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Towards Understanding the Moonsighting Debate in the U.K.

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Towards Understanding the Moonsighting Debate in the U.K.
by Dr Abid Hussain
The moonsighting debate is back on the U.K. horizon. The ulema with opposing viewpoints have debated hard and long over several years and have failed to reach a unified solution. The ulema have taken such polarized positions that there seems no sign of an end to this debate. So the debate has been thrown in to the public domain.
The debate has become unnecessarily extensive and complicated to the extent that the average person finds it almost impossible to follow it.
This is a humble effort to try to present the real essence of the debate in an objective and concise manner so that we can appreciate the the opposing viewpoints. By understanding the opposing viewpoints perhaps we can learn to tolerate them and expend our time in pursuing the numerous others challenges facing the Muslims in the U.K. in these difficult times.
The pertinent questions are:
Q1. What methodology should be used to start and end Ramadan.
Q2. What methodology should be used to determine the day of Eid-ul-Adha.
The Traditional Approach to Hilal Sighting to establish the Hijri calendar
There are two well known traditional fiqhi positions:
1. Ittihad al-matali
The whole of the earth is considered to have one universal horizon (wahadat-ul-matali) for the purposes of hilal sighting. According to this principle if the hilal sighting is confirmed in one locality it shall apply to all the Muslims on the Earth. This is often referred to as global or universal sighting.
2. Ikhtilaf al-matali
The Earth is considered to have multiple horizons (matali) for the purposes of hilal sighting. According to this principle each locality follows its own hilal sighting. This is referred to as local sighting.
How big an area is one horizon (matla’a)? There is no clear cut answer to this, the size of a matla’a is not well defined. Imam Shafii (RA) limited it to 48 miles; other scholars have put a limit of 72 miles.
What was the view of the classical jurists (fuqaha)?
For start and end of Ramadan early Hanafi, Malaki, Hanbali and some Shafii jurists (fuqaha) agreed that if the news of a hilal sighting is properly conveyed after authentication by the authorities all Muslims who receive the news must act on it, i.e, they advocated the principle of ittihad al-matali. However, later Muslim jurists of these madaahib rejected the principle of ittihad al-matali and adopted the principle of ikhtilaf al-matali as imam Nawawi recorded that the correct opinion is that people are not obligated to go with the sighting of another locality, according to him there is no difference of opinion regarding this issue.
If we look at the current practice of Muslim scholars and Islamic countries the overwhelming majority practice ikhtilaf matali, i.e., they follow their own local hilal sighting. There are numerous fataawa from contemporary scholars including Saudi scholars and the official Saudi fataawa committee supporting this position.
For Eid-ul-Adha all Muslim jurists are unanimous that each locality should follow their own local hilal sighting. (The Saudi scholar Ahmad ibn Saifuddin explains this at (http: / / www.youtube.com/ watch?v=f1swuiZa qQ)
The Contemporary Approach of the U.K. ulema
We can categorize the different viewpoints of the ulema in to 4 main methodologies or groups as detailed below.
For Eid-ul-Adha all Muslim jurists are unanimous that each locality should follow their own local hilal sighting. (The Saudi scholar Ahmad ibn Saifuddin explains this at (http: / / www.youtube.com/ watch?v=f1swuiZa qQ)
Methodology 1/ Group 1
This group states that they follow the fiqhi principle of ittihad al-matali and accept the testimony of hilal sighting only from an Islamic country. In practice they follow only Saudi hilal sightings. This stand is supported by Hizb-ul-ulema, Jamiat Ulama-e-Britain and Dar-ul-loom Bury. The basis of their stand is that the legal reason (sabab) for starting and ending of Ramadan is based solely on the testimony of a witness or completion of 30 days. They use the following hadith to support their position.

Abu Huraira (RTA) narrated: The Prophet or Abul-Qasim said, “Start fasting on seeing the crescent (of Ramadan), and give up fasting on seeing the crescent (of Shawwal), and if the sky is overcast (and you cannot see it), complete thirty days of Sha’ban.” (Sahih Bukhari, book 30, hadith 19).
Note this hadith can only be applied to start and end of Ramadan not for start of Dhul-Hijja. See also hadith recorded in sunan Abu Dawud below.
This group also considers the use of calculations as being forbidden, they use the following hadith to justify their position:

