High Illiteracy

The Annual Muslim Quest for the Ever-Elusive New Moon

The day is Friday, the 22nd of May, 2020. On every spot of this planet, from Line Islands (UTC+14) to Baker Island (UTC-12), the month of Ramadan has ended, and the month of Shawwal has begun. The world-wide Muslim community, aware of the fact that the new moon would be born at 17:39 UTC, had long determined that Friday was the first day of Shawwal of the year 1441 of the Islamic Hijri Calendar. All Muslims were in a position to plan in advance, and they would all celebrate Eid, or the end of their 29-day fast, on the same day across the globe. The age of incomplete and inaccurate astronomical knowledge has ended, and with it the need to engage in the chaotic quest for a reliable moon-sighting. A universal lunar calendar is now used by all Muslims as a manifestation of unity and civilizational advancement.

If you are still reading, you are probably by now wondering if the author is suffering from some sort of delusion brought about by weeks of solitary confinement, or perhaps through over exposure to the chemicals in the hand sanitizer he has been in the habit of overusing since the outbreak of Covid-19. Though isolation and chemicals are no doubt having their effect on my mental wellness, I am well aware of the fact that the scene I shared above sadly has no basis in actual reality. There is no such thing as a universal hijri lunar calendar, and the quest for the Ramadan and Shawwal new moons was as chaotic in 2020 as it was in 2019. What I shared above, however, is a reality that is as possible as it is improbable. Possible because we have all the knowledge that is required for it to be applied, even today; and improbable because Muslims, the vast majority of Muslims, suffer from all the civilizational ailments that would make the arrival at a universal lunar calendar even harder today than it was for them to adopt Western Time and the Gregorian Calendar in 1926 after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

The Nature of the Problem

One first has to capture what exactly takes place every year at the beginning and end of the month of Ramadan in order to fully appreciate the surreal nature of this annual event. On the surface, it all appears to be straightforward and simple. Muslims follow a lunar calendar, and hence each lunar hijri month begins when the moon is born. Did I say ‘born’? Please scratch that grievous error and replace with sighted. Yes, the moon needs to be sighted because this is after all what the Prophet of Islam prescribed, and since there is no central global body which Muslims regard as having the authority to proclaim that the moon has indeed been sighted, each country is reliant on its own moon hunters to determine when the new moon has been sighted. Muslims living in non-Muslim countries either follow the countries from which their ancestors migrated, e.g., India, Pakistan, Morocco, or attempt to replicate the moon-hunt of other Muslim countries. When the smoke clears, we often end up with Muslims beginning Ramadan on two, and at times even three different days – and, in turn, celebrating Eid on several different days as well.

So far, all of this seems harmless, albeit somewhat archaic. It is only when one factors in the emotions that become inflamed during these periods – that is, right before Ramadan begins and right before Ramadan ends – that the peculiar nature of this entire affair becomes clear. The very same Muslim women and men who have successfully restrained their hunger, thirst, anger and more for an entire month, will often become incensed as soon as the subject of exactly when Ramadan ends is raised. In countries where Muslims are a minority, national origins and even political affiliations will be invoked; from those advocating ending Ramadan with Pakistan, for example, and definitely not Saudi Arabia, to those who simply phone their relatives in Egypt and inquire as to what was officially announced in Cairo. Muslim councils and bodies that have arisen in the West may often be ignored by the very Muslims they are meant to serve, or simply viewed as advocating Ramadan dates that are consistent with the Muslim countries which help sponsor them. I can safely confirm that I do not recall a year, from when I lived in the US to when I lived in Syria and Jordan, and finally during my last eight years in the UK, when Ramadan began or ended without an outpouring of emotions regarding the determination of its start and conclusion.

A Universal Hijri Lunar Calendar?

