For many new Muslims and your average Muslim the events surrounding the beginning of Ramadan can be extremely confusing. The thing we all learn right away is that ‘moon fighting’ may be a more appropriate term than ‘moon sighting.’ The first thing to realize is that Islamically we follow the hijri calendar system which is a lunar system, as opposed to a solar calendar system. One of the remarkable things about the lunar system is that over a course of a few nights of observation you can pinpoint where you are in the month (what day it is) because each lunar month can only have 29 or 30 days and the shape of the moon tells you where you are in the month (follow this link to learn the valuable skill of tracking time using the moon). The waxing crescent is the beginning of a lunar month (it is the first visibility after the ‘new moon’ lunar phase) and the full moon is the halfway point of a lunar month. The hijri year contains 12 months. The ninth month of the hijri calendar is Ramadan and this is typically when confusion sets in. One suggestion is that Muslims familiarize themselves with the hijri calendar so they know it and follow it as well as they know the solar calendar if not better. Our belief is that the hijri calendar is actually in accordance with the natural state of time as mentioned in the Qur’an (9:36) and through rigorously authenticated sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.
Ok, so why all of the confusion about when the month starts? It is due to the fact that there are two different methodologies that are employed to keep track of the lunar calendar system.
The first methodology is ‘Moonsighting’ which is actually observing the waxing crescent with the naked eye. This is based on the methodology on the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, in several of the most authentic narrations. It goes without saying that 1400 years ago the way to spot the moon was with your eye. Hold on, it isn’t that simple, the plot is about to thicken.
-Local Moon Sighting vs. Global Moon Sighting
There are two subcategories to the moonsighting methodology: ‘local sighting’ and ‘global sighting.’ Local moonsighting consists of a group of different moonsighting councils in a given geographic location, such as, North America that work together. In Chicago we have chicagohilal.com which serves as the council that determines local moonsighting and tracks the lunar months. A moonsighting anywhere in that entire region (California to New York) is considered a positive moonsighting by many of the moonsighting councils. The premise behind this approach is that you must physically see the moon in your locality for the month to be considered here.
The second subcategory of moonsighting is ‘Global Sighting’ which is essentially basing the beginning of the month off of a sighting in Saudi Arabia or any other global location. So it is not uncommon to hear people say ‘Im going with Saudi.’ The premise behind this approach is that if the month has started somewhere, then the month has started!
2. Astronomical Calculation
The second methodology is that of “Calculation.” The ability to calculate lunar phases is , contrary to popular belief, not a new science. Muslims have been able to calculate the moon for centuries. Our renowned Imams an-Nawawi, ibn Taymiyyah, al-Sarakhsi, and ibn Qudamah (may God have Mercy on them all) are just a few of the scholars of the past who have written extensively on the subject of ‘calculation vs. moonsighting.’ People who say they are “following ISNA,” are following calculations.
MORAL OF THE STORY
The Muslim Ummah (global community) will probably never reach a consensus on this issue and hasn’t been able to for centuries. Although we live in the ‘modern age’ and feel all technologically superior, the ability to astronomically calculate is not a recent invention and the scholars of the past have written books about the legal issues around this specific topic. The important thing to do is to understand why people do different things, why you do what you do, avoid division, and always respectfully promote unity amongst the Muslims.
What to do? Our suggestion is that if you follow a specific legal school you consult with the rulings of your school or with your teacher/shaykh. If you haven’t engaged in that level of study then go with what your community goes with. Consult with your local masjid, or MSA, or community organization that you might be spending most of Ramadan with to see when Ramadan will begin/end.
Hopefully this short article assisted in painting the big picture surrounding the moonsighting debacle Muslims wrestle with annually. The purpose of this was not to discuss the evidences behind various opinions or which methodology may be superior. The goal was to inform the Muslims masses in an attempt to increase our collective and personal Islamic literacy. There is no reason for our community’s inability to reach a consensus to become a divisive issue. May God forgive us all for our mistakes, accept our deeds, accept our fasts, and grant us the highest ranks in Heaven. ameen!