Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Guest Post: The Reform of the Islamic Calendar - Part 2

Here is the continuation of the article by Khalid Chraibi (it was originally published at It is being republished here with the permission of the author). Here he summarizes some individual and institutional positions on the use of astronomical calculations for the Islamic calendar. See Part 1 of the article here.

The Reform of the Islamic Calendar: Part 2

Khalid Chraibi

The legal opinion of Qadi Shakir
Egyptian qadi 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According to the principle of Muslim law which states that “a rule is no longer applicable, when the factor which justified its existence has disappeared”, the Messenger’s recommendation didn’t apply anymore to the Muslims, after they had learned to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 ulama’ 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 ulama’. 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 73 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 qadi Shakir’s conclusions. (3)

In the process of analyzing this topic, one’s attention is unavoidably drawn to the many paradoxes which exist in the situation, and which have to be confronted if one is to make some progress in dealing with the issues. Thus:

a) The Islamic calendar based on the observation of the new moon is only used in contemporary Muslim societies to determine the dates associated with religious celebrations. To meet all their other needs, Muslims around the world have used, for many centuries, the Gregorian calendar, based on astronomical calculations, without the slightest apprehension that they might thereby be violating religious prescriptions.

Why would it be licit for Muslims (including ulama’) to use the Gregorian calendar based on astronomical calculations to meet all their needs, while the use of the Islamic calendar, based on the same calculations, would be illicit?

b) The same situation can be observed at the level of the Muslim States. For example, Saudi Arabia sees no problem in using the Umm al Qura calendar, based on calculations, for the management of all the administrative and budgetary affairs of the country, while insisting that it would be illicit to use it for the determination of the dates of religious celebrations. On which rules of Shari’ah does this paradoxical proposition base itself?

c) The use by Saudi Arabia of the calendar based on calculations to manage its administrative affairs implies, beyond any doubt, that the lunar calendar based on the monthly observation of the new moon is unfit for such use. So, one must ask oneself: When the Messenger Muhammad referred to the observation of the new moon to determine the beginning of a new lunar month, was it his intention to disconnect the Arab calendar from its astronomical moorings, making it unfit for any practical use? Or did he merely give, at the time of Revelation, an appropriate response to the question put to him, based on the current practices of the Arabs at that time ? In the latter case, shouldn’t this response have been reviewed and adapted to the needs of Muslim societies as they progressed in their scientific, cultural and social environment? Isn’t it time to proceed with this review and adaptation now?

d) Why are the prayer times determined in a lawful shari’ah manner on the basis of astronomical calculations, and yet it is stated that the beginnings of Islamic months cannot be dealt with using the same tools and methods?

Based on all the above considerations, numerous Muslim thinkers and community organizations consider that it is perfectly licit for Muslims to use a calendar based on calculations, in substitution to the calendar based on the monthly observation of the new moon, to determine the beginning of all months. But there remain major differences between them concerning the specifics of the Muslim calendar which could be used as a “global Islamic calendar”, as is clear form the major proposals which were made in this domain in recent years.

The decision of the Fiqh Council of North America (FCNA)
The Fiqh Council of North America (FCNA) was 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 ulama’ 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’) 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 FCNA decision aroused much interest in many Muslim countries, because it elegantly met the requirements of the traditional interpretation of the shari’ah, while making use of the state-of-the art know-how in the field of astronomy to respond to the needs of the modern age. It was thought that this solution could be applicable in other Muslim countries, and could give them a chance to adopt the same pre-calculated Islamic calendar (prepared on an annual basis, long in advance), in order to fulfill all the religious duties as well as to manage all other tasks.

An international conference was thus held in Morocco, in November 2006, to study the issues involved, with the participation of astronomers from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, UAE, Iran, Guinea, Libya, Morocco, and the USA. The overwhelming majority of the participants, including Saudi, Egypt, and Iran astronomers agreed that the calendar adopted by Fiqh Council of North America could be used as a Global Islamic Calendar. (12)

A “global Islamic calendar” based on calculations, set to the coordinates of Makkah
But FCNA changed its position in 2007 to align itself on a new decision by the European Council for Fatwa and Research (ECFR), which used the same parameters as those of the Umm al Qura calendar (7) to determine the beginning of Islamic months. These parameters are as follows : the “conjunction” must take place “before sunset at the coordinates of Makkah” and “moonset must take place after sunset” at the same coordinates. FCNA and ECFR justified the adoption of the new parameters by their desire to help develop a consensus within the Muslim community throughout the world on issues of common interest, among which that of the calendar.

From a methodological point of view, the substitution of the parameters of Umm al Qura calendar to those initially set by FCNA in its August 2006 decision has the following consequences:

• The requirement that the “conjunction” take place “before sunset at the coordinates of Makkah” instead of 12:00 noon GMT, as previously specified by FCNA, adds 3 hours to the time period during which the conjunction will be taken into account. This improves the chances that the first day of the new month will immediately follow the day on which the conjunction takes place.

