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The Neverending Moonsighting Debate

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This year [2009], the crescent for Shawwal was sighted in South America and South Africa on Saturday night. Based on this, Eid in North America was on Sunday for the followers of Ayatollah Khoei and a few other Maraja Taqleed (Religious Authorities), and on Monday for the followers of Ayatollah Sistani and some other jurists.

Naturally, all hell broke loose. "Why can't we have a united Eid?" "Why are these Maraja dividing us?" "They are causing our families to split!" Forums were flooded, angry text messages were sent, and chain emails are still being forwarded. Once again, Marjaiyyat stands accused for causing yet another crushing blow to the oh-so-fragile Western Shia community. Even the rare well-wishers who do not harbor any particular animosity towards the Maraja cannot help but scratch our heads...

"Sharing the Night" vs. "Sharing the Horizon"

In regards to moonsighting, there is a slight difference of opinion among our Maraja. A few scholars, the most notable among them being the late Ayatollah Abul Qasim al-Khoei, are of the opinion that as long as the moon is sighted in one place, all other locations "sharing the night" (Wahdat al-Ufoq) will also rely on that sighting. For example, if the moon is sighted in the United Kingdom, then it will also apply to places like New York and Detroit, because sunset time in New York and Detroit is before the break of dawn in the UK. Hence, they "share a night". (Ayatollah Khoei: Islamic Laws, ruling #1744)

However, the majority of our Religious Authorities (including Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Sistani and Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei) follow the principle of Ta'adad al-Ufoq ("sharing the horizon"). According to this principle, each location has its own curve of sighting that is distinct and separate from others, unless the two locations "share a horizon", meaning if the moon is sighted in one location, there must be a significant probability it would have also been sighted in the other location had it not been for adverse weather conditions, etc. (Ayatollah Sistani: Islamic Laws, ruling #1744; Ayatollah Khamenei: Practical Laws of Islam, Q. 835)

On the Farsi section of his website www.sistani.org, Ayatollah Sistani is asked if Hasa and Qatib (in Saudi Arabia) share a horizon with Tehran. In the Arabic section, the same question is asked about Najaf and Bahrain. In both cases, the answer is affirmative.

Furthermore, as explained by Ayatollah Sistani: "If the new moon is sighted in the East, it also applies to the West, as long as the latitude of the two locations are not greatly further away from one another. If the new moon is sighted in the West, it does not apply to the East, unless it is proven – even by the moon staying on the first [Western] horizon for the length of time that is longer than the difference between the sunset of the two locations. [For example, if the sunset in the Eastern city was half an hour before the Western city where the moon was sighted, and the moon stays on the horizon longer than half an hour – the Eastern city can follow the moon sighted in the Western city.]" (A Code of Practice for Muslims in the West, ruling #115)

Lastly, if a person does not know whether it is the last day of Ramadan or the first of Shawwal, (s)he should observe fast on that day, and if (s)he comes to know during the day that it is the first of Shawwal, (s)he should break the fast. (Ayatollah Sistani: Islamic Laws, ruling #1746; Ayatollah Khoei: Islamic Laws, ruling #1746; Ayatollah Khamenei, Newly Asked Questions, section on "Fasting" at www.leader.ir)

Also See: Ask the Experts by Shaikh Saleem Bhimji

Scientific Predictions

So why can't we use scientific methods to determine the new moon and forget about moonsighting all together? Surely with current scientific developments, this would solve the whole problem.

According to most of our scholars, the first day of a month cannot be proven through scientific predictions. However, if an individual derives full satisfaction and certitude from such findings (or through any other source), (s)he is welcome to act upon them. (Ayatollah Sistani: Islamic Laws, ruling #1741)

In the past few years, there has been increasing emphasis on the use of scientific calculations for the purposes of determining the new moon by a growing portion of our community. However, what we must keep in mind is that science is not the end-all-be-all answer to all questions. Scientific predictions about moonsighting are based on calculations, and those could easily be incorrect or based on incorrect models or theories. In the past, there have been several instances of differences among scientists and observatories over the possibility of moonsighting, usually because they subscribed to differing models or theories. While we can use scientific data for the purposes of determining probability and such, it cannot therefore be a substitute for actual moonsighting by the human eye.

Interestingly, the US Naval Observatory itself notes on its website, "The date and time of each New Moon can be computed exactly, but the time that the Moon first becomes visible after the New Moon depends on many factors and cannot be predicted with certainty."

"But how can we have two Eids?"

The answer: why not?!

Instead of making mountains out of molehills, let's try to resolve such issues with a little bit of common sense. If Ramadan ended on Saturday for the parents and on Sunday for the children, surely the parents can wait just one day to wear their new clothes or cook up all sorts of ethnic delicacies! If the other members of your family are fasting today, and you are not, just drink a glass of water in the morning – you don't have to eat a four-course meal in front of them! In regards to Eid prayers, most places have services to accommodate both situations, and even if your community doesn't, keep in mind that Eid prayers are not obligatory during the occultation of the Twelfth Imam (may Allah hasten his reappearance) and can also be offered individually (Ayatollah Sistani: Islamic Laws, ruling #1525).

Furthermore, even if we see the Lebanese community celebrating Eid on one day, the Pakistanis the next day, and the Khojas after them, what exactly is the big deal? In many parts of the Muslim world, people celebrate Eid for a whole week. The more, the merrier! I for one fail to see the problem with being able to dress up, visit friends, and gorge out on delicious food for three days instead of just one!

Instead of panicking and rushing to hurl the vilest accusations at our religious scholars, let us try to be a bit more reasonable. Unity does not mean uniformity. Instead of becoming upset at such minor differences, let us learn to appreciate and enjoy the blessings of variety and diversity.

Also, we must realize that even if we ignore all jurisprudential differences, we still would not be able to avoid the issue of multiple Eids. Indeed, we see that during the caliphate of Imam Ali (peace be upon him), a man once came and told him that he had sighted the crescent for the month of Shawwal, while no one else had. The Imam told him that since he has sighted the moon himself, it was Eid for him the next day, but for the rest of the community, since there were not two reliable testimonies (as required by Shariah), it would be the 30th of Ramadan. So while it was haram for the man to fast the next day, it was in fact wajib upon everyone else! (Wasail ash-Shia, volume 10, chapter on Fasting)

Hence, for those who have proper knowledge and understanding of Islamic jurisprudence, this is really a non-issue. In all honesty, the moonsighting drama has nothing to do with unity or keeping our families intact. The Shia world has had multiple Eids for centuries now, so it has hard to fathom why this has become such a divisive issue. The fact of the matter is that this is a simple jurisprudential technicality which certain nefarious elements have hijacked and used to attack our Maraja Taqleed, and many simple-minded Shias are sadly following suit. If we are really so concerned about maintaining unity, let us keep in mind that the one institution that has safeguarded and protected Shi'ism for the past 1200 years and the only platform that is capable of uniting us is the same Marjaiyyat which we so quickly rush to accuse of causing disunity amongst us!

On a final note, in the 13th century, as Mongol armies were about to overrun Baghdad, the Muslim world was too busy fighting among itself over apparently a far more pertinent matter: whether it is permissible to consume owl meat or not! Today, as we face enemies and calamities from all sides, let us learn from our own history, let us cease from wasting so much time and energy complaining about such trivial matters, let us unite under the banner of the Marjaiyyat, and let us focus on the greater problems that threaten to overrun our communities and the Muslim Ummah today.

Our valuable member Arsalan Rizvi has been with us since Monday, 07 January 2008.

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