In a groundbreaking initiative to address one of the most hotly debated topics within the Muslim community, the Islamic Community Center of Laurel (ICCL) hosted a seminar on moon-sighting, inviting the participation of imams and masajid in the Maryland, D.C. and Virginia area. More than 50 masajid were invited to the forum, from as far north as Baltimore and as far south as Richmond.
The seminar, held on Saturday, November 16, 2013, included perspectives by Imam Safi Khan from the Dar-us-Salaam community, Imam Ahmad Azzari from the PGMA community, Shaykh Adel Khan and Imam Javed Bhaiyat of ICCL and Imam Mikaeel Smith from the Makkah Learning Center in Gambrills, Maryland.
Every speaker at the forum emphasized the importance of adhering to the confirmed prophetic practice of physically sighting the moon, and shunned the method of determining the start of the Islamic lunar months using calculations.
As the first speaker, Imam Safi Khan, reminded the audience of the intention behind the gathering.
"We are not here to argue or to put someone down, but to cooperate on righteousness. In essence we are doing the "dhikr" (remembrance) of Allah. So as we go forward in talking about this issue - about moon-sighting, calculations, what do we do when the moon is sighted, do we do our own sighting - we must remember we are doing this for the pleasure of Allah, to get close to Allah. We are soliciting the love of Allah. There is a condition to this love - that is to obey the Prophet. Remember that whatever the Prophet told us was by inspiration. So we consider sunnah as revelation as well."
Citing numerous examples of the tribulations that will befall people when the sunnah is abandoned, Imam Safi highlighted the importance of submitting to Allah and understanding the importance of the sunnah of moon-sighting in the context of reverence for Allah and His Prophet.
"Not anyone can get up and say, 'I believe this and I believe that' ", said Imam Safi. "This is about Allah and His Prophet. We ask questions (in order to) understand, but not to undermine the Prophet (Sallallahu 'alyhi wasallam)."
"People say, 'if we do calculations we can tell our workplace/ children's school ahead of time. It will be so easy'. Allah didn't forget that we will be living here in this time."
The next speaker, Imam Azzari, introduced his talk by clarifying the issues over which there was agreement of the scholars and others over which there was disagreement.
"We all agree we have to follow the Imam," said Imam Azzari as he concluded a narration of the Prophet (Sallallahu 'alyhi wasallam) in which the importance of following the imam was highlighted. He said, "The 'imam' can "literally be taken as the imam of the masjid, but in its broader meaning can include the authority, king, president or governor (as long as they were following an authentic 'madhab')".
Quoting several hadith on this topic, Imam Azzari said, " The Prophet (Sallallahu 'alyhi wasallam) said, 'My ummah will never agree on misguidance'. When you find the vast majority agreeing on something, it is an indication that it is right."
Imam Azzari outlined that there are two methods of accepting moon-sighting. Either that sighting would be unified among the ummah, or it would be different according to different localities.
"Every two countries that are sharing the whole night or part of it should unify on moon-sighting," said Imam Azzari. "This is the principle we follow at PGMA."
Imam Azzari related incidents he had experienced regarding heated arguments over moon-sighting policies, in which it transpired that the person had a grudge against Saudi Arabia, and due to that was not willing to follow their moon-sighting declarations.
"We are not talking about politics, but about ulema," said Imam Azzari. "The biggest unity at the time of the Prophet happened in hajj. We (all) agree that the unity of the ummah is much more important than grudges against a government."
The next speaker, Shaykh Adel Khan, gave a scholarly overview of the current reality in North America and the different opinions people hold regarding moon-sighting, as well as the standpoint of traditional Islamic scholars on this topic. Shaykh Adel is an instructor at ICCL's "Alim" program for adults which has been ongoing since 2001, and holds a Masters degree in Islamic theology, Tafseer and Hadith and has studied under Mufti Rafi Uthmani in Pakistan.
