“Muslims Should Not Adopt Moon sighting to Establish Ramadan”: The Goatmilk Debates

THE GOATMILK DEBATES” will be an ongoing series featuring two debaters tackling an interesting or controversial question in a unique, irreverent manner.

Each debater makes their opening argument. They can elect to post a rebuttal.

The winner will be decided by the online audience and judged according to the strength of their argument.

The motion: “Muslims Should Adopt Moon sighting to Establish Ramadan”

For the motion: Irfan Rydhan

Against the motion: Aziz Poonawalla

AZIZ POONAWALLA against the motion, “Muslims should adopt moonsighting to establish Ramadan”

My brother Irfan Rydhan makes a compelling case in defense of moonsighting for Ramadan, and I think it is important to assert here that I do not intend to attempt to refute his case. The motion under debate is whether all muslims should adopt moonsighting, not the validity of moonsighting per se. My intention in this debate is to emphasize that there IS a valid debate about whether moonsighting is the sole method of establishing Ramadan, and to question the assumption that my brother makes, that there is some inherent value in all muslims adopting an identical practice rather than embracing the diversity of valid interpretation and traditions we have inherited as a truly global Ummah.Irfan begins his case with the Qur’an, so let’s revisit ayat 2:185, using Quran.com:

Pickthall: And whosoever of you is present, let him fast the month, and whosoever of you is sick or on a journey, (let him fast the same) number of other days.
Yusuf Ali: So every one of you who is present (at his home) during that month should spend it in fasting, but if any one is ill, or on a journey, the prescribed period (Should be made up) by days later.
Shakir: therefore whoever of you is present in the month, he shall fast therein, and whoever is sick or upon a journey, then (he shall fast) a (like) number of other days;

Note that these translations disagree with Irfan’s formulation – the actual phrase in contention is, “shahida minkumu ashshahra” where the literal translation of the words in isolation would be “witness the month”. However, note that the three most prominent translators of the Qur’an chose to translate the phrase as “is present during the month” instead. Irfan insists that “shahida” be interpreted literally as “witness” but then argues that some scholars accept a symbolic definition of “shahr” as “crescent moon” instead rather than the literal meaning of “month”.I am famously skeptical of translations, but if we must use them, why be selective on a per-word basis? Doesn’t an ayat’s meaning depend on the structure of the verse as a whole, and the context of surrounding verses? I do not fault someone for interpreting 2:185 such that “shahida” is “witness” and “shahr” is “crescent moon” as Irfan does, but other formulations such as “witness the month” and “present in the month” are at least as justifiable.

Irfan also invokes a hadith to support his view. However, that hadith explains how someone may use the moon to establish Ramadan if they are trying to determine when to fast; it does not define moonsighting as the sole normative method to do so! And there are plenty of other hadith that support the use of calculation as well. Since hadith are even more contentious than translations, I don’t think there’s much point in using them to refute, only to justify.

Ultimately, trying to make a theological case for moonsighting alone is a futile excercise, because there is no consensus – in 2006 the Fiqh Council of North America adopted the compromise position that astronomical calculations were indeed valid, especially as a means for ruling out physically-impossible moonsighting reports. Dr. Zulfiqar Ali Shah wrote a lengthy rebuttal to Shaykh Yusuf, pointing out that the act of witnessing the new moon itself is not an act of worship in and of itself, and is merely a means of telling time. Another thorough and scholarly essay by Dr. Louay Safi notes that the choice is not between moonsighting and calculation, but rather personal testimony and calculation. Further essays and reading material on the debate are available at the Fiqh Council’s website.

The irony is that as the Fiqh Council noted, even moonsighters rely on calculation to vet the sightings, using sophisticated lunar visibility maps such as this one:

But lets also note that these maps tell you the visibility of the moon from Earth, and do not comment on the actual phase of the moon itself. In fact, the actual phase of the moon is completely independent of observers on earth – it is defined by the geometry of the Sun, Earth and Moon system in space. The date of the crescent moon can therefore be precisely calculated as an objective truth, independent of flawed human reasoning and observation and geography. As the Qur’an says, “the sun and the moon follow courses [exactly] computed” by Allah (55:5). To argue otherwise is to say that if a tree falls in a forest and there is no one to hear it, it did not even fall!

