Hilal Sighting in Saudi Arabia: A First Hand Report
By Salman Zafar Shaikh
[Note: Saudi Arabia is one of the few countries in the world today that employs the Hijri calendar for every day use. That is great. It is a practice that needs to be followed in the rest of the Islamic world also. Unfortunately, the way the calendar is established in Saudi Arabia leaves a lot to be desired. Because of Saudi Arabia’s status in the Muslim world, the problems with Saudi calendar have spilled over into other areas as well, especially in Muslim communities in Europe and America. Here is some information that could help Muslims in those areas sort out the issue. Editor]
Muslims in North America have made a good effort Alhamdulillah to do local sighting, especially with the coordination of ISNA, ICNA, WDM and NC, which together formed the Islamic Shura Council of North America. But still some insist on following the announcement from Saudi Arabia, which is often ahead of sighting (including my personal sighting) in America, and also almost always one or often even two days ahead of sighting reported from countries east of Saudi Arabia e.g. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
So the natural question is – is there some problem in the Saudi announcement? If the Saudi sighting is correct, then the Hilal should be more easily seen in USA where the sunset is several hours later. Also, how come at times the Saudi announcement indicates sighting of Hilal when the moon sets before sunset there, and even before the birth of the dark invisible astronomical new moon! Further even the following simple reasoning casts doubt on Saudi dates: The world being a globe, any place round the world (on the same latitude), should over time be equally likely to be the first place to sight the Hilal. Hence for some years, the sighting in USA should be before sighting in Saudi Arabia. But if every year the Saudi announcement is ahead of the sighting in USA, the question arises: Is something wrong going on?
Stay in Saudi Arabia
Allah gave me a chance to work and stay in Saudi Arabia for about 5 years (1416-1421 AH / 1995-2000G). I wanted to use my stay to find out about the system for Hilal sighting there, and to check my personal sighting attempts there. I had also heard a lot about the “Umm-ul-Qura Calendar”. I wanted to locate the people making this calendar and meet them. It was not easy to find this. I was surprised that the local brothers usually do not know such things. Also, most people there do not suspect any mistakes in the Hilal announcements and hardly anyone of my local practicing Muslim friends had ever attempted to sight the Hilal in their life!
Finally I learned that the source of Umm-ul-Qura calendar is KACST – the prestigious King Abdul Aziz University for Science and Technology in Riyadh. After several calls to their offices, I was able to narrow down the names of the brothers involved and finally communicated with them and set a time to meet them!
I met the brothers at KACST who were calculating the Umm-ul-Qura Calendar for Hijri dates. The brothers were very warm and welcoming. I was able to find out first hand, the details behind the Umm-ul-Qura Calendar. I found that there has been a major change in the computation criteria starting 1420 AH. Before that year, the Umm-ul-Qura calendar was based on Greenwich and not Makkah. Also it was based on the dark invisible Astronomical new moon being born. Thus it was totally different from the actual Hilal observation. Starting about 1420 AH, the new criterion is that the Moonset be after Sunset in Makkah (even by one second). Starting 1423 AH Insha’Allah, it will again change slightly to directly take the astronomical new moon (conjunction) into account. But the main input I got was that the Umm-ul-Qura calendar was for civil use only, and not for predicting the Hilal for religious dates. The author of the calendar is well aware that the moonset needs to be after sunset by a long time, and not just one second (along with other factors) for the Hilal to be visible. But the point was that the Umm-ul-Qura calendar neither attempts nor claims to predict the Hilal. It is merely used for the official dates in the Ministries, schools, Saudia Airlines, and indeed all over the country.
I was a bit hesitant to introduce the issue of errors in the Saudi announced dates for fear of offending my hosts. But Alhamdulillah they themselves expressed that they knew there were a lot of errors.
Official Saudi Hilal Sighting Committees
I was told that after the Saudi Government became aware of the complaints of errors in the announced dates, around 1419H, the ruling council ordered the formation of Hilal sighting committees. Each such committee includes:
one member of Qada (Islamic Scholar/Justice department),
one member of KACST/Astronomer,
one member of Imarah (ruling council of the city), and
Currently there are six such committees in Saudi Arabia – near Makkah, Riyadh, Qassim, Hail, Tabuk and Asir. While they may carry a telescope with them, the official sighting of the committee is with naked eye only. (Saudi scholars like Sheikh Al-Othaimeen are against use of telescopes. Sheikh Al-Othaimeen for example indicates that using telescopes increases the “Takalluf” (Burden) on Muslims, which Allah does not want.)
While the establishment of the committees is an excellent idea, these committees have not been given exclusive jurisdiction over the issue of moon sighting, thereby reducing their usefulness. The Justice department still accepts the witness of “any” Muslim. Thus, often the new month is declared while none of these six official Hilal sighting committees saw the Hilal. In fact, most people, including scholars are unaware of the existence of these official committees.