Ibn ‘Umar (RA)narrated that the Prophet (saw) said: “We are an unlettered people who can neither write nor count. The month is thus, and thus folding his thumb when he said it the third time.” (Sahih Bukhari, book 13, hadith 17)
While denouncing the use of any calculations this group appears to follow calculations for nine months out of twelve by following and publishing the Umm-ul-Qura calendar since the Saudi authorities only announce start of three Hijri months namely Ramadan, Shawwal and Dhul-Hiija. By restricting acceptance of hilal sightings to Islamic countries only it would mean confirmed hilal sightings from India, South Africa etc. would need to be rejected.
This methodology would be difficult to justify if implemented worldwide. For instance, the time difference between Saudi Arabia and California is eleven hours; on 45% of occasions the hilal would be expected to be sighted in California before Saudi Arabia. If we apply this methodology then California would have to ignore its own hilal sighting in favour of Saudi hilal sighting the next day, this goes against Shari’ah. Even those scholars who ardently support this methodology would not advocate that the Muslims in California ignore their own hilal sighting in favour of Saudi hilal sighting the next day.
Group 2/ Methodology 2
The stand of this group is based on the fiqhi principle of ikhtilaf al-matali but since this cannot be followed in its entirety due to the geographical location of the U.K. in practice they follow a mixture of ikhtilaf al-matali and ittihad al-matali. This stand is supported by Wifaq-ul-ulema and Batley ulema.
This group look for the hilal in various locations in the U.K. on the 29th of each Hijri month, if it is not seen they will accept the hilal sighting from any country to the East of the U.K. on the condition that if the sky is clear there must be a large number of witnesses (Jamme Ghafeer). Hanafi and Malaki fiqh require a large number of witnesses for hilal sighting on the 29th of a month if the sky is clear.
In practice this group follows local hilal sighting when possible and thereafter they follow the hilal sightings of Morocco and South Africa. In both these countries the hilal sighting is reported as having been seen by a very large number of witnesses. Morocco for instance has 278 official locations for hilal sighting and announcement is made by the Department of Islamic Affairs. This group uses predicted hilal visibility data to negate hilal sightings made by only a few witnesses if the hilal sighting contradicts the scientific data. Presumably if the number of witnesses was large enough their testimony would be given precedence over scientific data if the two were in conflict.
They use the following narration recorded by imam Muslim in support of their position:

Kuraib reported that Umm Fadl, daughter of Harith, sent him (Fadl, i.e. her son) to Mu’awiya in Syria. I (Fadl) arrived in Syria, and did the needful for her. It was there in Syria that the month of Ramadan commenced. I saw the new moon (of Ramadan) on Friday. I then came back to Medina at the end of the month. ‘Abd Allah bin ‘Abbas (RTA)asked me (about the new moon of Ramadan) and said: “When did you see it?” I said: “We saw it on the night of Friday.” He said: “(Did) you see it yourself?” I said: “Yes, and the people also saw it and they fasted and Mu’awiya also fasted”, whereupon he said: “But we saw it on Saturday night. So we will continue to fast till we complete thirty (fasts) or we see it (the new moon of Shawwal).” I said: “Is the sighting of the moon by Mu’awiya not valid for you?” He said: “No. This is how the Messenger of Allah has commanded us.” (Sahih Muslim book 13, hadith 34; Thirmidi and others)
Yahya b. Yahya was in doubt (whether the word used in the narration by Kuraib) was Naktafi or Taktafi.
This narration of Kuraib has been extensively analysed and criticised by some scholars such as Shaunkaani (RA) from different perspectives. It is not a hadith and ‘Abd Allah bin ‘Abbas’ (RTA)comment, “This is how the Messenger of Allah (SWA) has commanded us”, is based on his personal ijtihad and not necessarily what the Prophet (SAW) commanded.
Group 3/ Methodology 3
This group uses purely scientific calculations, they follow a predicted hilal visibility calendar. The masaajid who follow this group declare the date of Eid-ul-Fitr in advance during the last few days of Ramadan.
This stand has been supported by Sheikh Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri and others. These scholars do not consider the physical sighting of the hilal or completion of thirty days as the only legal reasons (sabab) for starting and ending of Ramadan. (See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8cn3c-ufwwU from 06:45min).
This group claims that the following hadith sanctions use of calculations:

Ibn ‘Umar (RTA)reported Allah’s Messenger (SAW) as saying in connection with Ramadan: “Do not fast till you see the new moon, and do not break fast till you see it; but if the weather is cloudy calculate about it.” (Sahih Muslim, Book 13, Hadith 4). This methodology which obviates the need for physical hilal sighting has been strongly refuted by the majority of classical Muslim jurists.
Group 4/ Methodology 4
This group states that they follow the fiqhi principle of ittihad al-matali in its entirety. If a Muslim country declares a confirmed sighting of hilal by a recognised Shari’ah method for the month of Ramadan then it is obligatory for every eligible Muslim around the world to start fasting. It is forbidden to wait for the permission of one’s local religious authority before starting to fast. Similarly, if a Muslim country declares a confirmed sighting of hilal by a recognised Shari’ah method for the month of Shawwal then it is obligatory for every eligible Muslim around the world to stop fasting or break their fast if they are fasting and celebrate Eid-ul-Fitr. The following hadith which has been graded as daif by Al-Albani (RA) is used to support this position:

