Monday, September 19, 2011

Islam and Astronomy: the tug-of-war continues

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science.

Some three weeks after the celebration of Eid, which marks the end of Ramadan, Muslim astronomers and religious scholars and officials are still locked in a big controversy and battle through numerous articles and communiqués, not to mention rumors.
Indeed, Saudi, Egyptian, and Algerian officials declared that the crescent of the new lunar month had been sighted by several people on the evening of August 29, and hence that Eid, one of the two biggest holidays in Islam, would be the next day. Many Muslim astronomers, however, had issued communiqués and published articles at least a week before, warning that no crescent could be seen on that night in the entire Islamic world.
Two astronomy groups were at the heart of the controversy: the Jeddah Astronomical Society (JASAS), and the Islamic Crescents Observation Project (ICOP). I should first stress that, contrary to what a recent article in The Guardian indicated, no astronomer suggested that people had mistaken Saturn for the crescent; that was merely a rumor, though it did spread like wildfire. Saturn was much higher in the sky and set nearly two hours after the sun, while observers were seeking a crescent which followed the sun by just a few minutes (right next to it). A possible confusion that has not, to my knowledge, been pointing out, was with Venus, which indeed followed the sun within about 15 minutes (see the diagram below) and which can be seen as a crescent both with telescopes and by acute naked eyes.

The battle erupted between the astronomers (JASAS and ICOP, in particular) and the religious scholars because of an Al-Jazeera show that was taking place right as the Saudi announcement was made. The vice-president of JAS immediately said (live): “if such an impossible observation can be accepted, then we should close observatories and universities”; and I (representing ICOP) then added: “why don’t we replace expensive telescopes in our observatories with these human super-observers?!”
Let me here offer additional information to clarify or rectify a few important points pertaining to the controversy.
First and foremost, the fact that the crescent was wrongly declared to have been sighted on August 29 does not automatically mean that Muslims celebrated Eid too soon. Indeed, astronomers had explained that the crescent could be observed with telescopes in Southern Africa and by naked eyes in South America. Muslim jurists differ on whether the crescent needs to be seen locally or regionally for the month to end/begin and whether the usage of instruments is acceptable. For example, Saudi Arabia allows observations with telescopes but accepts sightings only from within the kingdom. Morocco accepts only naked-eye sightings, from within its borders, and by nationally supervised groups of observers. Malaysia and Turkey go by the presence of the moon above the horizon by a certain angle and do not require any confirmation by actual sightings.
Now, various countries accept sightings from neighboring areas; for example, most of the Gulf and the Middle East usually follow Saudi announcements, but the largest majority of the 1.5 billion Muslims do not follow Saudi Arabia, though Muslim communities in the west tend to be somewhat affected by Saudi proclamations.
Another important point raised in the Guardian article was the call for using more scientific methods and “adapt[ing] to technological realities.” This is far from new, as indeed not only have Muslim astronomers and groups (ICOP in particular) been promoting this for years, a number of official religious bodies have already adopted that principle. Indeed, the Islamic Society of North America has for at least 5 years now adopted a fully calculated Islamic calendar, which includes dates for Ramadan, Eid, and Hajj, a calendar which does away with sightings, local or otherwise, with naked eyes or telescopes. Recently, news has also come that a similar Islamic body in France (the Conseil Français du Culte Musulman) will soon be adopting and implementing a calendar of this kind.
But let us not lose sight of the main issues behind all this: first there is the fight to get rid of literalism in Islamic life (we should not understand the Prophet’s injunction to “start the month when you see the new crescent” as an order to follow that procedure until the end of times but rather to ascertain the start of the month in the best way possible), and secondly the religious scholars are battling to retain the power that they have long held over various social issues and on which they have seen their grip slip year after year; conversely, science and Muslim scientists are fighting to have their knowledge, facts and theories given due respect.
On more than one front, the Muslim world is undergoing a revolution…


Gary said...

Nice summary of the controversy. I would dispute your definition of the Islamic world though. There is a reasonable population of Muslims in South America where naked eye sighting was possible. In any case the world is supposed to be our mosque. I know it seems like it but there is no "Planet Islam" and "Planet Others" although the disputes over the moon/s does suggest otherwise

While ICOP is trying to achieve a more modern and scientific approach to this issue your Australian correspondent insists on a confirmed local sighting to the extent that his followers start and finish fasting on different dates to the rest of their families. His actual sighting point is a park in the inner city of Sydney where you have to contend with the city haze and light pollution. It is pretty self defeating but he does co-ordinate reports from sighting points elsewhere.

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Thank you, Gary, for your feedback and additions.

What I and most writers usually mean by "Islamic world" is "countries with Muslim-majority populations", so that covers most countries between Indonesia and west Africa. But in this post, I was referring to (though perhaps I should have made that clear) a rule that many Muslim jurists use, namely that countries where the crescent could be seen must "share part of the night" with the country that is to accept and adopt that sighting. So that puts South America outside of the acceptable range for the Asian countries, though not for North African and European countries, and that is why the European Council for Fatwa and Research did accept the South American visibility of the crescent, but most of the "Islamic world" did not. (Does this clarify things?)

ICOP doesn't have correspondents; it only has members. Most of them have no prerogative to speak for ICOP, which has an Administrative Board, a Scientific Committee, and a Communications Committee. People are free to make proclamations of any sort, though they should be honest and clear enough to distinguish their views from those of any organization they subscribe to.