Ramadan and Eid’s Crescent Wars

The annual debate over the timing of lunar months belies a long and complex history, too often obscured by the simplistic binary of religion versus science

Ramadan and Eid’s Crescent Wars
Muslims gather to sight the moon in Cape Town, South Africa. (Brenton Geach/Gallo Images via Getty Images)

Every year, the beginning and end of Ramadan are marked by a very particular controversy: how best to determine the start of a new lunar month. Muslims all over the world are divided into two broad camps, one insisting on the necessity of the tradition of crescent-sighting to determine the dates of Ramadan and Eid, and the other arguing in favor of using astronomical calculations.

The controversy is often framed as a dispute between a minority of modern rational Muslims advocating the use of scientific knowledge, and a majority of traditionalists, if not fundamentalists, opposing it.

Yet this science-versus-religion framing is inaccurate. It fails to capture the legal complexity of this question and obscures the politics of what I like to call the “Crescent Wars.” This science-and-religion binary has instead empowered reactionary, fundamentalist strains of thought and allowed religious authorities that are in league with authoritarian governments in the region to claim the mantle of the faith’s defenders. It has also prevented Muslim immigrants in the diaspora from fully grappling with certain questions of identity.

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. During this month, Muslims are expected to observe a strict fast from dawn to sunset, refraining from eating, drinking and sex. This fast is the third of Islam’s “five pillars.” But while fasting for the whole month of Ramadan is mandatory, fasting on the day immediately before and the day immediately after this holy month is strictly forbidden. Determining the exact start and end dates of Ramadan is therefore crucial for Muslims observing the month.

How is the start date of the lunar month determined? This is a legal, rather than a scientific, question, to which different traditions offer different answers. For some, including some Hindu calendars, the new month commences the day after the full moon. In the Chinese and Hebrew calendars, the first day of a month is the day when an astronomical new moon occurs in a particular time zone.

Pre-Islamic Arabia had various approaches to making this call (and to deciding the order of months, with the reshuffling of months being fairly common). The advent of Islam brought some order to this temporal chaos. In addition to the unequivocal Quranic stipulation against the reshuffling of months, the Prophet Muhammad reportedly said: “Observe fasting on sighting the crescent, and terminate it on sighting [the new crescent]. If the sky is cloudy before you, then complete the 30 days of the month.”

Following this instruction, Muslims would go out with the unaided eye on the 29th evening of a lunar month to look out for the crescent that ushers in a new month. This clear rule notwithstanding, disagreements between early Muslims over the computations of the lunar calendar soon emerged and persisted throughout Muslim history.

These disagreements centered on the politics and legal technicalities of sighting, not different positions vis-a-vis science. Two questions stood out. The first was the credibility of sighters. If some members of a certain community reported a positive sighting, should their sighting be binding for others, who have either gone sighting but have not seen the crescent, or have not gone sighting at all? Scholars emphasized the communal nature of fasting, insisting that a community should begin and end its fast on the same day. To address this concern of credibility, they maintained that the sighting counts even if reported by a single member of the community, as long as he is an upright (“adl”), and therefore trustworthy, Muslim. While the question of trustworthiness remained subjective and thus opened doors for members of the same community to accept or reject a certain report of sighting, the presence of Muslim authorities largely settled this matter. Once the judge accepted the positive report of a sighter, it was announced that the new month had begun.

The second issue at stake was the scale of the community whose unity was to be maintained. At first, all Muslims were required to follow one calendrical computation. One year, Muhammad’s companions in Medina reportedly went sighting on the 29th evening of Ramadan but did not see the crescent, so they decided to fast on the 30th. The following morning, travelers stopping by Medina informed its residents that they saw the crescent the night before. Muhammad then instructed his companions to break their fast.

The expansion of the territories in which Muslims resided, the impossibility of communicating reports of sightings between these different places during the same day and the emergence of multiple polities all meant that Muslims could no longer be united in their fast. This became clear shortly after Muhammad’s death. A few years later, one of his companions was in the Levant, where residents started their fast on a Saturday. Upon returning to Medina, he knew that they did not see the moon that night and therefore started their fast on Sunday. Ibn Abbas, a leading scholar among Muhammad’s companions in Medina, instructed them to discard this companion’s narration, and to do their moon sighting after 29 nights. It became customary for Muslims to follow different calendrical computations and not because of any “scientific” disagreement over sighting and calculations.

Subsequent Muslim scholars were not swayed by the development of astronomical calculations. Take the treatise of Taqi al-Din al-Subki (1284-1355) on months, “Al-Ilm al-Manshur fi Ithbat al-Shuhur.” Therein, the leading jurist explores the question of whether calculations could replace sighting. He makes three arguments in favor of sighting. First, calculations point only to the possibility of sighting, but the Shariah made the beginning of the new month contingent on the actual sighting. The method of determining the start date of the new month that was stipulated by Muhammad, al-Subki said, does not mean that astronomers are wrong when they ascertain that seeing the new crescent is possible. It only means that the Shariah dissociated this astronomical fact from the legal question of the beginning of a new month.