The surest way, however, to unite all these disparate voices in one harmonious communal outrage is to start talking about an approach that is not based on the sighting of the moon, and to share the advantages of the adoption of calculations – widely available and extremely accurate – that specify when exactly the new moon is born. A ‘Universal Lunar Hijri Calendar’ is the end product of such an approach, and can be outlined as follows:

Since in both Judaism and Islam the new day begins at sunset, each new lunar month would start on the day when, prior to sunset, the new moon is born. To fast on Friday the 22nd of May, for example, would be to begin your fast in Ramadan but to have the fasting day interrupted by the birth of the new moon of Shawwal at 5.39 pm UTC. Friday can only be part of Ramadan if the entire day, i.e., from the previous sunset on Thursday to sunset on Friday, was not interrupted by the birth of the new moon. With this established, now all that is left is to integrate the element of universality. This can be secured by the use of Universal Coordinated Time (UTC) to establish the parameters of the day. Hence, a lunar month begins on the day when the new moon is born between sunset UTC and the following sunset UTC. There will be time zones, no doubt where the new moon would be born after sunset, but the only way to make the calendar universal is to set it in accordance with UTC, just as each new day on earth begins at midnight in Greenwich (located at the internationally recognized prime meridian – 0 degrees longitude). And finally, because the exact dates of the new moon are known to a high degree of certainty, now and for centuries into the future, the ‘Universal Lunar Hijri Calendar’ has all the components required to launch it tomorrow!

Civilizational Obstacles

Partially because Covid-19 has increased the time I already spend alone thinking about things I shouldn’t think about, but mostly because it is in my nature to do so, I have spent many hours trying to understand why and how moonsighting and Ramadan have become such charged affairs amongst Muslims, and why there is such animosity towards any approach to determining the lunar months besides moon-sightings. I hereby share my tentative findings:

1) De-contextualise everything – Most religious Muslims today hate to be reminded of context. The truths they hold dear are variable-free constants. They exist in an abstract, ahistorical space. Ironically, it was Muslim scholars who first realized that even the verses of the Qur’an had a context, and hence numerous works were written on asbab al-nuzul or the circumstances of revelation. When it comes to moonsighting, however, Muslims will instantly point out that it was the Prophet of Islam who stated categorically how the beginning of the lunar month should be determined:

‏”‏صوموا لرؤيته، وأفطروا لرؤيته، فإن غَبِيَ عليكم فأكملوا عدة شعبان ثلاثين‏”‏ ‏(‏‏(‏متفق عليه وهذا لفظ البخاري‏)‏‏)‏‏

“Observe the fast on sighting the new moon, and terminate it on sighting the new moon, but if the sky is cloudy, then complete thirty days of Sha’ban.” [Bukhari and Muslim]

What Muslims will not share, either out of genuine ignorance or the desire to avoid a context-oriented conversation, is that the Prophet in another tradition provides a very clear context for the methodology being employed. This tradition, also found in the revered collection of Bukhari, states:

“إِنَّا أُمَّةٌ أُمِّيَّةٌ، لاَ نَكْتُبُ وَلاَ نَحْسُبُ الشَّهْرُ هَكَذَا وَهَكَذَا ‏”‏‏.‏ يَعْنِي مَرَّةً تِسْعَةً وَعِشْرِينَ، وَمَرَّةً ثَلاَثِينَ‏.‏

“We are an illiterate nation; we neither write, nor calculate. The month is like this and this.” [i.e., sometimes of 29 days or sometimes of 30 days.]

Try as you may, there really isn’t another way to read this tradition other than that the Prophet was in essence explaining to his followers at the time that, since they were predominately unlearned and hence unable to use calculation methods that were employed by advanced civilisations of the seventh century, they should rely on the methods available to them, i.e., sighting the moon and/or alternating between a 29 and 30-day lunar cycle. To argue otherwise, and to promote a more literal reading of the tradition, is to imply that the Prophet was in fact stipulating that his nation would remain illiterate, and, hence, unable to ever calculate the birth of the new moon. Needless to say, the vast majority of Muslims are no longer illiterate, and are just as able as I am to access rigorous astronomical calculations regarding the birth of the new moon, both projected and retrospective. It goes against everything we know about the Prophet of Islam to think that he would have dismissed a method that offers precision and clarity had it been available and easily applicable at the time. More importantly, to argue otherwise is to dismiss the Qur’an itself which presents lunar phases as created by God for the very purpose of making astronomical calculations possible:

هُوَ الَّذِي جَعَلَ الشَّمْسَ ضِيَاءً وَالْقَمَرَ نُورًا وَقَدَّرَهُ مَنَازِلَ لِتَعْلَمُوا عَدَدَ السِّنِينَ وَالْحِسَابَ ۚ مَا خَلَقَ اللَّهُ ذَٰلِكَ إِلَّا بِالْحَقِّ ۚ يُفَصِّلُ الْآيَاتِ لِقَوْمٍ يَعْلَمُونَ (10:5)

He is the One Who made the sun a radiant source and the moon a reflected light, with precisely ordained phases, so that you may know the number of years and calculation ˹of time˺. God did not create all this except for a purpose. He makes the signs clear for people of knowledge.

