Khalid Chraibi

23 July 2008

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Over the past 50 years, the Arab League, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and other similar bodies presented their member States with over a half-dozen proposals aiming at the establishment of a common Islamic calendar. Although none of these proposals was adopted, efforts in search of a solution that could be satisfactory to all interested parties continue to this day.

For its part, the Fiqh Council of North America (FCNA) was also regularly confronted with the responsibility of telling its Muslim American audience when to start fasting, when to celebrate « eid al-Fitr », « eid al-Adha », etc. After several years of study of the legal issues involved, it reached a decision, which it announced in August 2006, to use henceforth a pre-calculated Islamic calendar, taking into consideration the sightability of the new moon anywhere on Earth. (1)

First, it retains the well-known principle of unicity of horizons (matali’e) which states that it is sufficient to observe the new moon anywhere on Earth, in order to declare the beginning of a new lunar month, applicable in all areas in which the information is received. Second, it uses the International date line (IDL) or Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) as its conventional point of reference to conduct its analysis.

Based on the maps of sightability of the new moon in the various regions of Earth, which are now regularly prepared by professional astronomers, (2) FCNA reached the conclusion that when the conjunction took place before 12:00 noon (GMT), there was enough time left for the new moon to be seen in numerous areas on Earth where sunset took place long before sunset in North America. Since the criteria of sightability of the new moon were met in these areas, the new moon would be observed (or could have been observed if weather conditions had been adequate) long before sunset in North America.

Therefore, the requirements of sightability of the new moon as set by the shari’ah would be respected, and the new lunar month could begin in North America on sunset of the same day. On the other hand, if the conjunction took place after 12:00 noon GMT, the month would begin in North America on sunset of the following day.

The FCNA decision aroused much interest in many Muslim countries, because it elegantly met the requirements of the traditional interpretation of the shari’ah, while making use of the state-of-the art know how in the field of astronomy to respond to the needs of the modern age. It was thought that this solution could be applicable in other Muslim countries, and could give them a chance to adopt the same pre-calculated Islamic calendar (prepared on an annual basis, long in advance), in order to fulfill all the religious duties as well as to manage all other tasks.

An international conference was thus held in Morocco, in November 2006, to study the issues involved, with the participation of astronomers from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, UAE, Iran, Guinea, Libya, Morocco, and the USA. The overwhelming majority of the participants, including Saudi, Egypt, and Iran astronomers agreed that the calendar adopted by Fiqh Council of North America could be used as a Global Islamic Calendar. (3) (4)

But FCNA changed position in 2007 to align itself on a new decision by the European Council for Fatwa and Research (ECFR), which used the same parameters as those of the Umm al Qura calendar (5) to determine the beginning of Islamic months. These parameters are as follows : the “conjunction” must take place “before sunset at the coordinates of Mecca” and “moonset must take place after sunset” at the same coordinates. (6)

FCNA and ECFR justify the adoption of the new parameters by their desire to help develop a consensus within the Muslim community throughout the world on issues of common interest, among which that of the calendar.

From a methodological point of view, the substitution of the parameters of Umm al Qura calendar to those initially set by FCNA in its August 2006 decision has the following consequences:

– The requirement that the “conjunction” take place “before sunset at the coordinates of Mecca” instead of 12:00 noon GMT, as previously specified by FCNA, adds 3 hours to the time period during which the conjunction will be taken into account. This improves the chances that the first day of the new month will immediately follow the day on which the conjunction takes place.

– But, the requirement that “moonset take place after sunset” at the Mecca coordinates sets an unduly restrictive condition, which didn’t exist in FCNA parameters of 2006. It implies that the new moon will be potentially sightable at Mecca on the evening of the day of conjunction, whereas the FCNA based its reasoning on the fact that the new moon would be potentially sightable “somewhere on Earth”.

According to FCNA, the data of the calendar thus obtained differs only marginally from the data developed using its methodology of August 2006.

Concretely, the decisions of FCNA and ECFR have already had the following results:

– The principle of use of a calendar based on calculations is officially sponsored by religious leaders who are well-known and respected within the Muslim community (7) (8) (9)

– This principle is officially adopted by Islamic organizations whose legitimacy and credibility are unquestionable;

– The Muslim communities in Europe and America are willing to use this calendar to determine the beginning of all months, including those associated with religious events.

The impact of these decisions, worldwide, will of course depend on the attitude of the various Muslim Governments towards them, since it is the latter which have the last word on such matters, each one in its territory.

For example Saudi Arabia only uses the Umm al Qura calendar for administrative purposes. (5) It considers that it would be against the shari’ah to use it for the determination of religious dates, such as the beginning of Ramadan, eids al-Fitr and al-Adha, the dates associated with Hajj, the 1st of Muharram, etc.

But, once the use of the calendar based on calculations becomes part and parcel of the culture of the Muslim community in Europe and America, won’t the minds in Saudi Arabia be more open to the use of the Umm al Qura calendar for the determination of all lunar months, including those associated with religious occasions?

The initiatives of FCNA and ECFR may thus help many Muslim States develop, in time, a consensus about the adoption of a “Global Islamic calendar” for use by all Muslim communities in the world. (10)

(1) Fiqh Council of North America Islamic lunar calendar
(3) Morocco meeting: Breakthrough for global Islamic calendar
(4) Morocco meeting, November 2006, details
(5) Van Gent The Umm al Qura calendar
(6) Islamic Center of Boston, Wayland : Moonsighting Decision documents
(7) Yusuf al-Qaradawi : « Astronomical calculations and the determination of the beginning of months » (in Arabic)
(8) Zulfikar Ali Shah The astronomical calculations: a fiqhi discussion
(9) Ahmad Shakir : « The beginning of Arab months … is it legal to determine it using astronomical calculations? » (published in Arabic in 1939) reproduced in the Arab daily « Al-Madina », 13 october 2006 (n° 15878)
(10) This article updates a previous article on the subject entitled : “It is time for the Islamic world to replace lunar uncertainty with scientific facts” published by on 5 September 2007 and reproduced at Towards a global Islamic calendar