Leaving the issue of theology aside, what of the poetic arguments made by Brother Irfan? To be honest, these are the ones that I find most moving and compelling. There is indeed a romantic appeal in the notion of unity, and I wholeheartedly agree with my brother about the feeling of wonderment and awe when seeing the crescent moon in the sky. But why only the crescent moon? During Ramadan, the very act of looking at the moon, as it grows to full and then wanes again, is itself ibadat – for it is the visible, God-appointed marker of our brief window in which our pious actions are magnified. Ramadan’s very mortality is measured by the moon every day of the month, not just the first. I believe that our imaan is magnified not just by seeking the moon at the outset, but reflecting (no pun intended) on the meaning of the moon’s entire cycle. The precision of the calendar is not a false creation of man, but itself is a reflection of the perfection of Creation, the divinity of Mathematics, and of the vast and awe-inspiring celestial harmony that surrounds us and exists, arguably, for our sole benefit. I am humbled by the moon every day in Ramadan.

And if we are to celebrate unity, as I agree we should, then let us note that there is also unity for those who observe the calendar. Those of us who abide by the calendar begin and end Ramadan worldwide in unison, akin to the unity of praying salaat behind an imam. With all due respect to Brother Irfan, it is not about getting a day off of work or Eid-day sales at the mall, but about a sincere action of faith. It is distressing that the motives of those who disagree must be impugned in such a way – I believe that causes far more disunity than the moonsighting debate itself. Let us be united – by celebrating our diversity of tradition.

Last night was the first full moon of Ramadan – and by the calendar, the 14th of Ramadan as well. What better affirmation of the majesty and perfection of creation, than this?

Full Moon August 23, 2010

READ Irfan Rydhan‘s argument for Moonsighting.

24 thoughts on ““Muslims Should Not Adopt Moon sighting to Establish Ramadan”: The Goatmilk Debates

    • Salaams Abdullah
      Why do you state this blog and debates are a joke and “unislamic rubbish” ?
      All the major Scholars of Islam from all Madhabs had debates and this is what set’s Islamic law apart from most other religious law. It is based on reasoning and logic in coordination with the Quran and Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (S).
      As long as the debates are done in a respectful manner, as we are trying to do here, there is nothing unIslamic about it!
      In fact it is our duty to debate these issues which are affecting Muslims in North America, because many of these issues are unique to Muslims in the West.
      If you do not agree, then please do not ridicule those who are trying to educate our fellow Muslims on these topics which they are interested in learning more about.

  1. Let’s cut to the chase – we use spreadsheets and mathematical calculations (to the minute!) for our daily prayer schedules. Just as the Prophet (pbuh) didn’t have a watch to determine Asr (or Suhoor, for that matter), today we use science in all other aspects. If the Qur’an says, “the sun and the moon follow courses [exactly] computed” by Allah,” then there is supporting evidence to use science.

    On the other hand, if we’re going to rely visually on new moon determinations, there is a good news/bad scenario: The bad news is we’ll never have unity about Day One and start Ramadan on different days. The good news is that we’ll have unity on the 28 or so other days. And God knows best.

    • great point about salaat timings. Iwas going to mention it, but decided to keep it focused on Ramadan – those who insist on moonsighting could easily argue that there is no prevailing hadith on when to observe prayer time as there is for observing teh fast (imaginary hadith of this sort might read, “pray the zawwal when the shadow is at its shortest” which would have us all go scrambling for shadowsighting at midday, and arguing about whether Daylight Savings is Islamic) ! 🙂

    • There is a fundamental difference in calculating prayer times and calculating the visibility of the moon. With prayer times, you can calculate the exact positions of the sun relative to the earth and these calculations can be confirmed to match (100%) the traditional methods of determining the various prayer times.

