The Scholars’ Methodologies for Confirming Ramadan

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 first lesson. You can view the video here.

In the name of Allah, the Most Merciful. All praise is due to Allah, the Lord of all creation, plentifully, purely, and full of blessings. Peace and blessings be upon our respected Muhammad, the paragon of virtuous character, and upon all of his family and companions.

With the start of Ramadan approaching, I wish you all a blessed Sha‘ban and ask Allah to help us reach Ramadan and to help us fast, pray, protect our gaze, and guard what we say. We ask Allah to begin this month for us and all Muslims worldwide with goodness and blessings, remove our trials and relieve the Muslims of the illnesses, hardships, and grief that has befallen us.

Fast When You See It

With Ramadan approaching, we must learn how the month of Ramadan begins and is confirmed. The Hanafi scholars mention in their books that Ramadan may be confirmed in two ways. The first way is to see the new moon after the sunset on the twenty-ninth day of Sha‘ban. It is a communal obligation for Muslims to search for the new moon at that time. If it is confirmed that they saw the moon, then that night is the first night of Ramadan, and they will pray the Tarawih prayer, as the Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him, said, “Fast when you see it.”

The complete hadith is, “Fast when you see it. And end your fast when you see it. If it is cloudy above you, then estimate it,” as it says in one narration. The Hanafi scholars say that what is meant by the words “estimate it” in that narration means to complete the full number, which is 30 days. Another narration says: “If it is cloudy above you, then complete the month of Sha’ban as 30 days.” They say that the meaning of the previous narration is made clear by this narration.

The second method is to count Sha‘ban as thirty days. If the sky is cloudy and we cannot see the moon, we take this second method, which the Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him, made clear to us when he said, “If it is cloudy above you, then complete the month of Sha‘ban as 30.” So if the moon is blocked by clouds, dust, or anything else, we complete the month of Sha‘ban as thirty by unanimous agreement. 

Why is this? The Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him, said, “We are an unlettered nation. We do not read, and we do not calculate.” Then he gestured with his hands, saying, “The month is like this, like this, like this,” and he indicated the number thirty, “or it is like this, like this, like this,” folding in his blessed thumb. He confirmed that we do not establish the beginning of the month through calculation methods but rather by counting it to be 29 or 30 days. 

There are two methods, then. Either we see the moon, or if the sky is cloudy, then we count Sha‘ban to be thirty days, and the following day is the first day of Ramadan. This is because the month is never anything but 29 or 30 days according to the explicit words of Allah’s Messenger, blessings and peace be upon him. 

Witness Reports Are Not Testimony

If anyone sees the moon – if any witness sees the moon – how can we confirm it? We learned that the methods are either through sighting or counting Sha‘ban to be 30 days, with the first day of Ramadan to follow. This witness either saw it while the sky was unclear or while the sky was clear. Suppose the sky was unclear due to clouds, dust, or anything else. In that case, the judge may accept the testimony of a single person who is pious, even if his righteousness is not apparent, meaning that his state is unknown.

This is because the confirmation for the moon of Ramadan is considered to be a report of information, not legal testimony. It is considered information because it is a religious matter. And as it does not relate to any other individual’s rights, personal gains, or benefits, it is unlike someone’s testimony for or against another. So when they gave it the status of sharing information, they said that the conditions for testimony are not required. When it comes to the singular reports of information, we accept the reports of pious people.

How many examples are there in the Sunna of singular reports? Many. Much of the Sunna consists of singular reports. When the Hanafi scholars say that the report here is the report of information, not legal testimony, they chose to accept the report of a single pious person, even if the extent of their piety is unknown, even if it were a woman, and even if it were a slave. They also did not stipulate the explicit formula of giving testimony. A witness doesn’t need to say, “I testify…” because it is a report of information. So they considered it to be a report and treated its conditions as such. A report is accepted if provided by someone pious. 

Piety, which is considered in addition to full intellect and maturity, is when someone’s good deeds are greater in number than their bad deeds. It is further defined as a quality that facilitates a person in cognizance of Allah and good behavior. Cognizance of Allah is according to the Sharia, while good behavior is according to custom. 

But why would they accept the report of someone whose piety is unknown? It is because the default for a Muslim is that he is pious. This applies when the sky is unclear and is specific to the moon of Ramadan. 

The New Moon of Shawwal

As for the new moon of Shawwal, there must be a testimony of two freemen, or one freeman and two free women who are all pious. Why is this? They give the reason that the moon for the end of fasting affects the rights of people and pertains to their benefits. It is a day of eating, which pertains to the rights of people. It is a day of celebration, a holiday. The end of fasting is part of the rights of human beings and their benefits, so it requires legal testimony. Its conditions are legal testimony, namely the number of witnesses, their piety, and their free status. There must be two men, or one man and two women. They must be pious, and they must be free. And for the moon to end Ramadan, the explicit formula for testimony is a condition because it is a legal testimony, again because it is pertinent to the rights of human beings. The date of Eid al-Adha is the same as well, as it pertains to the rights of human beings in allowing them to eat the meat of the sacrifice. 

That is the case when the sky is unclear. But if the sky is clear without any issues, then the month of Ramadan must is confirmed through a large group by which certainty is attained by the judge of the truth of their claim. This is the case for both the start of Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr. If the sky is clear – regardless of whether we wish to establish the start of Ramadan or its end – there must be the testimony of a large group through which certainty of their claim is established. 