Eid-ul-Fitr 1420 AH
In the case of Eid-ul-Fitr 1420 AH, I myself went with the Makkah committee to a sighting point on a hilltop of Shamesi outside the city of Makkah Mukarramah on Thursday evening. Neither I, nor the other 5 committee members sighted the Hilal. But we came back to the Haram Shareef and were astounded to hear the announcement that Eid-ul-Fitr was next day (Friday). In fact moonset was before sunset in Makkah for Thursday evening. In this case the error was quite brazen. Later I learned that Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi issued a fatwa indicating that Muslims who celebrated Eid 1420 AH on Friday following the Saudi announcement should make up one missed Ramadan fast.
Further, the solar eclipse of Feb 5, 2000 also proved the mistake in Eid date, according to Sheikh Al-Othaimeen’s fatwa, which implies that if there is a solar eclipse anywhere in the world after sunset in your city, then next day is not the 1st of lunar month for your city.
I also learned that apparently it is the same few people at certain locations, reporting on those occasions when the claims are extraordinarily early in Saudi Arabia, year after year. WAllahu A’alam!
While Saudi Astronomers are quite aware of the problems, there seemed to be negligible awareness in the community at large. But that is changing. I saw an excellent article in Arab News of February 11, 2000 about the inaccuracy of Eid-ul-Fitr 1420 AH. Subsequently I also saw nice articles in Arabic in Ad-Dawah magazine, 6 Shawwal 1420 AH etc., and the article of Sheikh Al-Manea (of Makkah Al-Mukarramah) in Al-Jazeerah, December 12, 1999. So while the coverage was still limited, at least there was some acknowledgement of the errors, albeit not officially.
Views of Islamic Scholars of Saudi Arabia
I started writing letters to a lot of the respected Ulema of Saudi Arabia, mentioning in particular the Eid-ul-Fitr 1420 AH error as proven from the Solar Eclipse also, and I attached the Fatwa of Sheikh Al-Othaimeen about solar eclipse and Hijri dates. Most scholars seemed to be totally unaware of the problem. However, some scholars like Sheikh Al-Othaimeen and Sheikh Al-Manea (of Makkah Al-Mukarramah), we found have a broad knowledge in this field. We did not get much response to the scores of letters we sent. But then Alhamdulillah we managed to get a meeting with Sheikh Al-Othaimeen!
Meeting with Sheikh Al-Othaimeen in Unayzah
Sheikh Al-Othaimeen welcomed us at his big Masjid in Unayzah after the Friday prayers and gave us a special private audience after the ‘Asr prayers. We found that Alhamdulillah Sheikh Al-Othaimeen was himself aware of some of the errors from other complaints. But he indicated it would take time for most scholars to understand and fix the problem. He asked us to write a letter to the Majlis Al-Kabair Al-Ulema (Council of the Senior Ulema), which I believe meets twice a year in Taif. I personally did send a letter, but somehow did not receive any response. I also learned that scholars like Sheikh Abdullah bin Sulaiman Al-Manea (Makkah Mukarramah) support using calculations to reduce errors.
Sheikh Al-Othaimeen Supports Local Sighting
I mentioned to Sheikh Al-Othaimeen that for Muslims in America, the error in Saudi date announcements causes big problems, since some Muslims follow that, while others follow local sighting, thus resulting in multiple Eid celebrations in the same city, if not the same Masjid! I learned that Sheikh Al-Othaimeen supports Ikhtilaf Al-Matale (local sighting) – Muslims outside Saudi Arabia should do their own local sighting (instead of calling Saudi Arabia). This is already published in the book: Fatawa Islamiya (Sheikh Bin Baaz, Sheikh Al-Othaimeen & Sheikh Al-Jibreen, published by Darul-Watan Lil-Nashr.
Sheikh Al-Othaimeen also writes that Sheikh Ibn Taimiya supported Ikhtilaf Al-Matale. In fact Saudi Arabia itself practices Ikhtilaf Al-Matale (e.g. they did not follow Yemen’s earlier sighting in 1420 AH). I mentioned that while most Muslims in America agree to local sighting for 11 months, some want to follow the Saudi announcement for Eid-ul-Adha. Sheikh Al-Othaimeen (RH) indicated that he supports Ikhtilaf Al-Matale for Eid-ul-Adha also (Muslims outside Saudi Arabia should do their own local sighting for Eid-ul-Adha also, instead of calling Saudi Arabia). He wrote a fatwa on this and gave me the original paper, while keeping a photocopy for his records. Thus in his opinion, Muslims in North America should not have multiple dates for Eid etc. and just go by local sighting, unaffected by the errors in Saudi announcements including Eid-ul-Adha.
