See this article on SaudiDebate.com
5 September 2007
Muslim people regularly get puzzled at the inability of the Islamic calendar to predict precisely, well in advance, the day on which major Islamic events are to take place, such as the first day of ramadan, or eid al-fitr, or eid al-adha, or the first day of the new Islamic year. They may even get annoyed because they cannot arrange in advance such ordinary things as taking a few days off from work on such occasions, making hotel bookings or flight reservations, or avoiding to take business or trip commitments on such dates.
The Islamic calendar’s shortcomings are indeed severe, since the data it shows each month differs from one Muslim country to another, and the information it provides does not extend beyond the current month. For instance, the first day of « ramadan » 1427 corresponded to Saturday, September 23,
Nowadays, the Muslims use the Gregorian calendar to meet all their needs, and only care about Islamic dates on momentous Islamic occasions. However, the Islamic calendar only lost its usefulness when Muslim theologians disconnected it from its astronomical, conceptual and methodological moorings, early in the 7th century. It could fulfill all the basic functions of a calendar, and meet all the needs of modern man, within the Muslim community, on a worldwide basis, if it were prepared using the applicable scientific concepts, methods and parameters developed in astronomy.
Cadi Ahmad Shakir, President of the Egyptian Supreme Court of the Shari’ah, explained in a famous 1939 study that there was absolutely no obstacle, on the theological level, to the establishment of such an Islamic calendar, using astronomical calculations. (2)
In 2004, renowned jurist Yusuf al-Qaradawi announced his full support to Shakir’s analysis and conclusions. (3) For its part, the Fiqh Council of North America (FCNA), acting independently, presented in 2006 an ingenious, well thought-out methodology which permits the adoption of a pre-calculated calendar, while meeting all the requirements of the Shari’ah (4).
The lunar calendar is based on a year of 12 months adding up to 354.37 days. Each lunar month begins at the time of the monthly "conjunction", when the Moon is located on a straight line between the Earth and the Sun. The month is defined as the average duration of a rotation of the Moon around the Earth (29.53 days). The astronomers formulated the convention, over two thousands years ago, that months of 30 days and 29 days would succeed each other, adding up over two successive months to 59 full days. This left only a small monthly variation of 44 mn to account for, which added up to a total of 24 hours (i.e. the equivalent of one full day) in 2.73 years. To settle accounts, it was sufficient to add one day every three years to the lunar calendar, in the same way that one adds one day to the Gregorian calendar, every four years.
The Islamic calendar, however, is based on a different set of conventions. When the Messenger was asked for a method to determine the beginning of the month of fasting, he recommended to the faithful to begin fasting with the observation of the new moon (on the evening of the 29th day of sha’aban) and to end fasting with the new moon (of the month of shawal). "If the crescent is not visible (because of the clouds), count to 30 days".
Thereafter, each Islamic State proceeded with its own monthly observation of the new moon (or, failing that, awaited the completion of 30 days) before declaring the beginning of a new month on its territory, instead of using a pre-calculated calendar, as computed by professional astronomers.
But, the lunar crescent becomes really visible only some 18 hours after the conjunction, and only subject to the existence of a number of favourable conditions relative to weather, time, geographic location, as well as various astronomical parameters… According to the months and seasons, the favourable conditions of observation of the new moon will be met in different sites on Earth.
The Qor’an prohibits nowhere the use of astronomical calculations for the establishment of a pre-calculated calendar. The procedure is therefore perfectly and undisputably licit. Numerous theologians in the early years of Islam saw no contradiction between the Messenger’s teachings and the use of astronomical calculations to determine the beginnings of lunar months. (5) The dynasty of Fatimids in Egypt used a pre-calculated calendar over a period of two centuries, between the 10th and 12th centuries, before a change of political regime reactivated the procedure of observation of the new moon.
But the majority of Muslim theologians insist nowadays that, no matter what, one can’t go against the Messenger’s teachings. They interpret his recommendation concerning the observation of ramadan’s new moon as if it were part of the fundamental Islamic dogma. It would be utterly wrong, in their view, to use a calendar based on the conjunction, because one would start fasting, end fasting, and celebrate all other important Islamic events about two days earlier than would be the case, if the procedure of observation of the new moon were applied.