"The current situation in North America is as follows," explained Shaykh Adel "Some use calculations. (By that) they mean the birth of the new moon. Others use the North American conjunction or the Makkah conjunction. Others use maps of curvature, demonstrating the position of the moon in the world. Some follow Saudi announcements; some take all months and follow them, some only follow in Eid-ul-Adha."
"Then, there are those who take physical sighting. (These are of two opinions). Those following local sighting use one of the following parameters; (a distance of) 133 kilometers (within which to accept a sighting); North America only; North America and the Caribbean; or North America and the Caribbean but excluding the West Coast. Those following global sighting either take any sighting from anywhere in the world, or they follow the announcement in their home country."
As he went over the positions of the four main schools of (Islamic legal) thought, Shaykh Adel said, "We will see in just this alone, how close they really are. Things are laid out so clearly."
He detailed that in all four schools, the start of the month is established (based on physically seeing the moon) in one of two ways. If the moon is seen on the 29th day (30th night), then the fast of Ramadan would start the next day. In the event that the moon is not seen that night, then the 30 days of fasting in the month would be completed. The slight differences among the schools of thought arise on the number of witnesses needed to confirm the sighting according to the conditions of the sky. In the Hanafi school, if the sky is very clear, then the sighting of one trustworthy Muslim is enough to establish the start of the month. If conditions are not clear, then at least 2 or 3 people's sighting would be needed. In the Maliki school, the moon must be seen by a lot of people when clear, or at least by 2 people when unclear. The Shafi'ee school requires just one witness regardless of the extent of cloud. The Hanbali school is close to the Shafi'ee ruling, except there is an extra stipulation out of cautiousness, that if the moon is not seen in cloudy skies, then it is considered "wajib" or mandatory to fast the following day.
Shaykh Adel said some of those who follow calculations claim that following moon-sighting takes one backwards in an age when everyone is using technology. They also cite evidences from the Quran where the word "hisaab" is present and take that as the equivalent of calculations.
"People say we use 'hisaab' in prayer so why not in fasting? " said Shaykh Adel. "(They say) Do we go and check the zenith? Do you see the sun set below the horizon? We are relying on calculations (to determine these timings)."
He went on to explain that the timings of the daily prayers have been tied to the movements of the sun in the sky, but fasting has been attached to the sighting of the moon. He explained that even linguistically, the Arabic word 'hilal' refers to the raised voices of people upon seeing the moon.
"We should understand that the basis of all this is upon the sight of the moon and not upon the birth of the moon," said Shaykh Adel, as he explained the distinction between the two phenomena. "When the sun's light radiates on the moon, that's when you see it. The birth of the moon is based on what the astronomers have pinpointed. When the birth of the moon takes place in a certain night, we might see it or not see it. But fasting is based on seeing the 'hilal', not on the birth of the moon. If we base the beginning of the moon on the moon that is 'falaki' and not on the 'hilal' then we are moving away from the Quran, the sunnah and the 'ulema'."
The final speaker on the forum, Imam Javid, started his talk by reinforcing the concept that the "hilal" is something that must be seen. He referred to the Prophetic sunnah of saying a supplication upon sighting the "hilal". Towards the end of the supplication, the moon is directly addressed while saying, "Your Lord and our Lord is Allah."
"How can he (the Prophet) be addressing it (the moon) when it is not there?" asked Imam Javid.
"So many masajid follow calculations with the disguise of following moon-sighting. (They will) announce after maghrib (to make it appear as such). This is the extent of the disease," said Imam Javid. "Those masajid who follow calculations or follow calculations under disguise of moon-sighting should seek forgiveness (since) this is against the Quran and sunnah."
Imam Javid explained that there was a meeting held at the Muslim World League in Saudi Arabia in 2012 in which the most prominent Islamic scholars from around the world were invited to speak and discuss this very issue of moon-sighting and calculations. The scholars were all given the ability to send in their notes and viewpoints beforehand to allow everyone ample time to think over each presentation.