There are also other references to Sheikh Al-Othaimeen supporting local sighting for Eid-ul-Adha. (See http://www.ummah.net/moonsighting/fatawah/saudalim.htm). Also see at http://www.ummah.net/moonsighting/fatawah/isnaqa.htm that the Annual Session of Fiqh Academy, held in Jordan, October 11-16, 1986 attended by more than 100 outstanding scholars of Shari’ah adopted a resolution recommending that all Muslim countries should determine all the lunar months including Dhul-Hijjah on the same basis. Also available on the website is the Fatwa of Mufti Taqi Usmani from Pakistan supporting Ikhtilaf Al-Matale for Eid-ul-Adha as well.
Further, even those scholars who support Ittihad Al-Matale, say categorically that one cannot fix any one point on earth (e.g. Saudi Arabia) for worldwide decision on date. Thus, sighting in USA / India / Yemen / Nigeria / Fiji etc. should be as valid in establishing the date worldwide including Saudi Arabia as the sighting in Saudi Arabia. Further, if we fix Saudi Arabia sighting to decide the Eid in America, what if Hilal is sighted in America before Saudi Arabia (the world is round, in certain years this should be true). Would we then ignore our earlier sighting in America? Clearly wouldn’t this violate the hadith of fasting on seeing the Hilal and breaking on seeing it? (Compiled by Bukhari 3-124: Abu Huraira (RA) has narrated that the Prophet (SAW) said: “Start fasting on seeing the crescent (of Ramadan) and give up fasting on seeing the crescent (of Shawwal) and if the sky is overcast (and you cannot see it) complete thirty days of Sha’ban”).
Use Astronomy to Negate Erroneous Sighting, Not to Replace Sighting
As a Muslim, we believe that all knowledge is from Allah, who is the ultimate source. Thus we find that the Qur’an has no contradiction with established facts of science. In fact the description of the embryo in the womb of the mother, the stability provided by the mountains, the hydrology / water cycle, composition of living matter mostly with water, origin of the universe and the movement of both the sun and the moon are among the amazing examples of how accurately the Qur’an revealed about 1400 years ago describes scientific facts discovered recently. The Qur’an states in Sura Ar-Rahman #55,Verse 5: (Yusuf Ali translation): The sun and the moon follow courses (exactly) computed.
Saudi Arabia is Slowly Catching On
Thus I was happy to learn that several scholars including Sheikh Al-Manea (of Makkah Mukarramah) support using calculations to negate erroneous sightings. Similarly, historically, great Islamic Scholars like Imam Subki have also supported using Astronomy to negate erroneous Hilal sighting. Also, Sheikh Ibn Taimiya has written on how long it takes for the Hilal to appear after the “old moon” (seen at Fajr) disappears. Of course, none of the Saudi scholars I know, support calculations to completely replace sighting.
I learned from reliable sources that that last Eid-ul-Fitr (1421 AH), several “early witnesses” in Saudi Arabia were turned down due to the solar eclipse. This is perhaps the first time I hear of “witnesses” being turned down in Saudi Arabia due to contradiction with basic scientific facts. Insha’Allah this seems to be a new and good trend in Saudi Arabia, but there may not be a solar eclipse every time! (There is a solar eclipse on 29th of Ramadan 1422 AH – next year though).
Astronomical Support for Ikhtilaf Al-Matale (Local Sighting)
Since the world is round like a globe, the first Hilal sighting (“Lunar Date Line” for a month) can occur anywhere around the globe. Programs like MoonCalc of Dr. Monzur Ahmed (obtain software from http://www.ummah.net/ildl/mooncalc.html) can predict the first Hilal sighting curve.
Thus we see that Astronomy supports Ikhtilaf Al-Matale (Local sighting) since areas outside the “Lunar Date Line” curve see the Hilal on the next day (Cross International Solar Date Line). Hence we should aim towards Eid-ul-Fitr and Eid-ul-Adha celebration around much of the world in about 24 hours (But two “solar dates” because of the artificial International solar date line). We should not force an effort to artificially make the worldwide lunar date coincide with a solar date. Also, note that at any one given moment of time, one part of the world has one solar day/date while another part of the earth has the next solar day /date! For example, at the exact time of my writing this sentence, it is Wednesday evening in USA, but Thursday morning in China / Japan! So we should focus on Eid prayer around the globe in about 24 hours rather than one solar date. Local sighting for Eid is as natural as local timings for prayer. After all, New York does not pray Fajr by Tokyo time!
Prof. Muhammad Ilyas of Malaysia, a pioneer in the calculations of Hilal prediction, Masha-Allah has hence proposed for civil use, a Tri-zonal Hijri calendar: dividing the earth into 3 zones: Americas; Europe-Africa-West Asia; Asia-Pacific and calculating Hilal visibility separately for each region. Please see http://www.starlight.demon.co.uk/ildl/zone3 for details. Thus for example, sometimes Hilal sighting in North America can be one date before Hilal sighting in Saudi Arabia. See http://www.ummah.net/moonsighting for more details.