      However, even with the latest advances in astronomy, scientists have not been able to calculate the visibility of the moon. We can calculate the moon birth, but not when the moon will be visible (even assuming perfect weather conditions). If we are simply saying that we can base Islamic Months on moon birth, then yes, calculations could be used. But if you are saying that we can use calculations alone to determine when the moon will be visible, then this is not accurate. This Ramadan was a perfect example. Based on ISNA calculations, the 1st day of Ramadan was Wednesday, August 11th, yet the moon was not seen anywhere that day even though many locations where it “could” have been visible had perfect atmospheric conditions. The sciences showed that the moon should have been visible in South America (west coast), yet known Muslims in this area reported that it was not visible despite clear skies.

      Personally, I believe sciences have a place in determining the start of Islamic Months giving us predictions on where the moon might be visible, but due the uncertainty of these sciences, we have to back it up with confirmed sightings. Allah knows best.

      • However, even with the latest advances in astronomy, scientists have not been able to calculate the visibility of the moon

        ths is not a true statement.

        at any rate, the calendrical months do not depend on the “visibility” but rather the phase of the moon, which is easily calculated for millenia ahead.

      • In response to Brother Aziz below:

        I think that is the true argument, whether the islamic calendar months depend on the visibility of the moon or not. Those who believe it does, cannot rely on calculations alone, and those who think it depends on phases of the moon (not visibility) use calculations.

        What I find is that the majority of the people think that the calculations predict visibility which as far as I know is not possible. If you know of any calculations that can determine the visibility of the moon, please let me know as I am not aware of any such methods.

  2. This is a useless debate. Those who have sustained the tradition of moonsighting for the purpose of beginning and ending Ramadhan SIMPLY do it for the sake of continuing a prophetic tradition, out of reverance to the Prophet of Islam. By no means do they intend to refute the value or accuracy of the calculated method because denying the veracity of calculations is tantamount to denying the Quran’s own statements as to the precision of the planetary orbits. The observance of Ramadhan has nothing to do with its absolute accurate beginning or end, rather it has do do with witnessing its beginning or end. We are not to be held to account for our unintended mistakes, only for those that are intended. The empirical (observed moon sighting) method is good for each individual with clear eyesight because it is a Fard Ayn upon him/her, and the SIMPLEST and easiest way to PERSONALLY DETERMINE the start and end a month. Not everyone is an Einstein or Newton to be able to follow the details of the calculated method, thereby unable to verify the authenticity of a proposed calendar. Its like depending entirely on a doctor to tell you whats wrong with your body ( doctors do make mistakes after all). This is one place where people don’t depend on the old adage of Seeing is Believing, yet when it comes to the Ghaib ( unseen), they ask for it to be shown to them. Yes of course, the moonsighters agree that the moon is always there, even if we cannot see it. Otherwise, why would they believe in God? All planetary calculations work on observed, empirical data and are extrapolated to provide times and dates. That’s how NASA is able to land a rocket on the moon. In my mind calculations too have their own limitations. Lunar Calendars can only be predicted for a practical period of 10-20 years. I ask you, if calculations are that perfect extrapolations, then do they take into account the reduction of speed in the earth’s rotation that has been noted by scientists? If they do they would reach asymptotes because if this world has to end, the planetary motion has to get out of the current order that Allah decrees for it and it would mean attempting to predict what Allah Alone knows. In a temporal-spatial continuum where there are many unknowns, calculations can after all provide only a miniscule window of time in space. Hence, like our observations and our brains, they are limited. Mathematics fails at the level of the infinite ( which is why infinity cannot have definition).All the books on Integral and Fractal Calculus attest to that. So let us not swell in pride over that means. They are merely a method that we can employ in determining probable planetary positions in a frame of reference. I for one, don’t even trust my doctor because there are many quacks out there these days. I ask them questions about my treatment in language that I can understand and relate to. The same goes for marking time. I don’t always trust my Swiss watch. I often confirm by looking at the sun’s position in the sky based on where I am. It’s a timeless method that makes use of my sense perception to support what technology tells me. Pilots call it dead reckoning. Perhaps, those who support calculations might feel most comfortable flying as passengers in a remote controlled airplane; if they do, all their arguments are justified.