"The most prominent 'ulema' of the world were there," said Imam Javid. "I have the hand written notes and minutes from the meeting. This meeting went on for days."
Imam Javid summarized that three possible options regarding this issue were presented before the scholars in the meeting. The first option involved using calculations. This was rejected by the majority of the gathering as not being a valid option. The second option was to make Saudi Arabia the criterion. It was decided that if this were to be done then countries east of Saudi Arabia would have a problem due to the time differences. The third option was to go with global sighting which conforms to the criteria outlined by the shariah. The Muslim World League gathering came to the conclusion that this third option was the long term solution to this issue.
"This is the opinion that the majority of them lean towards," said Imam Javid. "If the moon is sighted in any part of the world, and the sighting is authenticated and conforms with the criteria outlined by the shariah, then every country west of that should follow the decision of that country."
Imam Javid explained that the process of authenticating the sighting is dependent on many factors such as establishing the authenticity of the witnesses, the number of people who saw it, the different places it was sighted and several other guidelines. He said a body, such as a moon-sighting committee, would have to make sure that the criteria were being followed (as in the case of sightings in non-Muslim lands).
"People (who agree with calculations) say scholars have closed the doors of 'ijtihad', " explained Imam Javid. "When the Quran and sunnah are there, there is no room to do 'ijtihad'. 'Ijtihad' (on this issue) has been taken all the way up to the general body of ('ulema') of the world and it has been rejected. Once it is rejected it cannot be followed. The 'ulema' of this ummah cannot gather upon error."
"If we want to bring this moon-sighting to a conclusion (that is, to all masajid who go with the majority) we need to establish moon-sighting committees to the south of us and to the east of us, so if people sight the moon and give 'shahadah' according to the criteria of 'shahadah' , we can accept that sighting," explained Imam Javid.
During the question-answer session afterwards, Imam Mikaeel Smith explained the difference between unity and uniformity of the ummah on this issue. The Quran and the sunnah are what unite us as Muslims. However, seeking uniformity is something completely different. Imam Javid expounded on this afterwards with the Muslim Link.
Imam Javid concluded that as long as people were following moon-sighting it was correct, whether it is local or global.
"Where Allah wanted uniformity He addressed it, such as in Hajj and Arafah where we all stand as one with no distinction, or in salah where we stand in one row with no gaps. We know from the sahabah that they were united but not uniform. Where Allah has kept it simple, keep it simple," said Imam Javid. "If North America wanted to be uniform in matters of the moon, then the only way is to go with established global moon-sighting."
One of the questions that was asked by a member of the audience during the forum was, "What are the options for a community when the board of trustees follows calculations for Eid-ul-Fitr and the Saudi Announcement for Eid-ul-Adha"?"
Imam Javid addressed this question by saying, "There is an issue of 'amanah'. The board's duty is to acknowledge authentic voices of scholars. The imam is an alim of 'deen' and understands the shariah well. They must let him voice his opinion and must not put pressure on him. This is haram. If such a committee is doing that, it is the duty of the public to put proper people in position. Calculations have no basis. This is 'dhulm', oppression which cannot be done. To impose this type of opinion on the imam or the community is betraying trust."
The Muslim Link spoke with members of the audience after the forum. One member who lives in the Gaithersburg area of Maryland expressed frustration at the position of ISNA (the Islamic Society of North America) on this issue. "ISNA is following calculations and so many of our scholars go there (to the annual convention) to speak. Our scholars have to join together and convince ISNA to change, since many people blindly follow ISNA."
Many audience members were positively excited that such a forum was organized to try to bring these issues to the forefront and attempt to resolve them through common discourse between the area masajid.
"Every journey of a thousand miles starts with one step," said Imam Javid in reference to this forum. "This is a big step. First, you fix your house. When the house is fixed, then you fix the community. If we imams in Maryland come together, then we can go to the 'ulema' and imams in Virginia.