Sighting the moon for Eid is traditional. But is it totally redundant?

Instead of doing away with the practice, we should ask if it can be coupled with science.
Updated 06 Jun, 2019 10:36am

I want to shed some light on the recent conversations about moon sighting, the lunar calendar and the use of scientific information to determine the start of Islamic months.

In Pakistan, it has been a practice to sight the moon to commence a lunar month. Recently, it has been proposed that since this is the age of science, we should benefit from research data and stop relying on moon sighting.

Certainly, we should rely on scientific observations and computations, but does that necessarily mean we should do away with moon sighting entirely? Traditionally, sighting the moon has been a requirement and even today, it does serve a purpose.

The science

The moon follows a set course and passes through different phases. The lunar conjunction, or the new moon, takes place when the moon, after its course, arrives exactly in front of the sun — and the sun, moon and earth are in a straight line.

At the sunset that occurs after conjunction, the moon remains on the horizon for some time (possibly for even a minute). The size and the duration of the existence of the moon depends on the age (time since conjunction) of the moon. The smaller the duration between sunset and conjunction, the smaller the size of the moon and smaller the duration of its existence on the horizon.

The visibility of the moon after sunset primarily depends on two factors: the elongation and altitude of the moon.

Elongation, or the arc of light, refers to the angular separation of the moon from the sun as observed from earth. Scientists state that, for the new moon to be seen by the naked eye, the elongation should exceed 10 degrees and the altitude of the moon above the horizon should exceed 5° at a time when the depression of the Sun is 3°. If these requirements are met, it will ensure that the crescent is not too thin and that it is visible.

Due to technological progress, astronomical calculations can not only tell us about the visibility of the moon on a particular date, but also provide the following details:

Take, for example, the moon visibility maps below for this month of Shawwal. They represent the visibility of the moon for every point (latitude and longitude) on the globe at the time of the local sunset.

It is evident that the moon could not have be sighted (almost) anywhere yesterday, June 3. The moon, however, will be sighted (almost) everywhere on the globe today, June 4.

It is unfortunate that Khyber Pakhtunkhwa announced Eid yesterday without any scientific basis. The only places where it was possible to sight the moon on June 3 were the American west coast, Central and parts of South America — and that even by telescope or other optical aid.

Cautious use of data

We can have approximate predictions whether the crescent can be seen with a telescope, binoculars or the naked eye. But these are predictions and since there are many factors contributing to the visibility of the moon, there is no exact answer as to how the new moon could be sighted.

At most, we can devise a very accurate (estimated) lunar calendar based on scientific observations and calculations, but these will be estimates. The orbits of the earth and the moon slightly change over time and the elongation and altitude requirements also vary, which means predictions of future dates may not be exact.

For example, if we look at the Umm al-Qura calendar followed in Saudi Arabia, which doesn't rely on seeing the moon to mark the start of a month, we will notice that the sighting of the crescent can occur before or after the predicted dates. The analysis for certain months, including Ramazan and Shawwal, for the last 19 years shows that the actual dates of the months were either before or after the predicted dates 21 percent of the time.

Rephrasing the question

Instead of doing away with moon sighting, we should ask if the practice can be coupled with science.

The scientific criteria applied to the sighting of the crescent should be used as a guide so as to eliminate the confusion as to when the crescent is most likely to be seen at a particular geographical location. We should use data for assessing the possibility of moon sighting in a space-time window and for determining the accuracy of moon sighting reports.

If that is done, we won't need to replace the conventional practice altogether and the Ruet-i-Hilal Committee won't have to be abolished either.

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Author Image

Zubair Khalid is an assistant professor of electrical engineering at Lums and a co-director of Smart Data, Systems and Applications Lab at the university.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (86) Closed