Narrated Ikrimah (RA): Once the people doubted the appearance of the moon of Ramadan, and intended neither to offer the tarawih prayer nor to keep fast. A bedouin came from al-Harrah and testified that he had sighted the moon. He was brought to the Prophet (SAW). He asked: “Do you testify that there is no god but Allah, and that I am the Messenger of Allah?” He said: “Yes,” and he testified that he had sighted the moon. He commanded Bilal (RTA)who announced to the people to offer the tarawih prayer and to keep fast. (Sunan Abu Dawud book 14, hadith no. 29) Similar hadith narrated by ‘Abd Allah bin ‘Abbas (RTA)and also recorded in sunan Abu Dawud. The Hijri dates of methodologies 1 and 3 coincide but their underlying juristic reasoning is different. Similarly, the Hijri dates of methodologies 2 and 4 also coincide but their underlying juristic reasoning is slightly different.
Discussion and Conclusion
1. Due to the geographical position of the U.K. it is not possible to see the hilal locally the whole year round. We have to rely on hilal sighting of other countries for most of the year.
2. In the U.K. we do not have a single religious authority which we all abide by. So there are bound to be differences within the community on issues such as hilal sighting.
3. Over the last few decades science has become very accurate in predicting hilal visibility. We have reached a stage that the degree of accuracy of hilal predictability by science is greater than the
accuracy of the naked human eye. Science cannot reach a level of absolute certainty regarding predicting hilal sighting because it cannot predict local weather conditions.
4. Both methodology 1 and methodology 2 use scientific data to determine when to look for the hilal, i.e. when is the 29th of the Hijri month. Methodology 1 uses moonset before sunset in Makkah and methodology 2 uses predicted hilal visibility criteria.
5. The announcement of start of Ramadan, Shawwal and Dhul-Hijja by the Saudi authorities is based on the actual testimony of local witnesses.
6. There is no doubt that the Saudi hilal sightings are on occasions erroneous. Even if we ignore astronomical data there is no reason why the hilal should be sighted first in Saudi Arabia for the religious months year after year; the six official hilal sighting committee within Saudi Arabia despite being equipped with telescopes fail to sight the hilal on numerous occasions yet an official declaration of hilal sighting is announced by the Saudi Justice department based on the testimony of a witness; the time difference between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia is only two hours so their Hijri calendars should coincide in over 80% of the time but they do not; if the hilal is seen in Saudi Arabia it must necessarily be seen in countries to the West of Saudi Arabia on the same evening, yet it is not. These facts provide sufficient evidence that the Saudi Arabia hilal sightings are indeed erroneous on occasions but if the legal reason (sabab) for starting an Islamic month is based solely around the testimony of a witness then these errors are immaterial.
7. Following Saudi hilal sighting only has no historical basis in Shari’ah and this methodology would be impractical to implement across the globe due to different time zones.
8. The majority of Muslim scholars and Islamic countries practice ikhtilaf matali, i.e., they follow their own local hilal sighting.
9. Early scholars rejected the use of calculations to determine prayer times and direction of qibla. 500 years ago when the printing press was invented Muslims opposed it, it took 100 years for us to accept it. 300 years ago when clocks and watches were invented Muslim scholars opposed their use for prayer times. 150 years ago there were serious protests and resistance when Shah WaliUllah’s (?) put forward the idea of translating the Qur’an in to the Persian language. 100 years ago calculated prayer timetables were forbidden in India. 60 years ago the use of loudspeakers for prayers was considered haram.
The vast majority of Muslims across the world are already using scientific data to construct Hijri calendars be it Umm-ul-Qura calendar criteria or predicted hilal visibility criteria, the use of such data and its acceptance over time is inevitable as Muslims in the West need such information to plan their futures. If the Saudi Umm-ul-Qura calendar changes its criteria to predicted hilal visibility criteria it would undoubtedly solve most of our problems regarding the issue of Ramadan and Eid (see http://chn.ge/16NccbZ). The Saudi authorities have changed the criteria for constructing the Umm-ul-Qura calendar a number of times over the past 50 years, from 1950 to 1998 the criteria for the Umm-ul-Qura calendar was moon conjunction (birth of moon) before midnight at Greenwich, so the criteria can be changed again.
10.Let us spend some time understanding the opposing views and learn to tolerate them. An enormous amount of time and effort has been spent on the hilal sighting debate at the expense of ignoring many other important and pressing issues which pose a challenge/ threat to the Muslims in the U.K.

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