[Note: This is a two-part article. After reading this you can proceed to Part two by clicking here.]

by Khalid Chraibi

Shortcomings of the Islamic calendar

A calendar associates a specific date with each day of any given week, month or year, to enable people to manage all their activities over an extended period of time. They must be able to anticipate, plan and organize in advance, using the information provided by the calendar, everything that they need to do. But, in Muslim societies, people wait to see, each country for itself, the appearance of the new moon at the end of each lunar month, before they declare the beginning of a new lunar month. As a result:
- the information in the Islamic calendar does not extend beyond the current month;
- and the data it shows each month differs from one Muslim country to another.
For instance, the first day of Ramadan 1427 corresponded to Saturday, September 23, 2006 in 20 countries ; Sunday, September 24 in 46 countries ; and Monday, September 25 in 5 countries. (1) This situation is in no way unusual, but can be observed every month.
Because of these shortcomings, after the major Muslim countries were occupied by foreign powers in the 19th and 20th centuries, Muslim people started using the Gregorian calendar to meet all their needs, and only care about determining Islamic dates on momentous Islamic religious occasions.

But, to this day, they regularly get puzzled at the inability of the Islamic calendar to predict precisely, well in advance, the day on which major Islamic events such as the first day of Ramadan, or eid al-fitr, or eid al-adha, or the first day of the new Islamic year are to take place. 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 only lost its usefulness when it got disconnected from its astronomical, conceptual and methodological moorings, early in the 7th century, based on Muslim theologians’ interpretation of a celebrated hadith of the Messenger on how to determine the first day of Ramadan. 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.

Qadi Ahmad Shakir, President of the Egyptian Supreme Court of the Shari’ah, explained in an important 1939 study of the issues that there was absolutely no obstacle, on the theological level, to the establishment of such an Islamic calendar, using astronomical calculations. (2) In 2004, 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 traditional requirements of the Shari’ah (4).

Since then, a number of representative organizations of the Muslim communities in North America and Europe announced that they would henceforth use a calendar based on astronomical calculations to determine all the dates associated with the Islamic calendar, in substitution to the traditional method of observing the appearance of the new moon at the end of each lunar month to determine the first day of the following month.

Astronomical considerations

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). From an astronomical point of view, lunar months do not have a duration of 30 days and 29 days in sequence. There are at times short series of 29 days and short series of 30 days, as illustrated by the following sequence of the duration of 24 lunar months in the period 2007-2008 : « 30, 29, 30, 29, 29, 30, 29, 29, 30, 30, 29, 30, 30, 30, 29, 30, 29, 29, 30, 29, 29, 30, 29, 30. »

The astronomers set 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 minutes 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 lunar calendar based on calculations can thus be established very precisely, on an annual basis, long in advance, with identical monthly data for the whole Earth.

A calendar disconnected from its astronomical moorings

In pre-Islamic Arabia, the Bedouin were used to observing the position of the stars at night, to guide them in their travels through the desert, and to observe the appearance of the new moon to determine the beginning of months. When the Companions of the Messenger asked him about how they should determine the beginning and end of the month of fasting (Ramadan), he told them, in line with the well-established habits of the Arabs, to begin fasting with the appearance of the new moon ( the evening of 29th day of the month of Sha’baan) and to stop fasting with the appearance of the new moon (of the month Shawal). “If the crescent is not visible (due to clouds) count up to 30 days.”
However, the new moon typically becomes visible only some 17 hours after the “conjunction”, and only subject to the existence of favorable conditions including such factors as the site where the observation is carried out, the number of hours since the conjunction, the relative positions of the sun, the moon and the observer, the angle with the sun at sunset, the altitude of the moon at sunset, atmospheric conditions at the site of observation (pollution, humidity, air temperature, altitude), the detection limit of the human eye, etc …

If the “conjunction” occurs early in the day, the new moon may be visible on the same evening, after sunset, in specific regions of Earth where the appropriate favorable observation conditions are met. From one month to the next, these favorable conditions exist in different areas of the globe. Otherwise, beginning with the second night after the “conjunction,” the new moon will be observed easily enough in many regions of Earth. Thus, various States and communities in the Muslim world often begin the new lunar month on different days, with a delay of 24 hours from each other during the 48 hours following the “conjunction”.