Jun 04, 2019 04:23pm
Good article! Thank you for the input
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Jun 04, 2019 04:51pm
Why waste money on these mullahs? We all can see the moon, so why the Rut e hilal Committe?
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Jun 04, 2019 04:58pm
In the above published article it has been conculuded that yesterday crescent could be seen in America.while it had been sighted in Saudi Arabia and other countries of the world.??
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tauha ali
Jun 04, 2019 05:03pm
balanced approach. most people will be in favor but it will be difficult to convince the elders if they lack scientific knowledge related to lunar motions
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Tahir A
Jun 04, 2019 05:03pm
Brilliant analysis and definitely the way forward. Please keep yourself safe. Love to see a wider angle and rationality.
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Muslim Medina
Jun 04, 2019 05:24pm
According to the author of this article the moon could not have been sighted on June 3. Except for few eastern countries moon was sighted in many countries and we are celebrating Eid here in Toronto today.
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Jun 04, 2019 05:34pm
Well written article. However the clergy will resist hard to let go of their power and the masses to understand that calculation of the Lunar Calendar has nothing to do with religion.
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Jun 04, 2019 05:58pm
Total waste of money. More of a corruption rather.
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Jun 04, 2019 06:01pm
Well written article highlighting why calculations alone are not enough. Coupled with accurate data, the exercise of moon sighting can become more efficient and less contentious. It can also put an end to scientifically impossible sighting reports from various parts of the country. That should lead to less controversy and Eid on the same day for the entire nation, as it should be.
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Jun 04, 2019 06:03pm
Why would more than hundred people lie in KPK about moon sighting
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Pravin Limaye
Jun 04, 2019 06:04pm
The moon men and their lunar highness... I don't think anything is more irrelevant in this day and age... No wonder the Islamic world is so far behind all other worlds
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Jun 04, 2019 06:05pm
What is the purpose of moon sighting? Is it to really see the moon or to give a point of synchronisation to the Muslim Ummah so they can celebrate together? I feel that the spirit of Islam is that the Muslims should come together and the moon sighting is a reference point. Even when we allow people to collect evidence, it is still an "estimate" of their honesty and credibility that they are telling the truth. Why not instead rely on the estimates that everyone can understand, and take the uncertainty simply in their stride. Whenever the likelihood of moon sighting is more than 80% or 90% or 95% or whatever threshold we agree upon, just equate to seeing the moon and be done with it.
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Jun 04, 2019 06:28pm
We don’t use our eyes to “see” the sun has gone down, we use a time table. Similarly we can use a time table for all lunar months. End the misery and let us plan our lives based on pre determined dates.
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Majeed at Thani
Jun 04, 2019 06:36pm
Our learned writer has forgotten one key point. Science is all fine and dandy, but our universe does not run with clockwork Newtonian precision. The moon has an irregular orbit. The length of a lunar month is an average 29.5 solar days. The operative word here is "average." Too many factors affect the speed of the moon's journey and its rise Because of the curvature of the earth, it is well neigh impossible that the moon will rise at the same time throughout the country. What we really need to do is agree that we as a country will celebrate Eid when it is sighted at a particular location, whether it be Makkah, Madina, Mashed or even Larkana and disband the wasteful Ruet e Hilal Committee.
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Jun 04, 2019 06:48pm
The whole idea is to abolish the Ruet committee to save millions.. The scientific practice of calculating the birth of moon is gaining popularity. Increasing number of countries are adopting it. And the author is suggesting otherwise. Strange..
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Jun 04, 2019 06:55pm
Very well written, balanced analysis! @Fahad Lunar cycle is relatively less stable than solar
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Jun 04, 2019 06:58pm
Looks funny seeing these guys behind these binoculars. We seriously need to get away with this now.
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Jun 04, 2019 07:02pm
People living in the West and other busy countries need to have a fixed date for the two Eid celebrations to avoid problems in their jobs caused by uncertainty of the traditional moon sighting. Community and hotel halls have be reserved ahead of time and they all need a fixed date. In some parts of the US (at least), people seem to be happy with astronomical calculations based on ISNA fatwas for convenience and Islam seems to be highly in favor of making life easy for people.
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Jun 04, 2019 07:22pm
Get more scientifically educated Maulanas who can even explain and justify their announcements.
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Dr Humaid Khan
Jun 04, 2019 07:30pm
It is important to remember that relevant hadiths did not say that when technology is developed do not bother about sighting of the moon. We all know the science is yet to get that precise. Even with all work in this area science has been proven inaccurate 21% of the time in regard to sighting of moon. So why not just follow the hadiths and start our fasting and end of the fasting by sighting the moon
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Alla Bux
Jun 04, 2019 07:30pm
Why does this committee need such huge telescopes to sight the moon? They never had these in 7th Century. So either the committee should use their eyes (even if they are failing) to sight the moon or accept the scientific data to declare the sighting. They should not have the cake and eat it too.
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Jun 04, 2019 07:30pm
@Anti-Corruption , Brother the only reason this news site is showing any opposition to the scientific approach is because it's an initiative that was sponsored by PTI, and Fawad Chaudhry in particular. Had it been a PPP initiative, it would have had gushing praise from all these same columnists. Unfortunately, this time they have been forced to side with the mullahs, just to highlight their anti-PTI credentials.
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What's in a name
Jun 04, 2019 07:31pm
