Friday, August 12, 2011

Nidhal's efforts highlighted in the journal Science

by Salman Hameed

Last week's Science has a very nice piece on Nidhal's efforts regrading Islamic calendar as well as the promotion of general scientific thinking in the Muslim world. Well we knew that already and have been benefiting from his Monday contributions on Irtiqa. But here are some of the highlights from the article:
This week will see the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, a time when hundreds of millions of Muslims around the globe devote themselves to fasting and prayer. But to Algerian scientist Nidhal Guessoum, a Sunni Muslim, it's also a time of chaos—and “an embarrassment” to Islam.
Tradition dictates that Ramadan, like other holy months in the Islamic calendar, begins the day after the thin crescent of the new moon is first seen with the naked eye. Because visibility is very dependent on local atmospheric conditions, religious officials in different countries—relying on eye-witness observations from volunteers—often disagree on the exact moment, sometimes by as much as 3 or 4 days. It's a recipe for international confusion.
Guessoum, an astrophysicist at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, is one of the most high-profile advocates of a scientific approach to the problem that would end the confusion. Its adoption would not only help Muslims plan their lives—“I need to know whether I can hold a meeting on August 30,” Guessoum says—but also be a sign that Muslim countries, once at the forefront of science, are again “able to integrate science into social and cultural life,” he says.
Guessoum, the vice president of an international organization known as the Islamic Crescents' Observation Project (ICOP), believes science can help solve other practical problems in the Muslim faith. In frequent TV appearances, public lectures, blog posts, and books, he has explained how astronomical techniques can help determine prayer times in countries far from the equator or establish the direction of Mecca.
This is a topic that Nidhal has written here on Irtiqa as well (for example, see this post from a few weeks ago). But his overall approach is broader and has a strong emphasis on critical thinking and an appreciation of scientific methodology: 
After leaving Algeria in 1994 to escape a bloody civil war, Guessoum moved to Kuwait and then, in 2000, to the United Arab Emirates. Since then, he has found himself devoting more and more time to the crescent-sighting problem. ICOP has designed computer models that predict how crescent visibility depends on both the position of the moon in the sky and atmospheric conditions and has used these models to propose a “universal” Islamic calendar, in which the start of each month is tied to a particular day in the international Gregorian calendar, and a “bizonal” calendar that would use separate calculations for the Americas and for Europe, Asia, and Africa. In the latter, the onset of the months would more closely match actual observations of the new crescent.
Guessoum hopes clerics can first be persuaded to adopt the bizonal calendar and, eventually, the universal version. That's a tall order, Schaefer says. Scholars have proposed other rational solutions for centuries, he says, but Muslims have remained steadfastly attached to naked-eye observations. “It is rather unlikely that his idea will get accepted by the Islamic authorities,” Schaefer says.
Guessoum recognizes that tradition is important in Islam and says naked-eye observations provide a valuable link between faith and nature. But he believes the attachment to this practice stems from an overly literal interpretation of Islamic principles. What was sound practical advice in the 8th century, a time when astronomy was pretty primitive, is mistakenly interpreted as a cast-iron rule, he argues.
Guessoum describes himself as a “rationalist” and a practicing but pragmatic Muslim. Reconciling his faith with science is “still a work in progress,” he says; he's unsure, for instance, as to whether, and how, God acts in the world. But he believes that Muslims cannot afford to be dogmatic about their religion and says that they must make a distinction between “secondary” rituals, such as prayer and fasting times, and what he regards as the essential elements of Islam: the “oneness of God,” the existence of spirit as well as matter in human beings, and the possibility of divine revelation.
He argues that only by recognizing this distinction and leaving space for critical thinking does the Islamic world have a chance of reviving the scientific glory it knew between the 7th and 14th centuries—a period in which Guessoum, like many Muslim scientists, takes great pride. A renaissance won't happen overnight, but it's possible, says Guessoum, who's heartened by the Arab Spring. An increased awareness of the wider world—thanks to the Internet—and a more meritocratic university system will, in the long run, rejuvenate science, he says.
And, he believes, Islam needn't stand in the way—provided Muslims look at their religion afresh. “We must be a little bit more flexible, pragmatic, and intelligent,” he says.
Fantastic! Read the full article here (you may need subscription to access the full article). You can find Nidhal's posts on Irtiqa here.                 


Gary said...

I agree 100% with Nidhal. My one and only experience was with determining the start of Ramadan was years ago when a mosque committee asked me to be on their moon sighting committee.

Bssically the experts, none of whom had any astronomical knowledge let alone much religious knowledge insisted on waiting to see what everyone else was doing.

Once the had called every mosque they could on the east coast of Australia they decide to try Perth which is two hours behind Sydney. It was already 11pm on a summer's evening with morning prayers due at about 5.45 am.

With no verdict from Perth some agitated to wait for Indonesia. When the late hour was pointed out they said they were perfectly happy to wait all night.

Absolutely self defeating and what is more nobody at any time went outside to look for themselves.

Logos said...

I think one of the reasons why so many muslims hold on to moon sighting is because they don't know the difference between Astronomy and Astrology.