Alas, Muslims seldom think this verse is relevant to this entire conversation.

Truth be told, even the early Muslim community was not very keen on context. My favourite contextualization story involves ‘Umar, the second successor of the Prophet, who had several enlightened tendencies. Upon the conquest of Persia, the companions asked for the Qur’anic ruling on bounties of war, clearly stipulated in Surah al-Anfal, to be applied. According to this ruling, four-fifths of the bounties of war, including land, were to be distributed among the soldiers of the army, whereas one-fifth belonged to the state. ‘Umar rolled his moustache, as he was known to do when angered, and insisted on leaving Persia’s agricultural lands to the Persians. Many notable companions disagreed. In their eyes, ‘Umar was contextualizing Qur’anic rulings which are supposed to be timeless. Several reliable accounts involving Syria and Egypt confirm that ‘Umar repeated this position despite the protest of notable companions, including Bilal, al-Zubayr, and others. Unsurprisingly, Muslims today have several creative ways to dismiss these accounts, resorting to arguments that weren’t even known to important companions of the Prophet.

2) Sever the link between method and objective – Another trademark of most Muslims today is the refusal to acknowledge that there is a logical and meaningful link between a method and the intended purpose of employing it. Try explaining to a Muslim, for example, that the use of the siwak (a small twig made from the salvadora persica tree) by the Prophet during his fast is no different than the use of a toothbrush and toothpaste. Both are intended to clean the teeth and freshen the breath, and both inevitably will result in a very small amount of fluid being swallowed. Yet, numerous sites on the net will state in categorical terms that using the siwak during Ramadan is not the same as the use of a toothbrush with toothpaste. I even recall being told by a PhD student during my studies in the US that toothpaste should not be used during a fast because, unlike the siwak, it has calories in it!

Nowhere, however, is this hostile approach towards linking method with purpose clearer than when it comes to determining the beginning and end of Ramadan. In theory, the sighting of the moon is the method by which one confirms that the moon was born. Can there be any other intended purpose for the attempt to sight the moon? So, if one can have certain knowledge, I repeat certain knowledge, by means other than sighting that the moon was indeed born, should not this knowledge be at least relevant to the conversation? Or is it that the attempt to sight, in and of itself, is the actual objective? What I find fascinating is that in the classical works of Muslim scholars, the question is asked regarding the person who saw the crescent but whose testimony was not accepted. What should such a person (who has certain knowledge that Ramadan had begun) do? The answer, we are told, is that this person must act upon this certain knowledge and fast, even if the entire community does not follow suit.

So adamant is the refusal by the vast majority of Muslims today to focus on anything other than sighting that one is led to the strange conclusion that Muslims believe that the moon is only born when it is first sighted. This reminds me of George Berkeley’s philosophical inquiry: if a tree falls in a forest, and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? According to the logic of the Muslim moon-sighters, the answer is a resounding “No”. Allow me to repeat: the inescapable assumption of the modus operandi employed by Muslims is that prior to being sighted, the moon simply is in a state of occultation. How else does one explain the very serious proposition made by some to launch a satellite with the specific purpose of taking pictures of the new moon and sending them back to Earth? Never mind the fact that we know the very minute the moon is born based on unequivocally documented scientific calculations, unless we are able to take a picture of it, its birth simply cannot be ascertained.

Most baffling are the Muslim bodies that proclaim to use astronomical calculations as a basis of their rulings, only to immediately fall back on the ‘sacred’ event of sighting. The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) is one of the most respected international Islamic organisations and is widely known for the scholarly contributions it has and continues to make. When it comes to this issue, however, ISNA’s approach appears out of sync with its usual scholarly rigour. Please read carefully the following announcement posted on its official website:

The Fiqh Council of North America recognizes astronomical calculation as an acceptable Shar‘i method for determining the beginning of Lunar months including the months of Ramadan and Shawwal. FCNA uses the criteria of European Council of Fatwa and Research (ECFR), which are that somewhere on the globe, at the sunset, the elongation should be at least 8 degrees and moon should be at least 5 degrees above horizon.