Second, relying on astronomical calculations leaves the matter in the hands of the few, whereas “divine wisdom and the Shariah marked the beginning of months by a sign that all people can access: sighting [the crescent] or the completion of 30 days.”

Finally, these calculations were not, in most cases, definitive, as “only a few people mastered this science, calculations are sometimes too sophisticated and, therefore, erroneous, and the premises of some calculations may be speculative.” Al-Subki agreed with other jurists that people should disobey the ruler if he follows calculations to indicate the beginning of the month without sighting the crescent.

But this position should not be interpreted as hostility to science. Al-Subki’s main point is that the question at hand is not scientific but a positive legal one. The breakdown of time into different units is a legal question, even if it relies on the repetition of certain natural phenomena. He also did not entirely reject scientific calculations, arguing for example that claims of crescent sightings should be rejected, even when made by upright Muslims, if scientific calculations deem them impossible.

Like his contemporaries, al-Subki seemed more troubled by the politics of calendrical computations. He advocated the partial reliance on astronomical calculations to limit disagreements beyond a single community, and insisted on sighting to keep the matter in the hands of the many within the community. He further insisted that, within a single province (“balad”), if some sight the crescent, all should fast. On the question of scale, he argued that a sighting should count beyond the dominion of individual rulers, and should not be used as a means of delimiting political power. As long as provinces share a horizon, they should start and end their fast together, irrespective of their political power. Delays in reporting, however, meant that each province had to do its own sighting and that, even for provinces sharing the horizon, fasting did not necessarily start or end on the same day.

The 19th century brought about a set of political, scientific and technological developments that altered the terms of the discourse. Among other things, astronomical calculations became more certain; telescopes replaced the naked eye as a more efficient means of sighting; and the telegraphs, railways, steamers, newspapers and printed calendars that transmitted this information with unprecedented speed also magnified the power and reach of the political center.

As jurists readily embraced this new technology, it gave rise to additional political questions. The turn of the 20th century saw the proliferation of jurisprudential edicts (fatwas) on sighting and technology, with leading jurists, including Bakhit al-Mutayi and Rashid Rida, accepting the use of telescopes in sighting and the transmission of the news of sighting via telegraph. This gave rise to a plethora of questions pertaining to the limits of the body politic and the balance of power within it. In 1903, Rida maintained that the start of Ramadan stipulated in Egyptian newspapers applied only inside Egypt and should not be followed by readers in other countries, who should do their own sighting, since residents of each province should fast together and break their fast together. In 1910, Egyptian authorities summoned al-Mutayi, then the chief judge in Alexandria’s court, to ask whether the positive sighting by minor provincial authorities should be followed by the capital.

It became clear at this point that the relationship between different provinces, and not the question of whether astronomical calculations sufficed, was at the heart of the annual controversy over the beginning and end of Ramadan. In fact, this has been the central issue since the late 19th century.

In 1873, for example, a positive sighting of Ramadan’s crescent in Cairo was conveyed to Port Said via telegraph, but since no one was on duty when the news arrived, it was communicated only in the morning. For residents of the cosmopolitan city, it was not clear if they had missed the first day of fasting (since the news of sighting had technically reached the city from the capital during the night) or if Ramadan would only commence the following day (since they had no positive sighting in the city and it was not clear why their fasting should align with Cairo, a city 100 miles to their west). These technical, legal and political questions characterized the debate for decades.

It was only in the middle decades of the 20th century that the question was reframed as one of science versus religion. One of the early examples of this framing, which sheds light on the causes of this shift, is a 1939 treatise on the proper computation of lunar months, written by Ahmed Shaker against the backdrop of calendrical disagreement between the Egyptian and Saudi governments about the time of the pilgrimage in January 1939. Why did this disagreement, hitherto a salient feature of Muslim history, suddenly appear as a problem to be resolved?

First, technological advancements had shortened the time needed for pilgrims to travel and therefore necessitated that the days they should be in Mecca be specified beforehand. Second, capitalist development required more predictability and better control of the future, both of which are impossible with sighting, which required waiting until the 29th day of each month to determine whether the following day would be the 30th or the first. With the universalization of the working day, the need to plan vacations and the changes in this working day during Ramadan, this uncertainty was no longer tolerated.

Third, the outbreak of World War II had heightened calls for Muslim unity. After nearly three decades of trying to reestablish (symbolic) Muslim unity following the collapse of the Ottoman caliphate, the persistent failure to observe fasting on the same day across the Muslim world, which had also become more visible thanks to the speed with which news traveled, became a major embarrassment.

