During Ramadan of 2021, the scholars of SeekersGuidance Arabiyya held daily lessons on various topics throughout the month. The lessons have been translated for the benefit of our English-speaking audience. Shaykh Moayad al-Khalifa gave the second lesson. You can view the video here.
There are a number of approaches to whether or not the calculations should be accepted from Muslim experts in the field. Some said that the scholars of fiqh originally rejected the statements of astrologers (not astronomers). Some contemporary scholars say that those scholars rejected the statements of astrologers who not only relied on calculations but also on jinn. Today’s astronomers, however, have developed a science that is near certain. The chance for the error therein does not exceed a fraction of a percentage. It’s pretty much certain.
The main point is that there are different approaches to this issue. The four main schools, except for an extremely rare minority, say that astronomical calculations are not to be relied upon, even if done by experts and even in their own personal practice of the religion. This is because the Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him, tied the start of the month to sighting only.
He said, “Fast when you see it, and end your fast when you see it. If it is cloudy above you, then estimate it to be thirty.” The Lawgiver also invalidated the practice of calculation when the Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him, said, “We are an unlettered nation; we do not read, and we do not calculate.”
Various Other Opinions
The second opinion is that we may depend on the calculations, but not to mandate any actions. It is permissible, but does it make any action mandatory? No it does not. This is the opinion of Qadi Abdul Jabbar.
The third opinion is that they are relied upon for the practice of the astronomer alone. This is the opinion of Ibn Surayj, one of the major Shafi‘i scholars.
The fourth opinion is that their calculations can be relied upon if they are a large group of astronomy experts. This is the opinion of Muhammad ibn Muqatil al-Razi. The condition is that the majority of them agree.
The fifth opinion is that their calculations may be relied upon unrestrictedly, and this is the opinion of the great Imam al-Subki, one of the major Shafi’i scholars, and he defended this position. A contemporary scholar who held and defended this opinion is Mustafa al-Zarqa, Allah have mercy on him and raise his status.
The View of Shaykh Ahmed Shakir
There is also the great scholar Ahmed Shakir who authored a work on establishing the new moon by calculation. In this book of his, in which he addressed the matter extensively, the summary of his opinion is that it is valid to establish the start of the month by the astronomical calculation, based on the fact that the ruling for establishing it through sighting is conditional.
This is a beautiful angle from Shaykh Ahmed Shakir. He said that the ruling for establishing it through sighting is conditional. The condition being that which the hadith mentioned explicitly. It is that they were an illiterate nation at that time, overwhelmingly unable to read and calculate. He said, “The Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him, attached the ruling of sighting to a condition,” and certainly there is extensive back-and-forth in this discussion, but I am just quoting what he said. I am not claiming it to be the standard. As it is also problematic to make the ruling conditional.
He said, that the Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him, attached the ruling to a condition, which was that they were an illiterate people who did not read nor calculate. The Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him, did not want us to remain a nation who does not read or calculate; rather the first action that the Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him, took was that he commanded some captives to teach the Muslims how to read as a ransom for themselves. Thus, the ruling is tied to a condition. And it is known that a ruling is affirmed when its conditional cause is present, and is removed in its absence.
He then held that we should rely on the astronomical calculations by a trustworthy and large group of experts, as the ruling that was tied to the condition that the hadith itself stated clearly is now absent. That cause is that they were an illiterate nation who did not read nor calculate. Now we are a nation who calculates and knows the phases of the moon precisely. Astronomy is now taught in non-advanced settings as well – at intermediate levels. Now we have scholars who are astute experts and who are also righteous and God-fearing.
Thus, he says that the ruling is eliminated when the conditional cause is eliminated, as a ruling is tied to the presence and absence of its conditional cause.
A Solitary View
This is also the opinion that Imam al-Qaradawi, Allah preserve him, holds as well. But he said that their calculations are to be taken in denying a possibility only (and perhaps we can take this as a new opinion), not in affirming the moon, as we should remain dependent upon confirming the moon through sighting only. And so al-Qaradawi combined between the two views. He did not negate the sighting, as Ahmed Shakir did, but he did not choose to rely on it completely.
