Ramazan is the holy month of fasting, prayer, and reflection for Muslims around the world. The sighting of the new moon, ‘hilal’ marks the beginning of Ramazan, and it is an essential event for Muslims to determine the start of the holy month. Like every year, the Ramazan of 2023 also started in Kashmir amidst a lot of confusion over the sighting of the moon with some religious bodies saying that Ramazan starts on March 23, and others decreeing that the new Islamic month starts on the 24th.
The term "crescent" (hilāl) in the classical Arabic language refers to the first light of the moon that appears for up to three days and is specifically called the "moon" (qamar) after that. The crescent moon is a physical phenomenon that people see and rejoice in, with the term "halla" referring to the act of appearing, beginning to shine, exclaiming, exulting, singing, rejoicing, or praising God.
Traditionally, moon sighting was done by naked eye observation, and the Ruat-e-Hilal Committee, consisting of Muftis, was responsible for declaring the beginning of Ramazan. In some countries, the meteorological department assists the committee in getting the lunar data. With advances in science and technology, and easy availability of high-resolution telescopes, sky-gazing mobile apps, and an abundance of meteorological data, the question arises: should technology be used for moon sighting in Ramazan?
Scholars have different opinions on this. Some believe that the naked eye observation is the traditional method of moon sighting and should continue to be used, while others suggest that technological advancements should be utilized to accurately determine the sighting of the new moon. The scholars refer to Quran’s Ayat no 185 from Surah Baqrah to rule that it is the naked eye observation of the crescent and not the calculations that decide the onset of the Islamic month. The Ayat has been differently translated and while Yusuf Ali puts it as ‘so every one of you who is present (at his home) during that month should spend it in fasting’, Maulana Maudoodi translates it as ‘therefore from now on whoever witnesses it, it is obligatory on hire to fast the whole month’, leaning more towards naked eye witnessing of the new moon.
The International Astronomical Union (IAU) has developed standardized methods and criteria for the sighting of the new moon. These criteria are based on scientific calculations, and they take into account the position of the moon to the sun and the observer's location on the earth. Many Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have adopted these scientific methods for moon sightings.
In Malaysia and Indonesia, the use of technology for moon sightings is widely accepted. The Indonesian government has established an agency known as the "Governmental Observatory of the Republic of Indonesia" to monitor and announce the sighting of the new moon. The agency uses telescopes and astronomical calculations to determine the sighting of the crescent moon.
Similarly, in Malaysia, the Department of Islamic Development (JAKIM) uses astronomical calculations and technology to determine the sighting of the new moon. JAKIM also collaborates with the National Space Agency of Malaysia (ANGKASA) to determine the sighting of the new moon using technology.
Saudi Arabia has multiple Hilal sighting committees" which include one member of Qada (scholar/justice department), one member of KACST/Astronomer, one member of Amarah (ruling council of the city), and many local volunteers. The committee uses advanced telescopes and astronomical calculations to determine the sighting of the crescent moon.
The point is that the use of technology for moon sighting during Ramadan is a topic of debate and discussion among Islamic scholars and communities worldwide. However, countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia have already adopted the use of technology and astronomical calculations for determining the sighting of the new moon. India has a sizeable Muslim population and the geographical expanse is such that a more decentralized approach to moon sighting is needed. Even if the naked eye seeing of Hilal is the preferred practice, religious scholars should be assisted by scientists in this exercise to make it reliable and in sync with modern practices.
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It is essential to continue the dialogue and collaboration between Islamic scholars and technology experts to ensure the accurate and consistent determination of the sighting of the new moon.
Amir Khan is a Delhi-based research scholar with an interest in the philosophy of science, Indo-Islamic heritage, and Islam in South Asia. Views are personal.