Followers

03 September, 2012

Star Wars - In the Name of God


Today the most common calendar in the world is the Gregorian calendar. It is also known as the Western Calendar or the Christian Calendar. The reason for calling it the Christian Calendar or Gregorian calendar is because it was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 AC. Julian calendar preceded the Gregorian calendar, and was slightly adjusted to rectify the 11 minute error in the Julian calendar. Julian calendar was introduced in 46 BC as a reformed version of the Roman calendar. The pre-Julian calendars went through various reforms as well and the first Roman calendar is believed to have been based on one of the Greek Lunar Calendars.

These Solar Calendars are based on calculating the solar (tropical) year which is the length of time taken by the Sun to return to the same position. As a point of reference, solar year is referred to as the length of time between two respective vernal equinoxes or summer equinoxes.  The reason why the Solar Calendars went through various changes is because reforms were introduce to rectify the mistakes of the previous calendar and approximate the Solar (tropical) year better. In the internationally accepted Gregorian calendar of today the average length of a Calendar year is 365 days, 5 hours, 49 minutes and 12 seconds as opposed to 365 days and 6 hours in the Julian calendar. The tiny Gregorian reform introduced in 1582 might seem a nit-picking attempt on a quick look but a mathematical insight shows that the correction is fairly important. Many countries of western Europe, deeming it ‘theological inconsistent’, did not accept the calendar at first and when they finally decided to accept the correction in 1923 they had to drop 13 days to make the calendars coincide to make up for the accumulated error. Various other changes had been made to these calendars over-time and the globally followed Gregorian calendar has a long history of various amendments before it took the shape that we are familiar with today. The naming of the months, the order of the months and the starting month of the year etc. have been changed numerous times over the last two millenniums or so. Furthermore, various versions of these solar calendars have been in use throughout the world.

The Eastern Orthodox Catholic Church that is dominant in the Eastern Europe still uses the Julian calendar to calculate the day of Easter and it did not accept the reform in 1923. As a result, every year, there are two Easter dates, a western Easter date and an eastern Easter date.  In-fact this divide has led to old and new calendarist groups who reject the leaders of opposing church and some even reject the baptism performed by opposing church. Old Calendarists believe that the acceptance of the Gregorian reform results in theological issues. Some Old Calendarists dispel the acceptors of the Gregorian reform from the main stream Christianity and label them as apostates.

So, calendar is a serious business. Calendar dates are not only useful fiscally or in every-day communication, they are important in commemorating the days of the past, performing religious duties and celebrating festivals specific times of the year. Imagine a world of chaos without calendar uniformity. Imagine a world where Sabbath falls on different days in different parts of the world, a world where 25th December is celebrated according to various calendars in different parts of the world in the name of accuracy. Even the current Gregorian calendar is not fully accurate, and there have been propositions for its amendment as well. It is quite hard to calculate with accuracy which day of the year it was when Easter happened or when some other famous religious event happened. Calendars have gone through all sorts of changes over the past few millennia. Keeping in mind all those changes to reach the exact date of any religious or historical event is a task that might require years of research, and  any result in the end will still not be free from doubt.

The same goes for the lunar calendar. Lunar Calendar is based on the cycles of the lunar phase. Most lunar calendars are lunisolar, in which months are calculated based on lunar cycle but intercalation is done to make them synchronize with the solar month. Various festivals and public holidays around the globe are celebrated according to the lunar calendar. Islamic Calendar is purely lunar and it does not intercalate to synchronize itself with solar calendar. Hence, different seasons occur during different times of the lunar year. There are about 12 lunations in a solar year, meaning thereby that the moon completes is phases about 12 times in a solar year. And Islamic Lunar Year, hence, comprises of 12 months in a year. Astronomically, an average lunar month is 29.53 days. Astronomical lunar year uses these calculations with months being 29 and 30 days long alternatively, and adding a day every 3 year to make calculations more accurate just like the leap year in the solar calendar. An Islamic Calendar however is different. There is no pre-decided number of days for a month. Such has been the case in various cultures throughout the world history. Hence, there was the need of deciding when a lunar month begins. In the past the common method was to decide the start of the new lunar month on sighting of the lunar crescent.  Majority of the Muslims have been following the same criteria since the beginning of Islam.