However, many Islamic thinkers insist that the Messenger’s recommendation to the faithful was merely adapted to the culture of the times. It should not be confused with the acts of worship. (6)
The Saudi authorities must share this view, somehow, since the country gave up in 1999 the procedure of observation of the new moon, to substitute to it a procedure based on the calculation of the schedules of sunset and moonset at the coordinates of Mecca, on the evening of the 29th day of each month. If the sun sets before the moon, this signals the beginning of the new month. In the opposite case, the month-in-progress lasts 30 days. This procedure has little to do with the observation of the new moon. (7)
One should also note that, during long periods of Islamic history, the hadith under discussion was not interpreted to mean the visual observation of a new moon, but only the acquisition of information, according to credible sources, that the month had begun. This opens entirely different vistas in the discussion of this question. (6)
As for the hadith of the Prophet according to which the Bedouins can neither read nor count, and must thus avoid using (astronomical) calculations, Ibn Taymiya observes that the argument may have been justified at the beginning of the 7th century, but he questions whether it could still apply to Muslims centuries later, after they had been at the vanguard of development of scientific knowledge, including in the field of astronomy.
Sheikh Abdul Muhsen Al-Obaikan, a Councilor in the Ministry of Justice of Saudi Arabia, is clearly favourable to the use of modern technology to determine the beginning of months. He says : « Using the naked eye to determine the beginning and end of Ramadan is primitive in an age of modern science and technology. There is no other way to put it. It's pure backwardness." » (8)
The legal opinion of Cadi Shakir
Egyptian cadi Ahmad Muhammad Shakir (who was to become President of the Egyptian Supreme Court of the Shariah at the end of his career, and who remains to this day an author of reference in the field of hadith) (9), wrote a lengthy legal opinion in 1939 on the subject of the Islamic calendar, entitled : "The beginning of arab months... is it legal to determine it using astronomical calculations?". (2)
According to him, the Messenger took into account the fact that the Muslim community of his time was « illiterate, not knowing how to write nor how to count ». So, he recommended to its members to observe the new moon to carry out their religious duties at the time of fasting and hajj. But the community evolved considerably over time, and some of its members even became experts in astronomy.
According to the principle of Muslim law which states that « a rule is no longer applicable, when the factor which justified its existence has disappeared », the Messenger’s recommendation didn’t apply anymore to the Muslims, after they had learned to read and count and had ceased being illiterate.
Therefore, according to Shakir, contemporary ulamas commit an error of interpretation when they give to the Messenger’s hadith the same interpretation that applied at the time of Revelation, as if the hadith prescribed immutable rules. But, it has stopped being applicable to the Muslim community long ago, based on the principles of the shari’ah themselves.
Furthermore, Shakir refers to the principle of Muslim law according to which « what is relative cannot refute what is absolute, nor can it be preferred to it, according to the consensus of the ulamas. » The observation of the new moon with the naked eye is relative, and can be the subject of error, whereas the knowledge of the beginning of lunar months, based on astronomical calculations, is absolute, and belongs to the domain of certainty.
Shakir reaches the conclusion that there is nothing in the shari’ah which opposes the use of calculations to determine the beginning of all lunar months, in all circumstances, and not only in special situations, as had been recommended by some ulamas.
For him, there can exist only one lunar month applicable in all countries of the world, based on astronomical calculations. The use of the same pre-calculated calendar in all Muslim countries will give them an opportunity to celebrate all major Islamic events on the same day, throughout the world, thereby increasing their feeling of solidarity and unity.
In the 68 years since their publication, Shakir’s conclusions have not been refuted by any Muslim jurist. As a man of law, and as an expert on hadith, he continues to be highly considered by his peers, long after his death. (9) Thus, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the well-known theologian and jurist, has lavishly praised Shakir in a 2004 article entitled : "Astronomical calculations and determination of the beginning of months" in which he expressed his full support to cadi Shakir's conclusions. (3)
The decision of the Fiqh Council of North America (FCNA)
The Fiqh Council of North America (FCNA) was also regularly confronted with the responsibility of telling its Muslim American audience when to start fasting, when to celebrate « eid al-fitr », etc. After several years of study of the legal issues involved, it reached a decision, which it announced in August 2006, to use henceforth a pre-calculated Islamic calendar, taking into consideration the sightability of the new moon anywhere on Earth. (4)
The decision of the Fiqh Council of North America (FCNA) combines the theological requirements of the ulamas with the state of the art in the field of new moon observation. First, it retains the well-known principle of unicity of horizons (matali’e) which states that it is sufficient to observe the new moon anywhere on Earth, in order to declare the beginning of a new lunar month, applicable in all areas in which the information is received. (10) Second, it uses the International date line (IDL) or Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) as its conventional point of reference to conduct its analysis.
