.
I often describe this situation in the following way: Imagine if for the months of September, October and December, you had to wait until the 29th night of the preceding month to know whether to start the new month the next day or the day after. There would be non-stop confusion and chaos, right? Imagine travels, medical appointments and meetings. People would demand — and obtain — a resolution of this situation once and for all. But that is essentially the method the Muslim world still uses for the months of Ramadan, Shawwal and Dhu Al-Hijjah.
Indeed, since the times of Prophet Muhammad, the practice has been to start and end any month upon sighting the new crescent (by the naked eye until the early 17th century as there were no telescopes). For religious purposes, that practice was fine, as it allowed anyone, anywhere to determine when to start and stop fasting.
But, soon, Islamic society turned into a fully-fledged civilization and people realized that months need to be structured into a calendar, which serves many civil purposes in addition to religious ones. At the same time, Muslims were learning the sciences that had been developed by other nations and cultures, including the astronomy of Greece and India. Thus the field of “Islamic astronomy” quickly emerged to address such questions as prayer timetables, the direction to Makkah (Qibla), and Islamic months. Calendars were then constructed by Muslim astronomers, and some were used by rulers for various purposes, including the payment of salaries, the scheduling of civil deadlines and so forth.
But the calendars remained for “civil purposes” only. For religious occasions (e.g., Ramadan), the practice of sighting the crescent on the 29th evening of the month remained in effect. This did not create any chaos for two reasons: Due to the lack of fast communication and travels, societies remained largely local, and only travelers noticed any discrepancies in the dates of religious or civil occasions between different lands; and economies were primitive and slow, thus one day off now and then did not wreck things significantly enough for anyone to protest.
Today the world has changed so much, and yet the practice has remained the same, leading to much chaos. Different Muslim-majority countries follow different approaches and rules in determining when Ramadan starts and ends, hence the regular confusion and disputes. Astronomers have insisted that people often mistake celestial objects (e.g., Venus) or even planes for the crescent, and thus sighting reports should not overrule calculations and predictions. Science has made huge progress on the problem and can now confidently predict in which regions of the world the crescent will be seen (by the naked eye or with instruments) on any given night.
As a case in point, on May 15 in most regions of the Arab world, the crescent will be setting after the Sun by just a few minutes. Astronomers the world over agree that the crescent cannot be seen in such circumstances — odd voices here and there notwithstanding. But this being the “night of doubt” — an expression that astronomers dislike — countless people will try to glimpse the crescent and some might err, as Venus is indeed in the western sky these days. Religious authorities may then accept such testimonies, leading to more disagreements.
But if astronomers can determine where and when the crescent can or cannot be seen on any given night, and tell us well ahead of time, why should there be a problem at all? Why don’t we just announce the date (for Ramadan, Eid or Hajj) months and years in advance and allow people to plan their lives accordingly?
The problem lies with religious authorities, who need to accept the idea of replacing night-of-doubt sighting of the crescent with advance calculations. We need to move on from the old injunctions (“sight the crescent”) — and their literal applications — to a more objectivist (Maqasidi) interpretation of the intention (i.e., “use your best tools, including telescopes and computers, to ascertain the start of the month”) on the part of the Muslim authorities.
Progress is being made on this issue in the Muslim world, but slowly. A few countries (none Arab) and several Islamic communities in Europe and North America have adopted a calendrical approach, which allows them to plan ahead and get rid of any night-of-doubt disputes. The rest of the Muslim world will continue to suffer disagreements and socio-economic inconveniences.
Until we digest the importance of moving from the old, traditional, limited and limiting rules to a more intelligent understanding and application of the basic principle (when Ramadan starts and ends), we will continue to witness various types of chaos. People do not know when to schedule meetings, when to travel for Eid, when schools will be off, how to plan for the millions of pilgrims (Hajj), etc.
It is astounding that a problem that science can today solve quite easily without disturbing the main religious principles underlying the practice could still constitute such a socio-economic predicament. Let us hope that, as people gain understanding of the issue, the Arab-Muslim world can move forward and put this problem behind it.
Nidhal Guessoum is a professor of astronomy and physics at the American University of Sharjah, UAE.