As the Islamic empire expanded, Muslims started to have differences in the way starting of a month was decided. As the month begins with the lunar crescent sighting, Muslim scholars of past and present have enumerated lengthy details on what constitutes a legal sighting and what doesn’t. Hence, Crescent Sighting is what decides the dates of the Islamic Festivals of ‘Eid ul Fitr and ‘Eid ul Adha, and that is what decides the dates of Pilgrimage (Hajj) etc.  This matter is not just confined to a couple of months, rather there are days of significance in almost all months of the year. For instance, following the advice of the Prophet various Muslims fast on the 13th, 14th and 15th of every lunar month.  Despite of the grave significance of calendar in Islam, Muslims have had disputes on the right criteria for lunar crescent sighting since centuries. There are debates on theological status of using astronomical calculations for lunar crescent sightings. Furthermore, there are debates on where a particular lunar sighting ends and where a new lunar sighting is required.

Qur’an does talk about the fixed perpetual motion of the astronomical objects including the Moon (Surah Yaaseen 36:40). It does talk about the phases of the moon (Surah Yaaseen 36:39), but it doesn’t give any direct guideline on how to calculate the beginning of a lunar month. It does mention crescents as ‘’the measures of time for people and for Pilgrimage’’ (Surah al Baqarah 2:189). However, in the most authentic books of Hadith, Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih al-Muslim, Ibn ‘Umar narrates from Prophet Muhammad that he said “We are an unlettered nation, we do not write or calculate. The month is such-and-such or such-and-such – meaning sometimes it is twenty-nine and sometimes it is thirty.” In another narration Prophet Muhammad said ,’’Begin fasting when you see the new moon, and end your fasting when you see the new moon again. If it is overcast, continue your fasting for thirty day’’.

Over the years, most of the effort has been focused on literal exposition of the words of the Prophet, and strict adherence to what he did and what his companions did after his death. Nevertheless, there has been no general agreement as to what constitutes a legal moon sighting and the domain of a single moon sighting and where a new moon sighting is required. Many opine that a legal moon sighting is valid in the domain of a state, while in another state another moon sighting would be required. But, there had been no general agreement on what an Islamic State is. In-fact, a careful inspection of majority of the definitions reveals that an Islamic state is nowhere to be found in the current world. As a result, some Muslim countries use the local sighting, some others use the sighting of Saudi Arabia and others rely on astronomical calculations. In-fact, there are various differences with-in the countries as well. Although, in Pakistan almost everyone believes in Local Sighting, yet there are almost two separate ‘Eid every year. In UK, some mosques follow Saudi Arabia, some other follow Morocco and some others follow local sightings. Those countries that rely on astronomical calculations also have different standards for that and even in those countries there are group which deem astronomical calculations as theologically invalid and rely on sighting with the ‘naked eye’.  

Muslims have had a special link with astronomy since the very beginning. Not only have we needed lunar sightings for calculations of beginning of lunar months, the five daily prayers are based on the movement of the Sun and the time of fasting are based on Sun-set. Sunset, Sunrise, the astronomical twilight, the Zodical twilight etc. are of great importance for Muslims. Furthermore, direction of Qiblah (K’abaa in Makkah) is also required for prayer. Furthermore, the Qur’an mentions the cosmos and astronomical objects as the signs of God. Muslims in particular and human beings in general are instructed to ponder over the harmony in the universe and guided, carefully planned motion of cosmological objects. Also, Qur’an mentions various astronomical facts that were unknown to humans at the times of its revelation highlighting its miraculous nature and its divine source. For instance, Qur’an sheds light on the creation of the universe and the big bang, the spherical nature of the Earth, the revolution of the Earth and the nature of Moon’s reflected light. These astronomical phenomenon were unknown to humans at the time of revelation of Qur’an.

