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.
Ten days ago, I took part in a two-day conference in Paris, France, on the necessity of adopting an astronomical calendar in the determination and adoption of Islamic dates, particularly for holy occasions such as Ramadan, Eids, and Hajj. The conference, titled ‘Islamic lunar calendar in light of scientific knowledge’, was organized by the Union of Islamic Organizations of France, in partnership with the European Council for Fatwas and Research and the Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe.
The aim of the conference was for some of the important Islamic organizations in France and in Europe to (finally) officially adopt an astronomical-calculation methodology in the determination of Islamic occasions in lieu of the traditional and problematic naked-eye or even telescope-observation of the crescent on the eve of the occasion.
Regular and long-time readers of Irtiqa know that I have been fighting for this for a long time; indeed, I’ve written about this before (here at Irtiqa, but also at Huff-Po and at Oumma.com for the francophone public), and last August an article in Science highlighted my efforts on this issue. I should also point to strong efforts made by ICOP, the ‘Islamic Astronomy’ organization in which I play a leading role, efforts which include previous conferences on the subject (see an earlier report of mine here).
This Paris conference, however, is highly significant in two ways: a) this signals a serious shift in the position of important Islamic organizations in Europe (and there are indications that other Islamic organizations in France and elsewhere will follow suit); b) the European Council for Fatwas and Research, which co-organized the conference and provided it with the Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) backing, is headed by Sheikh Al-Qaradawi, the leading authority of the Sunni world, which indicates a new stand in the Arab-Muslim world as well.
This is not the first time such a bold step is taken. Indeed, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) has for at least 5 years now adopted a fully calculated Islamic calendar, which includes dates for Ramadan and Eids, a calendar which does away with sightings, local or otherwise, with naked eyes or telescopes. But ISNA has received much criticism and condemnation for that avant-garde standpoint, and form so far away it couldn’t really have much of an impact on the Muslim-majority world. European Islamic organizations, with their closeness (geographical and ideological) to the scholars and officials of the Arab-Muslim world, are a different case in point.
It was interesting that during the conference, where half the speakers came from Europe and half from the Arab-Muslim world, the discourse oscillated between the pragmatic goals and the traditional views. The European participants (most of them Muslim immigrants from the Arab world) kept relating stories of how they couldn’t even request a day off from work to celebrate Eid because the date couldn’t be set in advance, how their children felt that their religion is unable to adapt to the modern world, how the traditional determination on the eve of a holy occasion created divisions among Muslims (various groups following different countries), etc. And it was poignant to see the Arab-Muslim scholars while fully cognizant of those real-life problems of Muslims in Europe unable to jump away from the Islamic jurisprudential arguments of more than a thousand years ago.
Even the astronomers (four of us) were not always adamant or forceful about the need to make the conceptual shift from the traditional approach to the modern astronomical calendar methods. But by the end of the first day, with the push from the public, the European scholars, and the astronomers, it became clear that a bold resolution and communiqué were the only logical outcome that could be expected from the conference. (Participants, imams, and community leaders, from Germany, Sweden, Poland, and elsewhere, were begging the scholars not to send them back with the same old problematic approach.)
In the end, the right resolution was adopted, with a firm decision to determine all Islamic dates on astronomical bases (including for the holy Ramadan and Eids, but not for Hajj, which will always be set by the Saudi government). Some debates took place between the astronomers and the European Muslim community leaders as to the kind of Islamic calendar that should be adopted, and though I did not fully endorse the particular solution that the Europeans wanted (one which accorded with the Turkish approach and adopted a principle of a crescent visible anywhere in the world), I insisted that what is important at this stage – and this is what needs to be strongly hailed – is the fact that we will now do away with observations altogether.
I am eager to see what kind of impact this development will have on the rest of the Muslim organizations and communities in Europe and (there will have to be some effect) in the Arab world (nearby North Africa in particular) and beyond.