Islamic Moon Sighting Controversy in America

Muslims around the world follow an Islamic Hijri Calendar which comprises of 354 or 355 days divided into 12 lunar months. Muharram is the first month of the year and Zilhujja is the last month of the Hijri Calendar.

The Hijri calendar is followed to determine the Islamic sacred months of rituals and holidays like Ramadan Fasting, Eid and Hajj. There are four sacred months in the Islamic calendar which includes Ramadan, Zilqiddah, Zilhujja, and Muharram.

Islamic Calendar is based on the Hijri era as prophet Muhammad PBUH and his companions migrated from Makkah to Yathrib (Madinah) in the year 622 AD to establish the first Muslim community. This event was observed as Hijra.

Every year Muslims living in different parts of the world celebrate the months of Ramadan, Eid, and Hajj along with other sacred months like Muharram (Islamic New Year) and Rabiul Awal (month of Prophets birth and death). Muslims observe certain rituals and festivals during these months and hence the moon sighting for these months is very closely followed by Muslims around the world.

Allah says in the Holy Qur’an: They ask you about the crescents.  Say: They are times appointed for the people and for the hajj… (Al-Qur’an, 2:189)

In Muslim governed countries like Pakistan, Saudi Arabi etc there are special Hilal (moon sighting) committees that declare the sighting of the moon by centrally gathering the witnesses who had sighted the moon from different parts of the country.

However countries like US, Canada and many Non-Muslim countries around the world there are no central bodies to manage the moon sighting at the government level. Hence different Muslim organizations within the country have formed their own committees for declaring the start and the end of the month using various methods.

There are three popularly known criteria adopted for Islamic Moon Sighting in America, Local Moon sighting, Global Moon Sighting and the Fixed Calendar based on scientific calculations. Local Moon sighting limits the sighting of the moon within the continental Americas i.e US, Canada and some parts of South America. Global Moon sighting technique takes into consideration moon sighing in any part of the world. So for example, if the moon is sighted in Saudi Arabia then the Mosques and Committees following the Global moon sighting would declare the start or end of the lunar Islamic month and then there is a scientific calendar where calculations are made based on astronomical and historical data.

Due to the curvature of the earth, on any given day, a new moon can be seen in some parts of the earth, while not on the other. Hence in today’s age of communication, the local moon sighting as one of the criterion is flawed and contradictory. The boundaries around a continent or countries are created by humans however there is one moon created by Allah for this earth. Restricting the sighting of the moon within a certain geographical location when witnesses can easily be gathered from any part of the world due to the availability of communication channels defeats logic. If it’s deemed acceptable to get a witness from any part of Continental America using the communication channels like phone, emails, social media and internet then it should also be perfectly fine to accept those witnesses outside a specific man defined geographic boundary.

Global Moon sighting and Scientific calculation are the only two viable options in my mind however both options are not 100% accurate. The scientific calculation can, however, help in rejecting global moon sighting in areas where scientifically it was not possible to sight a moon even using the optical aid and telescopes and there were also not many who came up as a witness. Many times due to an optical illusion or many man-made objects like satellites and aircraft, one can be mistaken resulting in incorrect sightings. Hence it’s important that when gathering evidence from the around the world, a significant number of witnesses are taken into consideration along with using the scientific forecasting to back the evidence so that if there is a case where reported sighting in a particular area, conflicts with conclusive astronomical data, then it can be ruled out.

Advocates for scientific calculation in the determination of the start of Islamic lunar month, argue that these calculations are extremely reliable as the models created in this way are based on corroboration of data by centuries of observation and astronomical realities and also that it helps to negate the erroneous reports of the crescent sighting. However, according to some scientists, the astronomical models are also not hundred percent accurate enough to predict the visibility of crescent in all cases due to different factors like the age of the moon and its angular separation from the sun which could impact on how much the moon’s surface area is illuminated by the sun.

Both the fixed calendar calculation approach backed by Islamic Society Of North America (ISNA) and the global Moon sighting approach used by many Islamic centers and mosques in America is an acceptable option and for the sake of unity of the Muslims in America there should not be a dispute or disconnect on which approach should be adopted. However, the problems are highlighted when within the same neighborhood community, there are various mosques following a different standard. In the past, it has created a situation where Muslim in the same neighborhood following different mosques, celebrated Eid on different days. Obviously, this doesn’t send a good message when Muslim kids from the same town take different days off from their public schools as an Eid Holiday.

As a Muslim community, we need to send a unified message to our non-Muslim neighbors, colleagues at school and work and to the government officials. It would be really nice if Muslims are able to agree on a fixed scientifically calculated Calendar as it  will allow Islamic holidays to be officially recognized in the US and will create a potential of having Eid as an announced school Holiday on the public school yearly calendar, similar to how we get school days off for Jewish holidays like Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur.

Fixed Islamic Calendar will give a better recognition of Muslim Holidays in America and will contribute towards a positive recognition of the Muslim community. Also, Muslims in America will become more united in their celebrations. There are some school districts within the state of New York and New Jersey that do have Eid days as an official school Holidays because the Islamic centers in those areas follow fixed Calendar but we need this to be more common across all schools districts in America having a significant Muslim population.

There are many Muslim astronomers around the world who have been researching for many years to develop a “Global Lunar Islamic Calendar”. Also, the Fiqh Council of North America does not consider the use of calculations in determining the Islamic dates as against the Sunnah. We hope that in years to come, Muslims in America can eventually agree and rely on fixed Islamic Calendar for celebrating the Eid holidays. If both the global moon sighting and the scientific calendar methods are largely acceptable then the benefits that Scientific Islamic Calendar creates in unifying Muslims and for positively marketing Muslims in America is far greater.