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Calendar anomalies

Updated September 06, 2013

PRACTICAL utilisation of the Islamic calendar has always been challenging, especially due to the unscientific way in which we manage Islamic dates in Pakistan.

In particular, the way it is managed locally makes it very difficult to schedule future appointments since there is no surety on what day a particular date will actually fall. It is entirely dependent on the 29th of each lunar month when a decision needs to be made based on moon-sighting whether the next day will be the first of the next month or the last day of the current month.

The most common manifestation of this confusion is typically witnessed every year during the end of Ramazan when Eid is celebrated on distinct dates by different groups of people.

The social importance of celebrating Eid on the same day by the entire country cannot be undermined. Its significance and the positive impact it creates on the collective psyche of the nation has already been discussed by several writers and journalists. However, the subject of this write-up is to point to a major repercussion of this controversy which has not been aptly highlighted.

Without going into the religious merits or demerits and without assigning fault to any particular group, I believe the key challenge that is completely overlooked is that the decision by any group or provincial government to celebrate Eid on a different date perpetually introduces ‘multiple’ calendars in the country. In fact, depending on whom you speak with, the first day of Sha’aban will fall upon a different day and to make matters more complicated, the entire annual calendar could perpetually diverge.

It is also not difficult to understand that existence of multiple calendars will lead to anomalies which will cause a further dent in the practical usage of the Islamic calendar by ordinary people as well as organisations.

Consider an example: a newsworthy incident that occurs in the country will be archived and reported on different dates by different local newspapers. Newspapers following the provincial/local government’s directive will publish the news on the dates based on the calendar being maintained by them, whereas newspapers following the central government’s directive will follow a different date. How could one ever go about reconciling such an inconsistency?

In actuality, the list of anomalies in terms of the Islamic calendar will be more than plentiful. Hence, if it were not up to our usage of the Western calendar system, we would probably be buried in a sea of anomalies.

How can we as a country or a community cope with managing such multiple calendars? Even if it were possible, how would organisations and systems manage themselves with making all the calendars compatible within the same country?

At the turn of the century, a relatively minor date issue had caused the global millennium bug problem that took huge amounts of global investment to be aptly addressed. The leap-year bug is a common occurrence that happens every four years in systems with no provisions for Feb 29.

These bugs are miniscule in nature when compared to the investment and the effort it will require to consolidate, integrate and synchronise perpetual multiple dates and calendars.

It is also interesting to observe that this particular controversy seems to visibly crop up during the time of Ramazan. Although Eid has been celebrated on multiple days since many years leading to different calendars, the dates are conveniently and quietly merged during the rest of the year and the controversy is brought to the forefront once again before the start of Ramazan and Shawwal.

This topic is also of immense interest globally as several Islamic countries have attempted to address this issue in different ways. The core difference in the various approaches is the extent of scientific and astronomical calculations that are allowed to be used to manage the Islamic dates.

A few countries, including Pakistan, discourage the use of calculations and put a lot of emphasis on receiving testimony of moon sighting as the core requirement to decide on the end and beginning of each month. On the other hand, Turkey’s Presidency of Religious Affairs has extensively used astronomical calculations to precisely determine the Islamic dates several years in advance.

Saudi Arabia’s approach at best can be described as a hybrid one as they tend to use moon-sighting testimony to determine religiously ‘important’ months. However, for administrative purposes they also rely on the Umm al-Qura calendar, which is entirely based on modern astronomical calculations.

This difference in approach has led to different Hijri calendars being managed by different countries. A notable effort at unification and standardisation has been proposed by the Fiqh Council of North America and European Council for Fatwa and Research.

They have proposed approaching this issue scientifically and have laid out precise astronomical calculations to determine the Islamic dates in advance. Although several countries have evaluated their proposal, they are yet to develop a consensus and agree on its adoption.

Irrespective of which precise approach we adopt for Pakistan, there is a need to resolve this issue at the earliest, since, if it is not resolved, historically speaking and as a nation we will all disagree on the dates of important events.

We will also disagree on how these events will be archived, retrieved and reported by coming generations. In addition, IT systems will never be able to cope with these anomalies which will make it impossible to practically use the Islamic calendar.

The writer is a freelance contributor.