Islam is based around a lunar calendar, in which prayer times and festivals are calculated based on the position of the sun and moon. The month of Ramaḍān is one of the most important months in the Islamic calendar. It is a month Muslims observe one of the central pillars of the Islamic faith. Ramaḍān is a month of spiritual renewal. It is a month when the Qurʿan is believed to have been first revealed. Central to the commencement of Ramaḍān is the sighting of the moon. Indeed, the impact of modern science on Islam is most conspicuous in the use of new technologies and computer databases that are now being deployed by Muslims to accurately predict and calculate the sighting of the moon.
Today, the majority of Muslims no longer rely on the traditional method of moon-sighting because there are now apps such as The Ruet launched in 2019 that provide detailed discussions on the mathematics and timing of fasting, which commences and concludes according to the moon’s waxing and waning. The prevalence of the use of modern science in the astronomical calculations of moon-sighting has not stalled the topic from generating an annual debate. On one hand, the Muslims who blend their faith with modern science (faith and science accommodationists) do not see any contradiction in the use of apps or science for moon-sighting. They accept the science-driven astronomical calculations as definitive (qatʿi) than the speculative account (zanni) of relying upon people’s account of having sighted the moon with their eyes. On the other hand, the “faith-centric” Muslims who are often skeptical of modern science see a contradiction in the use of apps and technologies, mostly designed by non-Muslims, for determining the commencement and completion of one of the central pillars of Islam. The “faith-centric” Muslims uphold the “sighting the moon with the eye” as qatʿi and the science-driven astronomical calculations as zanni due to the possibility of error. In other words, Muslims should rely on Bedouins or itinerant nomads who are skilled at knowing the start and end of lunar months.
The subject of moon-sighting is one of the theological issues that often put the Muslim public in conflict and opposition with the Muslim authority. In the past, it is uncommon to witness at least three different ʿId al-Fitr celebrations to commemorate the end of Ramaḍān. This is so because there is no consensus on whether Muslims should follow the moon-sighting of their country of origin, or the moon-sighting of the land of the Two Holy Mosques or whether to follow a local commission of moon-sighting. The National Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs must be applauded for working together with the sharīʿa commissions of different states in standardizing the beginning and end of the month of Ramaḍān. Despite the standardization of the moon-sighting debate, there are still some groups that insist on sighting the moon themselves, even if it means being several days out of step with the general Muslim public. The Muslims who are skeptical of the use of modern science in moon-sighting would benefit from the attached text written by the Zaria-based scholar Ibrāhīm b. Muḥammad b. Ismāʿīl titled “ماء الزلال في رؤية الهلال”. Another scholar in Hausaland that wrote on the topic of moon-sighting is Aḥmad b. `Abd al-Raḥmān b. Muḥammad al-Katāgumī. His text on moon-sighting titled “فك الشبهات والاغلال في مسئلة رؤية الهلال” appeared in his book “تنوير الزلم في مسائل احكم الصيام”. In his text “ماء الزلال في رؤية الهلال”, Mallam Ibrāhīm b. Muḥammad b. Ismāʿīl explains the sharīʿa principles Muslim scholars agreed upon in the past as the method for deciding the start and end of the month of Ramaḍān:
1) sight the moon with the eye based on the Ḥadīth of Abū Hurayrah “صُومُوا لِرُؤْيَتِهِ وَأَفْطِرُوا لِرُؤْيَتِهِ فَإِنْ غُمِّيَ عَلَيْكُمْ فَأَكْمِلُوا الْعَدَدَ “Observe fast on sighting it (the new moon) and break (fast) on sighting it (the new moon), but if the sky is cloudy for you, then complete the number (of thirty).”
2) complete thirty days for the month of Shaʾbān in the absence of the first principle.
Mallam Ibrāhīm b. Muḥammad b. Ismāʿīl “ماء الزلال في رؤية الهلال” (pg. 2-3)
Mallam Ibrāhīm b. Muḥammad b. Ismāʿīl “ماء الزلال في رؤية الهلال” (pg. 4-5)
Although some Muslim scholars are flexible in the use of scientific applications to calculate the time for daily prayers, the emphasis of “witnessing” the new moon with the eye as stated in the text of Mallam Ibrāhīm b. Muḥammad b. Ismāʿīl is still widespread. It can be quite challenging following the literal prophetic tradition of “witnessing the moon with the naked eye” given variable atmospheric conditions which is why the use of astronomical computer programs that simu
late the phases of the moon should also be employed.
Today, Muslims in Nigeria would be waiting to hear from the Sultan of Sokoto that the new moon has been sighted. This is one of the ceremonial functions of the Sultan. It is one of the rare periods that Muslims all over Nigeria look up to him as their religious leader. However, it is not all Muslims that consider the Sultan as a legitimate Islamic authority. Some Muslims question his Islamic credentials on the basis that his ascension to the caliphate was ratified by secular politicians who should ideally not have any business with issues related to Islamic leadership and governance. In 2008, Late Muhammad Yusuf publicly distanced himself from the Sultan and the Nigerian government. In his interview with the BBC, Muhammad Yusuf said “According to the principles of Islam, any leader who does not govern with the Book of Allah and the Sunna of the Prophet should not be described as an Islamic leader. On this basis, we do not view the Sultan as the leader of the Muslims; rather, we view him [merely] as the Sultan of Sokoto.” The weakening of the dynastic legitimacy of the emirate and caliphate system by secular politicians have also contributed to the subtle friction between the clerical institutions and the Sultan and Emirs. Like Muhammad Yusuf, there are other Islamic clerics that have attempted to assert their independence away from the authority of the Sultan. Shaykh Sani Yahya Jingir of Izala Jos, the Chief Imam of Ibadan Land and the Grand Patron of the League of Imams and Alfas of Yorubaland Shaykh AbdulGanniy Abubakry Agbotomokekere, Shaykh Habeebullahi Adam Al-Ilory of Markaz Agege, et al are among recent examples of Islamic clerics that defied the authority of the Sultan by announcing separate dates of commencing and ending Ramaḍān. We hope such a trend that provokes the disunity of Muslims would not occur this year.
Although Ramaḍān is a month of spiritual renewal, it is also a month that comes with debates on varied religious interpretations and traditions, superiority contests of scholars in the religious public sphere, and back-to-back rejoinders over issues of creeds, ritualistic practices, and secular politics. We might not be seeing much of that this year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Have a blessed Ramaḍān.
Abdulbasit Kassim (@scholarakassi1) is a Ph.D. candidate in Islam and Africana Studies at Rice University and a Visiting Doctoral Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought at Northwestern University.