He says that if it is certainly confirmed that it is impossible to see the new moon on a certain day, but witnesses come to confirm that they did see it, we would reject their claim. And so we take the calculations of astronomers when it comes to negation. We can confirm that this day is not Ramadan, but we cannot act upon their calculation to confirm the start of the month. He cites as proof for this hadith, “If it is cloudy above you, then count it,” without any addition of the words “as thirty.”
Shaykh Ahmad Shakir attempted to act upon both narrations, as why should we say that one narration is an explanation for another when we can say that the hadith that instructs to count it as thirty is meant for a population that does not have any access to astronomical calculations. The second narration that only says, “count it,” means to count it according to the phases of the moon, and so it means “calculate the phases of the moon and the new moon.” They said that we should understand the first narration to apply to a population with no access to scholars, while the second narration, which states, “count it,” without any addition, is for those who know the calculations of the phases of the moon. This is an address to experts in that science.
Other than Shaykh al-Qaradawi, they said that the calculations may be relied upon with two conditions: 1) that a large group of them agree and are trustworthy, and 2) that this is only when the sky is cloudy. If the sky is clear then their calculations are not accepted.
The Point of This Discussion
I spoke at length on this issue in order to reach a conclusion. This is a matter that is discussed and disagreed upon at great lengths. And many countries have adopted the third opinion: they rely on the astronomical calculations. This is especially the case in Europe and Turkey, where they rely on the astronomical calculations. Turkey even founded a large organization, that includes the most respected experts in astronomy who are trustworthy and have reached extensive degrees of precision in their skill of calculation. This organization includes many scholars from many different Islamic countries. There are many people of knowledge in this organization, people who are trusted and pious.
And – here is the point – the country of Turkey depends on this calculation and chose it as their standard. They adopted the opinion of some scholars, even if their opinion is contradictory to that of the majority of scholars. And as the principle states: The judge’s decision eliminates disagreement. If a judge chooses an opinion that is disagreed upon, the choice of the ruler and the judge becomes the standard. It is to be as if there is no other opinion other than that one thereafter.
The issue becomes then as if there is only one opinion after it is choses by the judge. This is more conducive to preserving the executive power of the state and preserving its respect, and is more conducive to the unity of the Muslims, allowing them to stay together and avoid dispersion. It cannot be fathomed that after the official judge makes a decision that any other opinion be entertained, or that each group takes a different opinion.
In Turkey, for example, if some were to take the opinion of the Shafi’is and some the opinion of the Hanafis, chaos would ensue everywhere. And so you would have Eid on one day in Faith, for example, while the people in Gebze are fasting. This would be chaos! This is unacceptable according to the Sharia.
Elimination of Confusion
This is why of the most beautiful principles of Islam is that which states that a judges decision eliminates disagreement and removes confusion. Based on this, if the ruler chooses any of the aforementioned opinions (either the opinion of the overwhelming majority that the new moon is only established through the two standard methods, or the minority opinion that the new moon can be established through calculation as held by Muhammad bin Muqatil, Ibn Surayj, and al-Subki, and more contemporary scholars), then the Muslims must follow what the judge and ruler of their locale has chosen. This is stronger and more conducive to the unity of the Muslims and helps avoid dispersion, and it helps silence the noise and useless discussions.
And as I said, it would not be accepted within Islam, which calls the Muslim to be one nation in all of its matters, for people to take different opinions, resulting in some fasting while others are celebrating, each of them refuting each other and creating a mess at which our enemies would laugh. This is how the tenants of a nation are dissolved, and its reverence is lost, and the Muslims show themselves in an unbefitting light. And so the decision of a judge eliminates all disagreement, and we are to follow what the official judges and ruler choose in our countries.
And all praise is due to Allah, Lord of all creation.