Clearly, a calendar which depends on the observation of the new moon, at the end of each lunar month, to determine the beginning of the new month, cannot be of any use to plan activities beyond the current month.

Rigorous rules to reduce uncertainties and drifts

Early astronomers who converted to Islam (and in their wake Muslim jurists) knew that the length of the lunar month was between 29 days and 30 days, whether measured between two “conjunctions” or between two observations of the new moon, as the Messenger had emphasized in various hadiths. (5) As far as they were concerned, the beginning and duration of lunar months were independent of the presence or absence of observers and of the visibility conditions of the new moon in various Earth regions. The first sighting of the new moon anywhere on Earth set the beginning date of each lunar month for the whole Earth (and the duration of each month between two new moons was the same for all regions of Earth).

But, though these principles were conceptually easy to understand, they were difficult to put into practice. Indeed, once the new moon had been reliably observed somewhere, how was this information to be brought to the attention of populations living over extended geographic areas, or even in very remote areas (as illustrated by the distance between Spain and Arabia, for example)? To which communities did such an information apply, as a rule of law, and they had to draw from it all its implications (such as to start fasting, or to celebrate the end of Ramadan, etc.)?

Muslim theologians/jurists in the early days of Islam gave a wide range of practical answers to these difficult questions. One can draw from them a core of fundamental principles, which continue to be of great interest today:

(1) The observation of the new moon can be taken into account only by the communities which receive the information.
(2) The observation of the new moon in Eastern countries marks, from a theoretical standpoint, the beginning of the new month for all countries located to the west of the site of observation. This is so because, as the age of the new moon increases between the time of its birth (at the “conjunction”) and its first setting, the possibility of observing it improves. Thus, going from East to West, from Mecca to Casablanca, for example, the age of the new moon increases by 3 hours between the times of sunset in Saudi Arabia and Morocco.
(3) An observation of the new moon must be considered void, when reported before the conjunction has occurred.
(4) In general, given the difficulties of communication between Muslim communities over extended geographic settings, the population of each country must implement the decision of the national authorities concerning the beginning of lunar months.

Today, only the latter principle is scrupulously respected in the Muslim world. As a result, because of the multiplication of States and Muslim communities around the world, the same beginning of month is sometimes shelled out like a rosary in successive days in different countries. Thus, “Eid al Fitr,” corresponding to 1 Shawal 1429, was celebrated in 5 different days around the world: in 1 country on 29 September 2008, in 19 countries on September 30, in 25 countries on 1 October, in 5 countries on October 2, and 1 community on October 3.

Such a drift in the Muslim calendar is contrary to Reason. Nor, would it be possible if the first three principles outlined above were respected. This is the thesis developed in 1965 by Allal El Fassi, an ‘alim (jurist) of the University Qarawiyine of Fez (Morocco) and Moroccan Minister of Islamic Affairs, in a report on “the beginning of lunar months” he prepared at the request of King Hassan II. (6) According to him, if a consensus could be reached on the application in Muslim countries of the first three principles above, such a “return to the sources of Islamic law” could provide a strong basis and impetus for the unification of the dates of religious celebrations across the Muslim world. Thus, the first sighting of the new moon anywhere on Earth should be confirmed by the appropriate Muslim authorities at the site of observation and, using modern communication technologies, should be quickly brought to the attention of the competent authorities of all States and Muslim communities around the world. The latter would have the responsibility to spread the information in their respective territories.