• But, the requirement that “moonset take place after sunset” at the Makkah coordinates sets an unduly restrictive condition, which didn’t exist in FCNA parameters of 2006. It implies that the new moon will be potentially sightable at Makkah on the evening of the day of conjunction, whereas the FCNA based its reasoning on the fact that the new moon would be potentially sightable “somewhere on Earth”.
According to FCNA, the data of the calendar thus obtained differs only marginally from the data developed using its methodology of August 2006. Concretely, the decisions of FCNA and ECFR had the following results:

• The principle of use of a calendar based on calculations was officially sponsored by religious leaders who are well-known and respected within the Muslim community (2) (3) (13)

• This principle was officially adopted by Islamic organizations whose legitimacy and credibility are unquestionable;

• The Muslim communities in Europe and America were willing to use this calendar to determine the beginning of all months, including those associated with religious events.

1st Ramadan 1433: a case study
Five years after the adoption by the FCNA and ECFR of their important decisions, it is possible to draw the point of the situation, based on the announcements made by the major Muslim States and organizations concerned, on the occasion of the 1st of Ramadan 1433 (July 2012). It shows that there remains major differences between them concerning the properties and technical specifications that a “global Islamic calendar” should have.

Thus, in application of its stated policy, the Fiqh Council of North America (FCNA) announced early in July 2012, well in advance of the event, that “the first day of Ramadan 1433 will be Friday, July 20, 2012 and Eid al-Fitr on Sunday, August 19, 2012″. The FCNA explained that:

a) it recognized astronomical calculation as an acceptable shar’ia method for determining the beginning of lunar months including the months of Ramadan and Shawwal;
b) it used Makkah al-Mukarrama as a conventional point for the calculations; and
c) it took the position that the conjunction must take place before sunset in Makkah and moon must set after sunset in Makkah. “On the basis of this method the dates of Ramadan and Eidul Fitr for the year 1433 AH are established as follows: 1st of Ramadan will be on Friday, July 20, 2012 ; and 1st of Shawwal will be on Sunday, August 19, 2012.” (14)

But, the Dublin-based European Council for Fatwa and Research (ECFR) seemed to have changed position, at least momentarily, compared to its 2007 decision. It also announced, well in advance, that the 1st of Ramadan 1433 would be on Friday, July 20, 2012, but explained that this finding was “based on calculation criteria that there must be the possibility of crescent sighting by naked eye or telescope on any place on Earth. To accept the possibility of crescent sighting in any place on Earth the following conditions must exist :
a) The moon must set after sunset in the place where sighting is possible
b) The elevation of the crescent must be at least 5 degrees
c) The elongation distance between the sun and moon must be at least 8 degrees.” (15)

In contrast, Saudi Arabia continued to claim its officially stated, but hard to verify, policy of relying exclusively on sighting to determine the dates of religious observances. Thus, on the evening of Thursday, July 19, 2012 the Saudi authorities announced that the new moon had been observed and that the fast of Ramadan would start on Friday, July 20. The Saudi statement contradicted astronomers’ announcement in moonsighting websites worldwide that it would be impossible to observe the new moon in the Middle East region on the evening of Thursday, July 19. (15) However, based on the Saudi announcement, some 69 countries and Muslim communities worldwide began the fast of Ramadan on Friday, July 20. This represented a historical record in the number of Muslim countries which began fasting on the same date. (15)

For their part, the major Muslim associations of France also announced that the 1st of Ramadan 1433 would be on Friday, July 20, 2012 using a calendar based on astronomical calculations, taking into account the criteria of the possibility of crescent sighting in any place on Earth. (16)

Turkish Muslims in Asia Minor and several Muslim communities in Eastern Europe and elsewhere also began their fast of Ramadan 1433 on Friday, July 20, 2012, basing themselves on the Islamic calendar of Turkey, which is calculated several years in advance (currently up to 1437 AH/2015 CE) by the Turkish Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet Isleri Baskanligi). (17) Since 1 Muharrem 1400 AH (21 November 1979) the computed Turkish lunar calendar is based on the following rule: “The lunar month is assumed to begin on the evening when, within some region of the terrestrial globe, the computed centre of the lunar crescent at local sunset is more than 5° above the local horizon and (geocentrically) more than 8° from the Sun.” (18)

One can draw the following conclusions from the 1st Ramadan 1433 illustration:
a) the use of a Muslim lunar calendar based on calculations is steadily gaining grounds, particularly within the Muslim communities of North America and Western Europe. But there are still important differences as to which new lunar calendar to use, as witnessed by the different methodologies used by FCNA, ECFR, the Muslim associations of France and Turkish Muslims;
b) the number of States claiming to follow the leadership of Saudi Arabia in the matter of the date of religious observances is growing at a considerable rate;
c) Saudi Arabia’s strategy and objectives in the matter of determination of the lunar months associated with religious observances continue to be puzzling for the observer. The Saudi authorities regularly announce the observation of a new moon on dates when professional astronomers state that such sighting was impossible. They use the Umm al Qura calendar (which is based on astronomical calculations) for civil and administrative purposes, but quite regularly advance or postpone the weekday on which falls the 1st of the month associated with religious observances, for unexplained reasons. (7)

These changes decrease the credibility and value of the Umm al Qura calendar as an astronomical calendar that the Muslim community could use, worldwide, leading Muslim communities in North America and Europe to draw their own Muslim astronomical calendar.

