PESHAWAR: For decades, the Qasim Ali mosque in Peshawar has been synonymous with the moon sighting dissent. Managed by the Popalzai family, the mosque stirs up controversy aplenty when the time comes to sight the moon for Ramazan and Eidul Fitr.
The mosque is situated amidst the hustle and bustle of Peshawar's historic Qissa Khawani bazaar. Previously a two-storey building, a third floor has been added to the structure in recent years to accommodate the ever growing number of worshippers who frequent the famed mosque.
The mosque is marked by three short minarets over the main entrance, with a taller minaret on the right flank of the structure. The influence of Mughal architecture is clearly visible in the arches leading into wide open verandas.
A small graveyard is also part of the mosque's premises, which houses the graves of the founder Qasim Ali Khan and the elder, Abdur Raheem Popalzai who died in 1944.
Thousands of worshippers frequent the mosque for Eid and Friday congregations. Mufti Shahabuddin Popalzai, a man of average height and stocky build, leads congregations for Friday and Eid prayers. His sermons, delivered with a booming voice, are both powerful and impressive. Unlike most clerics, Popalzai sports an unorthodox moustache, which he habitually twirls while delivering sermons.
The mosque holds great sway over people of key districts in KP. Residents of Peshawar, Charsadda, Mardan and other nearby districts commence and end their fasting in line with announcements originating out of the mosque. The conflict over the onset of Ramazan and Eid celebrations occurs as evidence of the Shawal moon sighting of local Ulema (clerics) often contradict the findings of the Central Ruet-e-Hilal Committee under Mufti Muneeb-ur-Rehman.
The issue of moon sighting was not as divisive hundreds of years ago as it is today. In the past, Muslim scholars agreed on a certain method to decide the start and end of the month of Ramazan. But with significant advancements in technology in the past few years, these divisions have widened in some regions of the world.
According to Mufti Popalzai, Shariah does not allow confirmation of moon sighting through telephone
According to the official records of KP's Auqaf department, the Qasim Ali mosque was built in 1842. The current khateeb Mufti Shahabuddin Popalzai confirms that the tradition of sighting the Ramazan and Eidul Fitr moons goes back to 1825.
“The Central Ruet-e-Hilal committee should be held responsible for splitting the nation on sighting the moon for the holy month of Ramazan. They do not have any rules or regulations, and sight the moon as part of a job that needs to be performed, rather than seeing it as their duty towards fellow Muslims,” claims Mufti Popalzai.
Popalzai belongs to the Deoband school of thought. Although he is not averse to modern gadgets — he constantly uses a bluetooth device in his ear to attend calls — as he does not believe that technology should be employed to sight the moon. For this reason, he does not accept Met Office predictions.
He adds, “The committee dismisses the meeting early, and does not allow an opportunity to individuals to record their testimonies when it comes to sighting the moon. Also, Shariah does not allow confirmation of moon sighting through telephone.”
Explaining the process employed in Qasim Ali mosque further, Popalzai says that the committee dedicated to sighting the moon stays for a longer period of time, and testimonies from across the province are received and reviewed following which the call confirming or denying moon sighting is made.
Clerics from Qasim Ali mosque are of the opinion that the federal government should draft a law regarding moon sighting, and incorporate their suggestions in the new law.
KP's Minister for Religious Affairs Habib-ur-Rehman does not agree with the method of moon sighting employed at Qasim Ali mosque. Rehman is of the opinion that Popalzai maintains his inflexible point of view as he does not want to lose the dominant position his mosque enjoys in the region.
“How can dozens of people spot the moon when its age is only 6 minutes?” questions Rehman.
He adds, “The federal government must pass a law that punishes violators who indulge in spreading misinformation regarding moon sighting.”
Dr Abdul Ghafoor, currently a member of the Central Ruet-e-Hilal committee, also disagrees with Mufti Popalzai’s self-styled moon sighting and claims the mufti has no right to mislead people in such a manner. He further says that Popalzai has no specific time window for sighting of the moon.
While some follow Popalzai’s moon sighting decree due to convenience, others simply follow it because of community reasons.
“I follow Qasim Ali mosque simply because my entire community follows it, and I like to celebrate Eidul Fitr on the same day as my families and friends,” says Kakshal resident Mohammad Yaseen. Following Popalzai’s moon sighting is a family tradition started in his family by his grandfather.
The government is well aware of the controversy surrounding separate moon sightings in the country.
Observers feel that unless a law is passed to bring everyone on the same page and promote unity and harmony in such matters, separate moon sightings will continue to be an issue in the future.