Diversified sets of rules to determine the beginning of lunar months

But, contrary to el Fassi’s recommendations, things became even more complicated as more independent States began specifying new rules and procedures to determine, each one for itself, the beginning of lunar months. Thus, Saudi Arabia bases itself on the monthly observation, by the naked eye, of the new moon to declare the beginning of months associated with religious celebrations (Ramadan, Eid al Fitr, Dhul Hijja, etc.). Specialized commissions have the responsibility, on such occasions, to search for the new moon in the sky. The High Judicial Council of Saudi Arabia bases itself on the result of their observations to determine the beginning of the new month. In India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Oman, Morocco, Nigeria, Trinidad, etc.., the observation of the new moon must be certified by a qadi (judge) or an official specialized commission. In Egypt, the new month begins after conjunction, when the new moon sets at least 5 minutes after sunset.
In Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, the new month begins after the conjunction, when the age of the new moon is more than 8 h, the altitude <2 ° and elongation > 3 °. It begins in Turkey, after the conjunction, when the new moon forms an angle of at least 8 ° with the sun, at an altitude of at least 5 °. In Libya, under the former Gaddafi regime, the new month began when the conjunction occured before dawn (”fajr”), local time.

The study of specific cases shows, however, that there is a significant gap between the rules that the various States say they apply and what they do in practice.

Is it licit for Muslims to use a calendar based on calculations?

The Qur’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.

The argument, however, is hardly convincing when confronted with the facts of the situation. Thus, “a study of 42 reports of sightings of the Ramaḍān new moon, as announced by the Supreme Judicial Council of Saudi Arabia (Majlis al-Qadā’ al-A‘lā) between 1962 to 2001 (1381 AH to 1422 AH), confirms that more than half of these were too early and based on false sightings (Kordi, 2003). Most of these false sightings were probably caused by a bright star or planet (such as Venus) or an airplane contrail viewed near to the western horizon.” (7)

The report of erroneous sightings is not peculiar to Saudi Arabia but is observed in most other Muslim countries studied. The authorities in these countries base themselves on such false sightings to announce the beginning or the end of the fast of Ramadan and other major religious celebrations, even when the reported sightings are in contradiction with the well-publicized astronomical facts of the situation.

In any case, in the view of many Islamic thinkers, the Messenger’s recommendation to the faithful should not be confused with the acts of worship. It was merely adapted to the culture of the times. (6) 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. Thus, one doesn’t have to see the new moon for himself in order to start the fast of Ramadan. He merely needs to learn of the event from credible sources, such as the local authorities. This opens entirely different vistas in the discussion of this question. (6)

As for the hadith of the Messenger according to which the Bedouins can neither write 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.

The Saudi authorities hold a dual position on this subject. They say they rely exclusively on the sighting of the new moon to determine the dates of all religious celebrations. But they use the Umm al Qura calendar (which is prepared based on calculations) to manage all year-long the administrative and budgetary affairs of the country. (7) 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)

Parts of the essay appeared on SaudiDebate.com (5 September 2007) and Tabsir.net (23 July 2008). I wish to express my deep appreciation to Ms. Rachida Benchemsi and Messrs Said Branine, Mark Huband, Daniel Martin Varisco and Khalid Shaukat. Any errors of fact or interpretation are solely mine.

(1) http://www.moonsighting.com/1427rmd.html
(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):
http://ahmadmuhammadshakir.blogspot.com/
(3) Yusuf al-Qaradawi: « Astronomical calculations and determination of the beginning of months » (in arabic) : http://www.scribd.com/doc/102861247/Qaradawi-Astronomical-Calculations-and-the-Islamic-Calendar-in-Arabic
(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):
http://www.scribd.com/doc/102861233/al-Haj-Le-theologien-le-politicien-et-le-debut-des-mois-lunaires-10-10-2004
(6) Allal el Fassi: “Al-jawab assahih wannass-hi al-khaliss ‘an nazilati fas wama yata’allaqo bimabda-i acchouhouri al-islamiyati al-arabiyah” (The true answer […] concerning the beginning of Islamic Arabic months), report prepared at the request of King Hassan II of Morocco, Rabat, 1965 (36 p.), with no indication of editor
(7) Robert Harry Van Gent: “The Umm-al-Qura calendar of Saudi Arabia” http://www.staff.science.uu.nl/~gent0113/islam/ummalqura.htm
(8) Anver Saad: “The Untold Story of Ramadhan Moon Sighting” Daily Muslims, October 07, 2005 : http://www.scribd.com/doc/102861269/Saad-Untold-Story-of-Ramadhan-Moon-Sighting-Oct-07-2005

to be continued here