  3. salaam and thank you for your response.

    you assert that lunar calculations are only valid for a few decades, but this is in fact a false statement. The lunar calendar is about as accurate as teh gregorian calendar, and also has leap months built in to corrrect for the accumulation of error due to the non-perfect rotation period of teh earth. The accuracy of the modern calculator is expected to last for several hundred years further, and even then the magnitude of teh adjustment that may ultimately be needed will only be a day, after which teh calculations wil again be valid for another few centuries.

    The lunar calendar only depends on teh geometry of the orbits of earth, moon, and sun, and not on the rotation of the earth. The lunar visibility maps, used by moonsighters, DO depend on earth’s rotation and these in principle can not be calculated further in advance than a few days due to other factors. So really the calendrical calculations are far mroe precise than themoonsighters’ own calculations.

    • @Poonawala. WS;

      (in reponse to your last words) Moonsighters don’t calculate. Nowadays they assess probabilities, thats all. BTW, you missed the point – our brains can only fathom a very minute fraction of instastellar space and its temporal continuum. The moonsighting debate does not fascinate me. READ – Its useless! All I am doing is clarifying why its useless – because they are both methods in their own right, and both have their own pros and cons. I did not dwell on precision, even if calculations are so. In fact if you read my note, I have said that observance of Ramadhan has nothing to do with it’s PRECISE beginning or end, (implying therefore calculations are simply overkill). Do you think that Moonsighters argue precision? They simply do so to follow tradition. Read my note again. As for the unity issue, we have many other fronts to be united. You keep taking off at a tangent in your arguments and leading us nowhere. So lets drop the ridiculous topic. Ramadan Kareem!

  4. Salaams
    Moon sighting is non technical, cost free, available to each individual, regardless of educational or literacy level. It connects us to the natural world and the cycles of the moon and earth and the sun. It levels the field between haves and have nots.
    just because we prefer an easy way does not mean that it would be easy for 1.2 bn people in the world.
    using the calculation method will limit the knowledge to a few people and any time that happens, it causes power to be concentrated in fewer hands. And we revert to previous religions where access to God is controlled by a few people and the rest have to pay a ton of money for it.
    Besides, getting off your butt and climbing the nearest mountain to sight the moon, at least a couple of times a year may help you fit back into your clothes after those iftars

  5. Mr. Poonawala seems intent on having the last word in this useless debate even after several different perspectives have been offered. Okay, brother if that’s what you want, you have the last word (I know you will be responding). If there is an award, you can have that too. Are you happy now?

    • ya akhee “A Patel”, plz help us all in learning more about this issue.

      From your first reply to this latest one, you have been very prolific with the use of words like “useless”, “ridiculous”, “no point”, etc. While you argue for one method, at the same time you say “I don’t care about this useless issue”.

      This last reply from you was quite personal to Mr. Aziz.
      I would recommend you take your personal issues with Mr. Aziz directly off the blog. And write back once you have cooled down.


      • Salaams;

        Br.Shafqat, your last quote “I don’t care about this useless issue” is incorrect – I DO care about this issue ( as you correctly mention by saying that I argue for a position), but I believe the debate is useless because both points of view are on different grounds, each with its own validity for assertion.
        (I thought I made it clear that, as such, moonsighters do not refute the authenticity of calculations; many moonsighters are scientists and engineers BTW) If we take such a topic and debate it, it provides us good perspectives but does not prove anything and becomes endless. In fact, it results in tangential arguments about religious practice ( as you can tell from later posts).
        As for my note, I did not mean to offend anyone including Mr. Aziz. It was just a way of saying, okay fine you win, I lose. If my comment is misconstrued, he has my apologies. Best regards,


  6. I consulted with a hi school cousin. He says:

    all the complications are for people who have time and comfort to do so. ‘We have exams, dude, game practices, presentations’. a number of Muslim classmates are not doing prayers and fasts. our parents deliberately tell us not to. so we dont suffer in class and our grades.
    anything that makes our life as muslim easier, like wiping the shoes/socks instead of washing, shortening the salah, praying later at home, **Using the pre-calculated calendar** is a big relief. if you want us to stay muslim, keep the complications out. no need to make it fun. just more practical. this is for your own next generations.