The announcement continues to specify when, and why, Eid will take place:

The Astronomical New Moon is on Friday, May 22, 2020 at 17:40 Universal Time. On that day there is no place on earth where at sunset the elongation is 8 degrees and moon is 5 degrees above the sun. Therefore Shawwal 1441 cannot start the next day. Hence, [the] first day of Shawwal is on Sunday, May 24, 2020, insha’Allah.

Allow me to translate, ISNA is trying to tell us that even though it knows exactly when the moon is born (Friday, May 22, 2020; at 17:40 UTC) the lunar month can only begin when it is scientifically possible for the moon to be sighted (i.e., the elongation is 8 degrees, and the moon is 5 degrees above the sun). As such, ISNA has perfected the art of ‘high illiteracy’. I describe it as such, because this approach has kept us right where we were fifteen centuries ago – the only change it has introduced is to provide a scientific layer to what is otherwise a very rudimentary method, originally advocated in the absence of the astronomical knowledge we have today.

3) Treat dissent as disbelief – One of my favourite Prophetic traditions’ states:

‏”‏إذا حكم الحاكم، فاجتهد، ثم أصاب، فله أجران، وإن حكم واجتهد، فأخطأ، فله أجر‏”‏ ‏(‏‏(‏متفق عليه‏)‏‏)‏‏

“When a judge utilizes his skill of judgement and comes to a correct decision, he will have a double reward, but when he uses his judgement and commits a mistake, he will have a single reward.” [Bukhari and Muslim]

If you expect, however, to encounter the letter or the spirit of this tradition when engaging with most Muslims on Ramadan and moonsighting, think again. You will be swiftly reminded that you are not qualified to profess an opinion. The reasons for this will start with your knowledge of Arabic and move on to include whether or not you have memorized the Qur’an, and the collections of Bukhari and Muslim, as well as whether you have a strong command of the legal positions of the four schools of Islamic jurisprudence. Even if by some miracle you do qualify, you will still be regarded as an orientalist, alt-modernist, and/or progressive Muslim – morally dismissive labels I have encountered first hand – if your knowledge is used to defend the absurd idea that a lunar month should begin on the day and time the moon is actually born.

Even Muslims with higher degrees in astronomy will use various pseudo-scientific and fanciful explanations to defend moonsighting, including the one shared by a close friend of mine who had once worked for NASA. After I shared with him my confusion as to why Muslims act this way, he proceeded to share with me that the wisdom is in fact very clear. According to him, the Prophet wanted us all to become observers of the night sky, and hence asked us to use sighting rather than calculations!

4) Die protesting – At a deeper level, my suspicion is that the annual quest for the Ramadan moon is also a form of post-colonial, civilizational protest. Muslims are in essence saying to the West:

Yes, we now wear suits and ties, and have abandoned our turbans and fezzes. Yes, we drive your cars, and ride your planes. We import your medications and replicate your fast-food chains. We even use your time to set our prayers. But, when it comes to Ramadan, a line is drawn. This is where this story ends. Try as you may to convince us, you are simply barking at the moon [pun intended].

Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of all of this is that the end result of this approach to the lunar month is to render the hijri calendar obsolete; a framework invoked only for ritualistic purposes. For how can one state, ‘I shall have a meeting on Thursday the 4th of Shawwal,’ when it is impossible beforehand to know for certain that the 4th of Shawwal will be on Thursday, and not Wednesday or even Friday? This is why all Muslims use the Gregorian calendar to organize their daily lives. How ironic that what appears to be the very act of protest against the West would lead to an even greater reliance on it.

I confess to holding no such antagonism towards the West. Even more, I have trouble seeing the world through the prism of an east-west dichotomy. My faith, like the Qur’anic olive tree archetype, is “neither of the east nor of the west“. And, since I am now sharing secrets, I should also end by confessing that I am probably one of maybe seven Muslims alive who fasted and broke their fast this year on the day the “astronomical” new moon was born.