Although, Muslims have excelled in the field of astronomy in the past, now they seem to be far behind in that race. Not only have the left the quest for discovering the mysteries of the cosmos and pondering over signs of God in the starry heavens above, they have rejected the use of modern day astronomical findings in settling their disputes. Not only are there centuries old disputes on sighting of the moon, there are disputes on certain prayer timings as well. Muslims have stretched throughout the globe, yet they celebrate their annual festivals on varying dates. In-fact, there are instances where Muslims in the same home celebrate ‘Eid on different dates as they attach themselves with varying schools of thought. The ‘luminaries’ of these schools of thoughts use astronomical findings to reject the opposing views and reject crescent sightings as ‘false sightings’ but there has been little or no effort to develop a standard astronomical definition of moon sighting to end this chaos. Those who call for the use of astronomical calculations are disregarded as those who oppose the ‘clear commandments’, although, there is no unequivocal commandment to follow ‘naked eye’ sighting through all ages, times and locations. And those who call for global sighting are shunned as those who oppose the way of the Prophet, although there is no clear commandment regarding where a sighting end and where a new sighting is required. So, the discipline in the universe, that Qu’ran drives our attention to, has not forced the Muslim luminaries to establish a standard astronomical definition for what a crescent lunar sighting is and is applicable for which area. This cosmological harmony, that the Qur’an talks of several times, has not pushed the Muslims to look for a unified calendar, rather Muslim luminaries seem contented with the current scenario: the moon sighting wars, the calendar chaos and the divide, even on festivals.  

Over the past couple of decades, there has been a call for global moon sighting which has been shunned by a common argument that the some companions of the Prophet did not do it. One can go at length at the exposition of the Islamic texts as to how it actually calls for a unified sighting, and Islam gave no boundary for a moon sighting. A single moon sighting had to be trusted by whosoever got the news. There are authentic reports that a caravan coming towards Madinah sighted the moon, but the Muslims in Madinah could not because it was overcast and when Prophet Muhammad was told about that he accepted the sighting of the people of the Caravan. On the topic of global sighting, there are opposing and rather unequivocal reports from the companions of the Prophet but  one may argue that if a boundary was desired then Prophet Muhammad would have laid down its definition clearly. The benefits of a Global Moon Sighting and a unified calendar are buried under the lengthy debates trying to reconcile the contradictory narrations and exposing the wrong moon sightings in Sa’udi Arabia. In this age where the world has become a global village, Muslim luminaries are bent on defining boundaries for even the Calendar. Islam, on the other hand does recognize administrative (provincial) boundaries, but continually pushes the Muslim for a unified state. Muslims are ordered to remain united under one state in hundreds of sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. But, Muslims, unfortunately have fallen into traps of literal expositions of the text and scholarly rivalries and are bent upon having a divided calendar and totally ignore the calls for a global moon sighting. In-fact, some even label the call for a unified calendar as a bid’ah, a theological innovation of heretical nature.

As for the other major problem of whether or not to rely on astronomical calculations, majority of the luminaries and the Muslims do not accept if the moon birth or possibility of lunar crescent sighting is calculated using astronomical calculations. They emphasize that the orders of the Prophet were to ‘see’ the moon with the ‘naked eye’. However, they do utilize the astronomical calculations to find the possibility of sighting the moon. They also utilize the astronomical calculations to find out where it’s more likely to sight the moon. The use of telescope is common as well. However, they still continue to emphasize that astronomical calculations cannot be relied on, as the moon has to be sighted by the human eye. Ironically, the same group of people and ‘scholars’ use the astronomical calculations to prove that so and so who claims to have sighted the moon is telling a lie because sighting was impossible based on the Danjon limit or other criteria. So, as illogical as it may seem, in their views perhaps, calculations cannot be used to record a new crescent sighting but they can be used to reject it. To add to the mystery, the same group of people and ‘scholars’ rely on modern day calculations to calculate the prayer timings, to find the direction of kiblah etc. If they were to expose the linguistics of prophetic narrations they could have easily concluded that one has to actually see the Sun and evaluate the prayer timings and one has to actually find the direction of Qiblah using star positions.

So, the problem is not really astronomical or even scriptural. The problem is with the irrational mentality of the luminaries and with the blind following of the common folk. For centuries, we have delved into volumes of commentaries on exposition of Prophetic traditions in the name of knowledge. We will go into linguistic and historical depths of the words and meanings. Yet, we have failed to derive the first lesson of Islam: Unity. The more commentaries we write, the more divided we become. As harsh is it may seem, the logical conclusions are only two:  either there is a problem with the scriptures that we use or with the way we use those scriptures. If all the discussion revolves around the primary sources, why is there so much divide? Why we have hundreds of factions all of which claim to follow the primary sources? And, some luminaries continue to fool us with the notion that this divide is not serious and just revolves around tiny matters, whereas everybody knows that we have divisions on how to pray, when to pray, our calendar and almost everything. We have grave differences on matter of halal and haram. We are yet to decide what the definition of an Islamic State is. Similarly, the problem of moon sighting is just a follow up of this mental construct and general air that surrounds us.