The ritual confrontation between tradition and modernity
On the basis of what has been said, it is clear that the Muslim calendar based on the monthly observation of the new moon with the naked eye cannot perform the functions expected of a calendar. It is of no use to manage long-term activities, to anticipate, plan and organize in advance everything that must be done. These weaknesses stand out even more clearly when each State and Muslim community around the world conducts its own individual monthly observation of the new moon, resulting in a range of calendars which present conflicting data for the same day from one country to another.
But, a lunar calendar based on calculations can meet all the needs of Muslims in the world, just as well as the Gregorian calendar they currently use. The only problem concerns the determination of the parameters that would be acceptable to all potential users of the calendar, to turn it into a “global Islamic calendar”. The FCNA and the ECFR presented, in this respect, two basic versions of such a calendar, both equally valid. They deserve to be studied with the greatest care.

Following in the steps of Qadi Shakir, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, and the leaders of the FCNA and the ECFR, a new generation of Muslim thinkers see no religious barrier to the adoption of such a calendar. At present, they represent only a minority of people, when compared to the entire Muslim population of the world, and are mostly located in North America, Europe and some North African countries. But, their views are gaining ground, with the support of some distinguished thinkers, political and social leaders, jurists and theologians who are influential in the Muslim world.

Will this Muslim minority be able to convert to its thinking the vast majority of those who, today, continue to uphold the practice of the monthly observation of the new moon? Or, will the latter remain faithfully on the side of the fundamentalist movements which, today more than ever, vigorously preach the respect of orthodoxy and tradition in religious matters? In these early years of the 21st century, the calendar based on calculations thus becomes, in its turn, a stake in the ritual, recurrent political confrontation between those who defend tradition and those who wish to promote modernity in Muslim societies.

(9) Ahmad Muhammad Shakir:
(10) Abi al-Fayd Ahmad al-Ghomari: Tawjih alandhar litaw-hidi almouslimin fi assawmi wal iftar (In order to unify the Muslims when they start and end the fast of Ramadan), 160p, 1960, Dar al bayareq, Beyrouth, 2nd ed. 1999
(13) Zulfikar Ali Shah: ‘The astronomical calculations: a fiqhi discussion’
(14) Fiqh Council of North America: Announcements - Ramadan & Eid Mubarak 1433 (2012):
• Ramadan 1433 AH:
• The Astronomical New Moon is on July 19, 2012 (Thursday) at 4:24 Universal Time (7:24 a.m. Makkah time). Sunset at Makkah on July 19 is at 7:05 p.m., while moonset is at 7:11 p.m. Moon is born before sunset in Makkah and moonset is after sunset. Therefore first day of Ramadan is Friday, July 20.
• Eid ul-Fitr 1433 AH:
• The Astronomical New Moon is on August 17, 2012 (Friday) at 15:54 Universal Time (6:54 p.m. Makkah time). On Friday, August 17, sunset at Makkah is 6:49 p.m. and moonset is 6:30 p.m. Moon is born after sunset in Makkah and moon sets before sunset. On Saturday, August 18 , sunset at Makkah is 6:49 p.m. and moonset is at 7:11 p.m. Moon is born 24 hours before sunset, while moonset is after sunset. Therefore, first day of Shawwal, i.e., Eid ul-Fitr is Sunday, August 19.
(15) European Council for Fatwa and Research (ECFR) announcement:
(16) Conseil Français du Culte Musulman (CFCM): Ramadan moubarak and Nidhal Guessoum: Quel sera le premier jour du mois de Ramadan 2012 ? (On which date will Ramadan 2012 begin) ?
(18) Robert Harry van Gent: The Islamic calendar of Turkey


Helmer Aslaksen: The Islamic calendar 
Methods used by countries for determining the beginning of Islamic months : Selected articles on the Islamic calendar
Islamic Crescent’s Observation Project (ICOP): Selected articles on the Islamic calendar in Arabic 
Mohamed Odeh: The actual Saudi dating system 
Karim Meziane et Nidhal Guessoum: La visibilité du croissant lunaire et le ramadan, La Recherche n° 316, janvier 1999, pp. 66-71
Nidhal Guessoum, Mohamed el Atabi and Karim Meziane : Ithbat acchouhour alhilaliya wa mouchkilate attawqiti alislami (Establishing the lunar months and the problem of keeping time in Islam), 152 p., Dar attali’a, Beyrouth, 2nd ed., 1997
Different proposals for the reform of the Islamic calendar:
A video by Dr.Muzammil Siddiqi on “Fiqh Council of North America about using astronomical calculations to affirm the month of Ramadan”:
An Article on Sighting and Calculations by Dr. Muneer Fareed
A video by Dr. Jamal Badawi on “To see or not to see: the Moon Sighting controversy in Islam”:
A video by Javed Ghamidi:
A video by Dr. Tahirul Qadri: 

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