Based on the maps of sightability of the new moon in the various regions of Earth, which are now regularly prepared by professional astronomers, (11) the FCNA reached the conclusion that when the conjunction took place before 12:00 noon (GMT), there was enough time left for the new moon to be seen in numerous areas on Earth where sunset took place long before sunset in North America. Since the criteria of sightability of the new moon were met in these areas, the new moon would be observed (or could have been observed if weather conditions had been adequate) long before sunset in North America.
Therefore, the requirements of sightability of the new moon as set by the shari’ah would be respected, and the new lunar month could begin in North America on sunset of the same day. On the other hand, if the conjunction took place after 12:00 noon GMT, the month would begin in North America on sunset of the following day.
The Islamic calendar can adequately fulfill all the functions of a calendar, and meet all the needs of the Muslim community throughout the world, if it is set up using the concepts, methods and parameters developed by professional astronomers. But it can fulfill none of these functions if it is based on the monthly observation of the new moon with the naked eye, carried out separately in each independent country.
The majority of ulamas base themselves on tradition to state that one should respect the recommendation of the Messenger to observe the new moon in order to start fasting. But, according to Cadi Shakir, from a purely legal point of view, this view isn’t defensible anymore. In his 1939 legal opinion, he concludes that there is no theological objection to the establishment of a pre-calculated Islamic calendar, based on astronomical calculations. Professor Al-Qaradawi now concurs with this conclusion (2004).
For its part, the Fiqh Council of North America, conscious of the intricacies of the issues involved, developed in
The rulers, political leaders and religious authorities in each Muslim country now have the clear choice between adopting either the conclusions of Cadi Shakir, or the solution developed by the Fiqh Council of North America, or perpetuating the status quo. According to a report entitled « Break through for Global Islamic Calendar » published on « Moonsighting.com » in late December 2006, some countries were trying to develop a common stand on this issue in the autumn 2006:
« In November 2006, there was an International Conference in Morocco about adopting a Global Islamic Calendar. Astronomers from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, UAE, Iran, Ginnea, Libya, Morocco, and USA participated. Overwhelming majority including Saudi, Egypt, and Irani astronomers agreed with the calendar (adopted by Fiqh Council of North America), that can be used as a Global Islamic Calendar. Morocco is willing to adopt it immediately. Further development on this issue will follow as time progresses. » (12)
(2) Ahmad Shakir : « The beginning of arab months … is it legal to determine it using astronomical calculations? ». (published in arabic in 1939) reproduced in the arab daily « al-madina », 13 october 2006 (n° 15878) :
(3) Yusuf al-Qaradawi : « Astronomical calculations and determination of the beginning of months » (in arabic) : http://www.islamonline.net/Arabic/contemporary/2004/10/article01b.shtml
(4) Fiqh Council of North America: http://www.moonsighting.com/calendar.html
(5) Abderrahman al-Haj : « The faqih, the politician and the determination of lunar months » (in arabic) :
(6) Allal el Fassi : « Aljawab assahih wannass-hi al-khaliss ‘an nazilati fas wama yata’allaqo bimabda-i acchouhouri al-islamiyati al-arabiyah », report prepared at the request of King Hassan II of Morocco, Rabat, 1965 (36 p.), with no indication of editor
(7) The Umm-al-Qura calendar of Saudi Arabia http://www.phys.uu.nl/~vgent/islam/ummalqura.htm
(8) Anver Saad, « The Untold Story of Ramadhan Moon Sighting » Daily muslims, October 07, 2005 : http://www.muslimsweekly.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=804&Itemid=63
(9) Ahmad Muhammad Shakir (biographical notice in arabic) : http://www.islamonline.net/Arabic/history/1422/09/article17.shtml
(10) Abi alfayd Ahmad al-Ghomari : Tawjih alandhar litaw-hidi almouslimin fi assawmi wal iftar, 160p, 1960, Dar al bayareq, Beyrouth, 2nd ed. 1999
Copyright Khalid Chraibi & SaudiDebate.com
The article "Towards a global Islamic calendar" can be freely reproduced in its entirety or in excerpts for non-commercial purposes, on condition that the author and the source be clearly identified.