Prophet Muhammad could have never guided the nation directly as to which means to decide when sighting the moon in21st century. He could not have advised us on whether to use the Danjon limit, the formula develop by Yallop or keep on relying on naked eye sightings. The beauty of the Islamic Law lies in the things left open, with a continued stress on the need for unity. As quoted earlier, Prophet Muhammad once said, “We are an unlettered nation, we do not write or calculate. The month is such-and-such or such-and-such – meaning sometimes it is twenty-nine and sometimes it is thirty.” Now, the nation is no more unlettered. The reason given for relying merely on naked eye sighting does not exist, yet we are bent upon behaving like unlettered. One can find the ‘detailed linguistics’ expositions of this statement, buried under layers of details explaining how this narration does not give the ‘excuse’ to use astronomical sighting. This example, assures me further, the problem lies with the mentality that we have developed over the ages. The way we put all rationality aside when we discuss the matters of religions, even those which were left open. Perhaps, the luminaries have a fear that if the use of modern day research is incorporated into matters of religion it might take away the status that they enjoy. And perhaps, the same reason exists for no call of unity among various schools of thoughts. Perhaps they do not want to risk the blind following that they enjoy, which might not exist under a united school of thought.

Unity does not mean uniformity, indeed. Creativity and innovation is a product of differences of thoughts. So, uniformity is neither practical nor desired. However, there is a difference between a harmonious state of positive tension and difference, and a violent state of aggressive tensions. Our history is clear as it could be that we suffer from a divide that has taken away our soul. We are in no sense:  united. We have had factions of Muslims carrying on massacre of other Muslims in name of purification. We know what goes on all around the world-wide web, and how followers of particular school of thoughts publicize material of their leaders which contains harsh, brutal and extreme criticism of opposing sects. In what way is such a difference productive? Surely, those who are in the business, know more than us, what this divide has done to us, is doing to us, and might to do us if it is not checked. Then why is there is a silence on these major topics? And why there is just continuous exposition of religious laws which have turned it into nothing short of a mystery.

Before the times of Prophet Muhammad, the Arabs used to play with their calendar. They also used to add some months to harmonize it with the solar calendar, so that Pilgrimage (Hajj) always falls in the same season. Islam shunned this practice and it was discontinued. However, Muslims kept on following the calendar although it was ‘wrong’.  Hence, Muslims fasted in the month that would not have been Ramadan, technically. There was no effort whatsoever, from Prophet Muhammad to add or subtract some correction factor to get to the correct month or the correct date. For the wisest man of all times, that was not an issue. Instead he once said ‘’Fasting Starts on the day you start fasting, and ‘Eid ul-Fitr is on the day you end your fasting ‘’, meaning that the importance does not lie in correct sighting of the moon, or astronomical correction of the sighted moon or even in the way the moon is sighted, the importance lies in when ‘you’ start fasting. It does not matter in the sight of God, if the day you started fasting you were astronomically wrong to do so. Another important lesson in the narration is the use of a collective ‘you’. He didn’t divide the Muslim community into factions and if all Muslims start fasting on the same day using the global sighting that would be the day when fasting started, even if astronomically at some place moon would be sighted a day later.

For the much required unity in Calendar the idea of Global Moon Sighting is essential. It is easily implementable in the times of media and technology, it is supported by the primary texts and there are many sane voices out their expressing the idea unequivocally. Furthermore, whether or not to rely on astronomical calculations is something that the Muslim nation could decide. But to keep on delving into layers of expositions of prophetic traditions is not the solution. Prophet Muhammad merely gave us a direction on how to start the month ‘by sighting the moon’. There are various other ways in which a lunar month is defined, which do exist, even today in various cultures and scientific circles. In some cultures the lunar calendar month runs from full moon to full moon. In ancient Egypt the beginning of the new month was decided on the visibility of the moon just before sunrise, if the moon was not visible before sunrise it was thought as the beginning of the new lunar month. In contrast with these systems Islamic Lunar month begins when the new crescent is sighted. Now, how to sight the moon is not the main question. Whether you use naked eye, a telescope or astronomical calculations to calculate the birth of the crescent or you use astronomical calculations to calculate when the new moon is likely to be seen is irrelevant if one understands the Islamic spirit in general. What really matters is that Muslims around the globe use the same standard for that. How can we expect to invite people to join us, when we cannot even decide on a single calendar and when we are even divided on our festivals? Does not the wide spread difference of opinion on what constitutes a legal sighting and what does not prove that Islam left the matter open? Does it not prove that we are going into linguistic expositions of prophetic narrations but forgetting the spirit behind them?

