Sighting or Calculation?
The proponents of determining the start of Ramadan purely by calculations offer two main arguments. First, the Hadith "Do not fast until you see the crescent-moon, and do not break the fast until you have seen the crescent moon, but if conditions are overcast for you then enumerate for it." [Bukhari] They cite the statement, "then enumerate for it" as evidence for the permissibility of calculation. Second, they say that calculations were not used during the
Prophet's time because the people were "unlettered," however, we are now educated and advanced in astronomy, there is no harm in calculating alone.
The first argument cannot be sustained because if "enumerate" in the above hadith is in fact referring to calculation, it would only indicate the permissibility of calculations in overcast conditions. In addition, the meaning of "enumerate" is clarified by another narration of the hadith by Bukhari (also, Tirmidhi, Abu Dawud, Ibn Khuzaymah, Ibn Hibban and
al-Tayalisi), "Then complete the number of [days of] Sha`ban as thirty." [Nasb
al-Rayah, 2/437-8] This hadith clarifies what is meant by "enumerate" in the first narration is to count thirty days, for the first narration is general and imprecise (mujmal), whereas the second is explicit (mubayyan), clarifying the imprecision in the first. Ibn Rushd says, "It is obligatory to refer the mujmal to the mubayyan, and this is the way of the scholars of usul, without any disagreement." [Bidayat al-Mujtahid, 1/284]
The second argument about the people being "unlettered" is refuted by the fact that there were many among the Companions who were not only well read but also scholarly. In fact, what
"unlettered" refers to is that the means for determining the month are simple, not requiring sophisticated science or education, equally accessible to all people, scientists as well as non-scientists.
The Middle Way
Islam is a strong proponent of using reason. Today the fact is that astronomy can accurately establish the time of birth of the new moon, and the time interval when it is impossible to see the crescent-moon due its not yet being present. Thus, there is no harm in using this astronomical basis to reject a claimed sighting which cannot possibly be correct. Indeed, this is similar to rejecting the claim of someone who claims to have seen the crescent-moon on the twentieth night of Shaban!
In the same vein of using reason, Islam asks us to use the scientific method. Thus, if a sighting is reported when it was absolutely impossible for it to have occurred, it will be rejected, even if the one reporting it is an upright Muslim. This rejection is attributed to genuine misjudgment, which does not diminish the
person's Islamic uprightness and acceptability as a witness. Numerous renowned as well as recent and contemporary scholars support this view.
The proponents of using the sighting in Makkah to begin Ramadan anywhere on earth argue that a sighting in one area is binding on Muslims in other areas as well.
However, the hadith narrated by Muslim, Abu Dawud, Tirmidhi and Nasa'i rejects argues against a sighting being binding on distant places. Thus states that Kurayb, who traveled to Syria encountered the start of Ramadan there on a Friday, upon return to Medina, informed Ibn Abbas that he had seen the crescent-moon on the night of Friday, and that the people in Syria, including Muawiyah the governor, had fasted on Friday. Ibn Abbas replied that they (in Medina) had seen the crescent-moon on Saturday, and that they would not stop fasting until they either saw it again, or had completed thirty days. Kurayb asked, "Will you not suffice with the sighting of Muawiyah?" Ibn Abbas replied, "No, that is how the Messenger of Allah
Also, we need to consider that just as Muslims around the world will not pray simultaneously, rather each area will pray based on the movement of the sun in their area. Thus, how could they start and end fasting simultaneously.
The presence of numerous hadith on this issue only indicates that even the Companions and their later contemporaries differed about the start and end of Ramadan, such difference did not cause disunity among them, and so there is no reason why it should for us.
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