Muslims should get used to the confusion over the sighting of the new moon

On 28th or 29th June 2014, Muslims the world over will start fasting in the month of Ramadhan in order to observe the forth pillar of Islam.
As you may have noticed, I have indicated two dates instead of one. It is because many Muslims wait for the actual sighting of the new moon before they confirm the first day of the month and start fasting. This has created a lot of confusion in the Muslim world as one cannot state with much certainty on what will be the date for Eid-ul-Fitr, which is a public holiday in some countries like Malawi.
In circumstances like these, Muslims look in the Holy Quran and traditions of Prophet Muhammad for solutions.  Allah says in the Holy Quran, “…Whoever amongst you sights (the new moon of) the month, let him fast…” (2:185). The Prophet Muhammad also explained in one of his sayings that, “Fast when you see it (the new moon of the month of Ramadhan) and stop fasting when you see it (the new moon of the month of Shawwal), and if you cannot see it, then complete (the number of days) to 30.”
In interpreting those two sources, Muslim scholars came up with two principal rulings. (Please note that other countries outside the Middle East came up with a third ruling.)
The first ruling is to follow the astronomical calcualtion in determining the new moon. This ruling follows the birth of the new moon whether it has been sighted or not. Malaysia and some countries follows this ruling.
The second ruling is the physical sighting of the new moon. This ruling follows that the moon should be actually sighted in the locality or surrounding areas before confirming the start of the month. Saudi Arabia and many countries in the Middle East adopted this ruling.
The third ruling is to follow the Saudi Arabian calendar. This is a divergent ruling adopted by countries outside the Middle East who choose to follow the events in Mecca irrespective of whether the moon has been sighted in their countries or not. Some countries in North Africa and Europe follow this ruling.
Therefore, it does not come as a surprise that high eminent Muslim scholars in Malawi assembled in Blantyre recently to find a lasting solution to this problem. Muslim Association of Malawi, Qadria Muslim Association of Malawi, The Supreme Council of Ulama in Malawi, Ulama Council of Malawi, Bilal Trust, Al_Tariqatul-Qadria Sunni Association, Association of Sunni Madrassah, Blantyre Islamic Mission, Islamic Relief Council, Al-Furqan Charity Trust, Q.E.C, Imarat, Majils T.S, Bilal Darul Uloom(Limbe), Limbe Muslim Jamaat, Area 9 Jamaat, Al-ssalam Complex (Mangochi), Lilongwe Sunni Foundation, Anjuman Himayatul islam and Islamic Information Bureau unanimously agreed that Malawi  shall follow the second ruling.
Unfortunately, each of the three rulings has its own flaws that make them not entirely reliable because Ramadan and the Hijri (Islamic) calendar follows the sighting of the moon and not the birth of the new moon, hence the confusion in the Muslim societies.
It is may not be entirely true that the confusions in Malawi are due to advancement in technology like satellite TV and the social media as promulgated by Sheikh Muhammad Silika in one of Radio Islam’s programs or as argued by his counterpart Sheikh Muhammad Uthman in the same program (both are from the Iftah Committee of the Ulema Council of Malawi) that the confusion in Malawi has come about by Muslim expatriates who insist in following the calendar from their respective countries.
The flaw in following the astronomical method comes in because the moon’s orbit around the earth is not constant. According to Wikipedia, the Moon makes a complete orbit around Earth once every 27.3 days (its sidereal period). However, because the Earth is moving in its orbit around the Sun at the same time, it takes slightly longer for the Moon to show the same phase to Earth, which is about 29.5 days (its synodic period). Therefore, the invisible moon is born a day before it is actually sighted.
According to Dr Humaid Majol Al Nuaimi, Chairman of the Arab Union for Astronomy who explained to the Gulf News last year, he 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 indicate the beginning of the Hijri month, as that depends on the “sighting” of the moon. “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.”
Sometimes the new moon could have been born but cannot become visible and this is the flaw in the second ruling. This is what caused the Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe and the European Council on Fatwa and Research in 2012 to adopt the first ruling in Europe. But that did not stop the confusion the following year in France where the umbrella French Council of Muslim Faith (CFCM) had announced that Ramadan would start on Tuesday, 9 July 2013 according to astronomical calculations but the Grand Mosque of Paris issued an 11th-hour statement stating that Ramadan will start Wednesday, 10 July 2013. Even in India, they had the same problem in 2013.

Since the third ruling is dependent on whether the moon has been sighted in Saudi Arabia or not, the problem comes in when Mecca itself has a problem to actually sight the moon. Just like in France, this is the confusion that was also observed in Saudi Arabia when the Supreme Scholars Committee of Saudi Arabia differed with the Supreme Court in Saudi Arabia on whether the moon was sighted on Tuesday (9 July 2013) or Wednesday (10 July 2013).
Although all the two principal rulings are authentic in themselves as they are based on the consensus of majority of Muslim scholars in their respective countries, you may have now noticed from the above that there is no fool proof method of determining when to start fasting in the month of Ramadhan.
Muslims worldwide should therefore get used to the confusions over the sighting of the new moon because they cannot be eliminated altogether although much pressure is now being put to follow the astronomical calculation method. However, it is really necessary that once Muslim scholars agree to follow a particular ruling in a country then all Muslims should unreservedly agree and follow that ruling. In that way, we shall minimize the confusions.
For indepth analysis and understanding on this topic, please visit Fiqh Council of North America website and As-sidiq website.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and does not necessarily reflect those of Malawi Muslims Official Website.

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