In Pakistan, people living in the western province, sight the moon one day earlier and the sighting is disregarded by the other parts as an ‘impossible sighting’. In a community of billions of people, it is possible that someone would lie about sighting the moon for some reason. Astronomical calculations can give us an idea where the probability of sighting the moon is very low, but such models are some-what incomplete and there is no model that considers all the factors that come into play while deciding the possibility of a lunar crescent sighting. There are various recent researches which highlight that with evidence (See Qureshi, 2006). So, those who opine that the astronomical calculations are not accurate or keep on changing, do have a point, but the chances of error greatly reduce when using the astronomical calculations. And, once asking, the main issue is not about ‘accuracy’, it’s about unity. Various astronomical studies predict the first sighting of the new crescent. This research is going on since the time of the Babylonians. The recent methods utilize the angular separation of the Sun and the Moon, the altitude difference between the Sun and the Moon, the relative azimuths of the Sun and the Moon and the width of the crescent. There are various other researches which call for consideration of the height above sea level and atmospheric effects to improve the prediction. Danjon limit is commonly used around the Muslim world to label any sighting as ‘impossible’. However, there are various researches which show variations from the famously known Danjon limit (See Abdul Haq,2005 ; Amir ,2012). 

Out of astronomical curiosity, to ponder over the signs of God, to establish a unified standard for the start of Islamic months, why doesn’t the Muslim community join this struggle of improving on the existing models that predict the sighting of the moon? Why is majority of the effort directed at expositions of existing texts and there is no call for new research to resolve our disputes in a rational manner using the modern day research? I wish we could stop going round in circles, and we come out of this paradigm in which rationality is put aside when religious laws are discussed. I wish for a paradigm shift in which our disputes are resolved not just through exposition of primary sources but also through healthy scientific discussions. I wish we realize that our long history of disputes prove to us that we have gone wrong somewhere in the way we deal with the primary texts. And, I wish that we agree to move forward to resolve those errors, not to be uniformed, but to live with healthy diversity and not with theologically sparked factions. And, I really wish that we stopped putting words in God’s mouth, and stopped making his laws sound so irrational.

May Allah give us all the understanding of religion (Aameen)

Note :  I have avoided giving reference to every single thing quoted above, and I've given reference only where I thought it necessary. Also, before you start thinking based on a cursory reading that I've overlooked the geographical factors or astronomical details or I've ignored the details of Fiqh, kindly read it through and do some research and pondering on your own. 




Bibliography:
  1.  Holy Qur’an
  2.  Various Books of Hadith: Sahih al Bukhari, Sahih al Muslim, Jami’ at-Tirmidhi, Sunan Abu Dawud etc.
  3. Hasanzadeh, Amir, “Study of Danjon Limit in Moon Crescent Sighting”, Astrophysics and Space Science, 339 (2012), 211-221
  4.  Sultan, Abdul Haq, “Explaining and Calculating the Length of the New Crescent Moon”, The Observatory, 125 (2005), 227-231
  5. Qureshi, Muhammad Shahid & Khan, Nasiruddin, “A Comparative Study of Arithmetic, Observational and Predicted Lunar Calendar for Pakistan for Years 2000-2004”, Journal of Basic & Applied Sciences, 2 (2006), 91-103

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3 comments:

madiha said...

In the starting it was a bit difficult to grasp the whole idea as things were going on historical notes but the point that this article raised is quite valid

Muhammad Awais Tahir said...

Thanks for the input. I really wanted to know how people are perceiving this.

omer said...

Very well written... You should write more of these...!!

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