    I think however much we debate and discuss this, Islam in future (& current kids) will take the path of least discomfort and more practicality.


  7. Salaams Br. Shafqat
    You have just proven one of the points i made in my original post. That calculations was created for mere conveinence and it is not in accordance with the teachings of the Quran and Sunnah.
    We should be teaching our kids the proper way to practice our religion and not just say “okay because its too difficult for you to do, then just do whatever you want”
    So what is next? It’s okay to eat Non-Halal food, because it is too difficult to find Halal food in some places? It’s okay to pray Jummah on Sundays, because it is too difficult to take an extra half hour break on Friday’s from school or work? It is okay to not fast because it is too hard in the long summer days and you can just make it up later during the winter?!
    All these examples above are what people have been arguing and debating for a long time and it is a big shame that we Muslims are so weak now that we are trying to take the “easy way out”!
    In fact our religion, Islam is already very simple and everything is possible to be done even in our modern age. We just need to do it and not keep making excuses!
    InshaAllah I will be writing a rebuttal to Br. Aziz’s piece and will also address some of these items in more detail.
    Stay Tuned!

    • oh, dear. If tat’s where the debate is going – that people who honestly employ calendar calculations rather than moonsighting calculations, are doing so because they are too lazy to follow the real religion, then I am afraid there’s not much point in my contributing to teh debate further.

      If we cannot accept each other’s arguments in good faith, then what is the point of this excercise?

      Quite disappointed.

      • @Aziz – I was responding to Br. Shafqat’s response which is just to “make things easier for our next generation and let them do things as they want so they can fit in Ibadah into their busy schedules”!
        I liked your initial response, and I will give a rebuttal, but I will also address some of the comments which people have made as well.

  8. Br Irfan,
    you are taking my cousins comments out on a different tangent.
    This is not India or Pakistan where only one view dominates, with no choice. Here, the Muslims from all over the world are co-germinating their next seed. With the 4 Madhahib’s and the Salafis, our next generations is routinely looking at the person praying next to them and their peers. Where-ever they see an exemption, exclusion, freedom, they will automatically flow to it.

    You may know the troubles and hardships our younger ones are going through. They will develop their own brand of Islam that takes the best from all 4 Madhahib’s and Salafis. This probably is Allah’s plan, by putting us all in this pressure cooker.

    If you can’t figure the flow theory, you can take the easy route of making allegations of “deviation” against your other Muslim fellow. Though it reflects poorly upon you, br Irfan.

    • Br. Shafqat makes a good point here. I’ve often pondered over this issue myself. In fact it is a test for our ulema too that see this mix of Madhaib come together. Not being a scholar, I would not dleve too deep on this matter, but I’d say that as long as the exemptions or differences in practice are based on the practices or interpretations of the learned amongst the 4 Fiqhi schools, we should be okay. I think Br. Irfan’s point is to illustrate exactly that – deviation simply for the sake of ease should be sifted from that which is permissible under the different schools. Yes, Brother, that the youngsters may develop their own “brand” of Islam but beware of the Prophet’s reminder to us that his ummah will be split into 73 sects, all in hell except one . That is a hair raiser, which makes us worry about the nature of change. The only protection against such is the proper education of our youngsters in this regard. Many immigrant Muslims are not aware of how their brothers from another madhab practice faith; they learn by interaction and education. Our youngsters can do the same.America is a fine ground for that with the mix here. Br. Irfan is simply cautioning against falling into error. Wa ma alina illal Balagh ( and it is our duty to simply convey the message). Allah knows best. Peace!

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