Why did they stipulate that it must be a large group? And what is a large group? They differed on this, but the preponderant opinion is that it is at the judge’s discretion. It may be the case that two or three people will come to the judge, and that will establish the start of Ramadan, while another judge will not even with one hundred witnesses. This is because people change with time and place.

The reason for stipulating a large group is because nothing was preventing the sighting as the sky is clear, the people’s visions are sound, and the desires to establish the new moon of Eid are strong. With all of this, it would be impossible for only some people to see the moon. So if only a few were to see it, this would be a sign of a mistake. Thus, they stipulated that it be a large group. 

Two Is Enough

It is narrated from Abu Hanifa that the testimony of two is enough as a minimum threshold. They must be two free pious men or one man and two women. This is the report that Ibn Nujaym gave preference to in al-Bahr al-Ra’iq. It is also the opinion that Ibn Abidin chose in al-Durr al-Mukhtar, citing the lack of interest people have in seeking out the new moon at the time. If we were to consider the necessity of a large group, the moon is not be established until two or three nights after Ramadan. Since the interest in seeking out the moon, the testimony of two witnesses should be enough. 

These two methods are the ones that are mentioned in the Hanafi madhhab. They did not mention a third. The third method, which is to calculate the start or end of the month of Ramadan through astronomical calculations, is actually not mentioned at all in most of the core Hanafi texts, indicating that they did not consider it to be valid nor did they choose it in their fatwas. This is the predominant opinion in the Hanafi madhhab. 

So there are two methods: the first being the sighting of the moon, and the second being to count the month of Sha‘ban as thirty days if there was no sighting. The third method was not mentioned in books like Kanza al-Daqa’iq at all. This is an indication that it is not the standard opinion, nor is it valid to us. Ibn Abidin mentions this, saying that the opinions of those who do calculations are not valid in our madhhab. 

Calculation Does Not Count

Now, can we establish the moons of Eid and Ramadan through astronomical calculation? If the astronomers calculate that the moon will rise anew on a certain night or will not rise, can we depend on or consider or mandate it based on that? Ibn Wahban, in his famous poem “Al-Wahbaniyya,” said, “The word of those who calculate cannot obligate, It is said that it can, while some say it must be predominant.”

In the first statement, Ibn Wahban says that their statement is not relied upon, nor valid, nor proper to obligate fasting nor the end of Ramadan, even if they were pious, trustworthy, and precise in their calculations, and even if they were plenty. This is because the Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him, said, “fast when you see it and end your fast when you see, and if the sky is unclear, then estimate it to be thirty.” The Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him, also made clear that calculation is not to be relied upon. He said, “We are an unlettered nation; we do not read nor calculate. The month is like this, this, and this; or like this, this, and this,” and he folded in his blessed thumb. 

Based on this, the overwhelming majority of scholars, principally all four schools of fiqh say, save a small minority (such as rare Hanafi scholars and rare Shafi‘i scholars who considered the calculations) – all of the Hanafi scholars agree (apart from rare exceptions), and all Shafi‘i scholars agree (apart from rare exceptions) – that the calculations are not to be relied upon, even for the astronomers themselves. They cannot act upon the knowledge that they have attained through this. This is the first statement. 

In the second half of the statement of Ibn Wahban, after mentioning all of that in the first half, he mentioned that “It is said that it can,” indicating that some scholars of fiqh allowed for the calculation to be used. Notice: they allowed that it be used, not to make fasting mandatory. Meaning: it is permissible for you to take their opinion, but is what they say mandating? No, it is not mandatory. But it may be relied upon. 

The difference lies in over-reliance upon the calculations, not whether their calculations can mandate fasting upon the whole ummah based on what they say. This is the opinion taken by Abdul-Jabbar al-Mu’tazili. He allowed acting upon their calculations. 

Expert Testimony?

The last part of the statement says, “Some say it must be predominant.” According to this final statement, some scholars say that the calculations are relied upon only if most of them say it, meaning if a large group of expert Muslim astronomers agree upon the precision of the calculations. They say that their calculations are affirmed by certainty or by a preponderance. This is the view taken by Muhammad ibn Muqatil al-Razi, the great scholar of fiqh. He used to ask them and rely upon their calculation if a large group of them agreed. It was also reported from Ibn Surayj, one of the greatest Shafi‘i scholars, that the calculations of the astronomers may be relied upon and that he used to rely upon their calculations only if the sky was unclear. 

Imam al-Subki, a great scholar of Shafi‘i fiqh, held that the astronomer’s calculations can be taken without restriction. He wrote a short epistle in which he defended this position and mentioned the proofs, including that calculation is definitive proof. The biggest Shafi‘i scholars, such as Ibn Hajar and al-Ramli in his explanation of al-Minhaj, refuted this.

Al-Ramli was asked about the opinion of Imam al-Subki that if there were a sighting of the moon on the thirtieth night, but the astronomers say it was impossible for the moon to be seen, the calculation of the astronomers was to be acted upon. Imam al-Ramli refuted this fatwa and said, “It is the report that must be acted upon, for the report was given definitive status by the Lawgiver.” And so what al-Subki said is rejected, as many of the major Shafi‘i scholars refuted it.