Finally, the ascent of anti-colonial nationalism contributed to the mounting critique of sighting, because of the movement’s hostility to tradition as a barrier to enlightenment.

It is precisely in this context that astronomical calculations were cast as the scientific method of determining the beginning of the new month. “During the pre-Islamic and early Islamic periods,” the treatise declared, “Arabs did not possess authoritative scientific knowledge of astronomy.” It is this deficiency that explains the prophetic stipulation to use sighting as the basis for ritual devotions.

Sighting, it argued, “was the best standard and most precise measure to determine the time cycle for religious practices and devotions.” But the advent of modern science offered a more precise measure: astronomical calculations. “When the community eradicates illiteracy and acquires the skills of writing and counting” and knowledge more broadly, therefore, it should rely on calculations — the only path to “verifiable certainly.”

It is this framing that persists, with journalists and fatwa councils that advocate the reliance on astronomical calculations referring to this method as the one that follows the dictates of modern science. In doing so, they erase a long and complex history and replace it with a simple binary: religion versus science.

Many of the advocates of relying on astronomical calculations do so in good faith: They wish to reap the fruits of certainty and predictability. For those residing in Muslim-majority countries, especially in the Middle East, relying on calculations offers a way out of the political manipulation of sighting. For decades, the results of sighting seemed to be based on political and not geographical proximity. It is not uncommon, for example, for Saudi Arabia’s allies in North Africa to have their sighting results aligned with the oil-rich kingdom, while some of its neighbors in the Gulf have different sighting outcomes.

This year, for example, Saudi and Egyptian authorities announced the beginning of Ramadan on Monday, March 11, while the office of Iran’s supreme leader announced that Tuesday, March 12, was the first day of the holy month. The problem is even more pronounced in Iraq, where Sunni and Shiite Muslims commenced their fast on different days.

For European and American Muslims, the benefits of relying on calculations are multiple. They offer a way to unite communities in their rituals. A universal acceptance of this method would allow Muslim immigrants in Europe and America to align their fast to both their countries of origin and their new communities. In addition, the certainty and predictability of calculations allow individuals and institutions to plan for religious occasions.

Despite their validity, these concerns are all social and political, not scientific. Addressing these concerns requires that Muslims in the Middle East hold religious and political authorities accountable. It requires that the necessary checks and balances that guard against the political manipulation of sightings be installed.

As for Western Muslims, these concerns require a deeper grappling with the aim of building more solid communal ties. First is a negotiation of identity. Immigrants should come to terms with the fact that they have a new home, a new community with which to fast, instead of following their Saudi, Egyptian, Pakistani, Senegalese or Indonesian calendar and mosque. Second is a negotiation within the broader Muslim community, to agree on ways of validating and counting sightings: a step that requires building trust. Third is a negotiation with the political and social structures to expand their religious rights.

It should be noted, however, that some of the aforementioned problems, be they for Muslims in Muslim-majority countries or in Western Europe and America, may remain unresolved. The reason is straightforward: The “unpredictability” of the lunar calendar is one of many aspects of Islam that place it at odds with capitalism. Muslims may still have to book the hall for two days for prayer if no mosque is available, take an additional day off from work or go to work on the first day of Eid.

These are long-term issues and, in the meantime, the question of how to determine the start and end of a lunar month is likely to remain unresolved. But invoking science as a solution is still problematic. It ridicules those who want to maintain the sighting tradition and who insist that the question is legal, not scientific. Take Egypt’s Dar al-Ifta, the Islamic advisory body, which published a collection of “foundational fatwas” in 2013, including one on the beginning of lunar months. The fatwa admits the certainty of calculations. It concludes that such calculations should be “considered in negation, not in affirmation.” This means that sighting is relied upon, unless it contradicts the precise astronomical calculation. The fatwa heeds science, without losing sight of the nature of the question. Such a position cannot be simply dismissed as anti-scientific.

That is because such a dismissal has consequences. It vests institutions like Dar al-Ifta, which approved the execution of at least 1,500 Egyptians from 2013 to 2015, with the authority to claim that they are guarding Muslim scholarly traditions. The institution’s positions on questions of political dissent, civil liberties and social justice, its quietism and implication in the “war on terror,” and its leaders’ political alliances evade scrutiny and critique because of the framing of science versus religion.

Aversion to science, triggered by this framing, is not limited to the question of crescent sightings. Whereas pre-modern scholars regarded religion and science as two distinct fields of knowledge, their modern counterparts disagree. Some promote the so-called “scientific miracle” of the Quran, reinterpreting certain verses as predicting modern scientific discoveries. Others, seeking scientific knowledge from religious sources, reject scientific theories, notably evolution, which is deemed un-Islamic.

Muslim societies would do well to grapple more seriously with the questions underlying the Crescent Wars. They are about far more than the mere beginnings of festivities.

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