Thursday, August 12

Fly Me To The Moon

So here my, a layman's take, on the whole moonsighting difference of opinion. Please bear in mind that this is more of a scientific discussion than a fiqhi one. Oh and although I'm going to try to present the various ideas impartially I do have my opinion on the matter which may seep through; although I will be spelling out my position by the end anyway.

Before we begin, have a play with the following (sneakily stolen from here, which you should definitely click through to, if only to see a bigger version):

NAAP Astronomy Labs - Lunar Phases - Lunar Phase Simulator

Cool eh? Pay special attention to the horizon diagram on the right as well as the time of day for that little stick man, but bear in mind that since this doesn't take in seasonal and geographical effects it doesn't paint the full picture (which is much more complicated). You might want to have it open in another window as I continue.

So now let's create some definitions. Once again bear in mind that these aren't formal or well used, I'm kinda plucking them out of thin air. However they'll come in use when we talk about moonsighting strategies.

The true birth of a moon is the time when the new moon is technically born. This is when the crescent is at its absolute thinnest and is where the above simulator starts off. Notice how this can ONLY happen during the day. This is why total eclipses only happen during the day and at the beginning of the lunar month.

The visible birth of the moon is the first time you see the moon at night, any time after its true birth. This is the classic crescent we all look out for. Bear in mind that you may not see the visible birth the same night as the true birth, as you might be on the wrong side of the Earth at the time. We can try this in the simulator too: using the time tickmarks, adjust the hours and minutes until the stick man lies just after sunset - use the horizon diagram to determine when exactly the sun is setting (using later days when the moon isn't in the way, I make it to be around 6:22pm). Once you have him sitting at Maghrib, flick through the days to see the first time the moon is completely above the horizon. I make this a day after the true birth, although depending on the season and your geography in reality it could actually potentially be a good few days after - if seen at all.

Let's call the time we establish a new Islamic month "event zero" and the place "ground zero". I won't specifically define these, since it's these in particular that opinion differs upon.

We'll assume that "seen", "witness" and "calculated" are all synonymous; that we all believe calculations to be good enough to predict event and ground zero. We do this to avoid discussions about cloud cover or mountains etc. We'll also say that the Islamic day starts at Maghrib.

Okay, so with that groundwork done let's go through the various opinions. There are generally three, although I would expect there to be many variants too with some in between the ones I list below. Remember, this is only to outline the rationale behind the decisions we make, rather than to give or represent any existing fatwa.

Moonsighters take the scriptural source and apply it strictly; that is the month only starts if the moon's crescent is seen in their locality during the night - with each locality having its own event and ground zero. If it's not seen, then they use the fact that a lunar month cannot be longer than 30 days to create default position. The main benefit with this method is in its obviousness; you know when you see the moon. There are a few possibly negative implications however, all of which stem from the fact that there's fair few days gap between the visible and true births of the moon, and this gap depends on where you happen to be in the world. Amongst other things this may mean that end up repeatedly defaulting resulting in your locality becoming out of sync, until a visible birth close enough to a true birth resets this situation. A solution to this would be to use a neighbouring locality which has a smaller gap between the true and visible births - for example since we don't usually see visible births in the UK for a good three or four days into a lunar month, some receive word from Morocco instead. If we didn't do this, then every month would default to 30 days and we'd be even more out of whack with the rest of the world.

Apart from this, the insular nature of this method along with the timing issues of the moon and the Earth ensure that different localities may end up witnessing the visible births on different days - even if these localities are contiguous. This isn't stubbornness, it's the mathematics of a literal opinion. However it does mean that there's no allowance for a "universal Islamic date" or UID, something which causes major problems later on when you try to specify a world event (for example, the angels will only descend the one time on Lailatul Qadr; they won't think "well some are doing it tomorrow/the next day so we have to cater for them too"). On the other hand, since the event zeros are local there's no need for a fixed "international date line" equivalent.

The absolutists use the true birth to mark the beginning of a month, or rather the first night after the true birth (since it would have happened during the day). So let's say the true birth occurs in London: this sets the ground and event zero for the whole world (or rather, universe), and for each locality, the first night after that broadcasted signal will be the first of the month for them. Whether those already in a night (like Australia in this case) do it now or tomorrow boils down to a variant case, although in theory it would be consistent with all who happen to be in that position; as such this strategy requires global agreement and cooperation in order to reap maximum benefit.

Since there is only one true birth per month (that is, it's not a local phenomenon) we now have a UID. The biggest issue (which might not be that big a deal) is that we now have an international date line placed in relation to ground zero, which over the larger continents means we may have the situation where neighbouring localities spread across this date line will have different starts of the month. That said, this is happening many times over with local ground zeros anyway, so the best we can do is have just the one. For the literalists out there, it's worth bearing in mind that a visible birth may not actually be seen anywhere in the world for a few days after event zero - an absolutist doesn't care about that though. Also, there are no "defaulting" or synchronising events either - in fact you get some cool side-effects like the moon being full exactly half way through the month.

The third way is more of a mix of the two above. However it would be incorrect to call it a "middle" way, so I've going to talk about it a bit on its own. Here, they use the same strategy as the absolutists, but use the first visible birth to mark event and ground zeros. In practice, there isn't much difference between the results here and those above, except that the month may start a few days after that of the absolutists, and the international date line would have shifted a bit too. Otherwise we have the same advantages and disadvantages except that since it was a visible birth that defined ground and event zero we may now have fulfilled a Sunnah. This comes at a cost of having to sometimes default and have synchronising events, although these would not happen as often as it would for the moonwatchers. Once again, there's no insistence that a visible birth be seen in a locality - as long as it had been seen elsewhere.

Just to head those of you still reading, the rest of this discussion will be more about my personal take on the matter.

Generally at times like these, where there are split opinions, I tend not to look much at hadith or even the Quran. Each side will have their own irrefutable evidence and interpretations; and it's precisely these which leads to the split in the first place. I tend to use what I call the "Seerahtic" method, which doesn't ask "what did the prophet do when he came across a similar situation back in Saudi?" but instead "what would the Prophet do if he was around today?". Of course this still won't bring universal agreement, but in my opinion it does release the argument of technicalities and semantics.

Anyway, applying this method, I think it would be one of the last two he would pick, possibly the last strategy. I think he would want to enforce a UID, but whether it would be the true or visible birth which marks event zero would depend on whether his moonsighting advice was simply a device given to those without the geometry skills in order easily determine the start of a month or not.

This also sits with what I feel is right personally, although I may lean towards the final strategy . I like the idea of a UID; in fact I think it's essential. I also don't have a need to have seen a moon in my locality, just like I don't look out of my windows for dawn, sunrise and sunset (each of which, although calculable, can be effected by atmospheric conditions leading to the situation where it might not quite be dawn even though our timetables say it is). And even though there isn't a global consensus or UID yet, I think it's more correct to follow a strategy that has the potential for one rather than one that fundamentally doesn't allow one.

In the end though no matter how I reached there I don't have anything other than my own opinion to back this up. As such mutual respect and tolerance overrides any difference of opinion we might have in this matter, and is something that should always be put before any discussion on the topic.