Most comments show that they ahven't read the article well enough.
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Jawaid Kamal
Jun 04, 2019 07:33pm
You want to have your cake and eat it too. Science should take precedence You want keep clergy happy, They really want total control, Hope you understand, thanks
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Jun 04, 2019 08:03pm
Exactly, we do not need to eliminate the current way, it is in fact most accurate. Coupling it with science is good idea. In fact currently too, science is used along with moon sighting. However, calling the 'moon sighting' deprecated or old way, is not appropriate in any way.
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Jun 04, 2019 09:06pm
@Asm, because it is not easy to fast during summer
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Jun 04, 2019 09:08pm
Mashallah.. first time commenting. This perfect in that science can be used as tool in aiding the actual sharii’ requirement of naked eye sight of the moon. This is the way forward.. not blind sighting not backed by science or calculations with total disregard of ruyat..
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Jun 04, 2019 09:16pm
It will be inthe interests of every one if we start training our religious scholars all about science. It will be in our interest to teach them mathematics, logic, humanities , international relations and business. We can't afford to keep them ignorant and expect good from them
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Jun 04, 2019 09:26pm
@Majeed at Thani, Do you even science, bro?
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Jun 04, 2019 09:34pm
the only thing telescopes are being used for in pakistan!
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Abbas Syed
Jun 04, 2019 09:55pm
Is not the time to get rid of ill-informed Moulvis in the subject of astronomy for validating appearance of the moon for Hijri calendar months and leave it to the scientists.
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Jun 04, 2019 10:30pm
Please try to come to the twenty-first century ...
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Jun 04, 2019 10:34pm
Ask all the members of committee to sight moon on their personal expenses!
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Jun 04, 2019 10:39pm
A scientific approach should be adopted for sighting of moon to avoid any conflicts. Just as with the invention of watches we have started relying on science to set the Sallaat timing, we have start using GPS to locate the Mosques to offer prayers, started riding modern day transportation to reach to Mosques. Yes it will be a hard and bitter pill to swallow but we have to.
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Jun 04, 2019 10:45pm
We need to sight it. Bigger telescopes might help
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Saeed Akhtar
Jun 04, 2019 10:59pm
I second Dr. Khalid's proposal. Moon sighting be substantiated with scientific data is the way forward. This approach would bring all the stakeholders on-board in decision making.
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Imtiaz Syed New York
Jun 05, 2019 12:08am
When your eyesight is week you rely on science to use glasses even opt for Cataract surgery if required. You use telescope for moon sighting. You take aeroplane to go for Hajj depending on imoderenities. But when it comes to moon sighting you prefer tradition over science. The nature, the science is Islam. Dissolve Ruete Hilal Committee and resort to scientific methods. In the West newspapers repot ever day sunrise, sun set, moon rise, moon set, Mars rise, Mars set and saturn rise and set trimmings. You can draw a thousand years' calender for moon rise and set. Don't wage the war with batons ans swords when missiles and other sophisticated science based weapons are in vogue. Good bye Ruete Hilal Committee. Sorry your feasts are gone.
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Salman Aziz
Jun 05, 2019 12:50am
Well written and thought provoking article. I would have used HMNO maps Shauket Mian visibility maps extend quite a bit to the east. In any event in all cases it was diffiecult to site even with optical aid in North America. According to his site there was no visible sighting till the 4th hence Eid is the 5th Some places like Fiji will do Eid on 6th. Saudi and others jumped the gun. Nothing new they. Seem to enjoy causing confuision in the Muslim world.
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Jun 05, 2019 01:07am
supposing a certain area is cloudy, the moon can't be seen. Then, no eid for that area.
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Jun 05, 2019 02:07am
Even on American west coast, Central and parts of South America moon could not be visible because Sun was too close to the moon. Hence obscuring its light. Probability of visibility of moon was 0. This is as per the TimeandDate dot com website.
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Jun 05, 2019 03:51am
Here in Toronto (GTA) Crescent committee and Hilal committee anounced eid will be on wednesday as there was no moon sighting reported.
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Doctor H
Jun 05, 2019 04:22am
Informative article and good suggestion. Muslims all over the world perform Hajj on the same day, as per Saudi determination of the start of zilHajj, and no one argues that we should not perform hajj if we believe it to be on the wrong lunar day. What Muslims of today need more than anything else is to show some semblem of unity, and performing Eid on one day (at least in individual countries) would go a long way. Previously dome western countries even considered making Eid days as some form of holiday for muslims, but it came to nothing because our scholars could not agree on the interpretation of ahadeeth. It is high time that Muslim scholars who are also well versed with modern education sit down and resolve this matter for once and all. Islam is meant to be an ideology, and it undoubtedly is, yet in no other relegions, I see their scholars contradicting each others' beliefs so much.
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Jun 05, 2019 04:39am
Fixed the date for new moon in advance. That way Eid will be the same day for everyone across the world.
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Jun 05, 2019 08:17am
@Atif, Why not you open Fast when Saudis open fast, pray Namaz at Saudis timings all over the world, Fajar in the USA at the Fajar time in Saudi Arabia to bring synchronization.
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ShahMeer Hashim Raza
Jun 05, 2019 08:43am
According to attached images which showing moon couldn't be seen either by naked eyes nor by optical(scientifically) in Saudi Arabia and UAE on 3rd May 2019. How Saudi Arabia and UAE announced Eid moon?
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Jun 05, 2019 09:23am
Very well-written article.
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Jun 05, 2019 09:24am
Nice Article Totally agree with you
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Jun 05, 2019 10:49am
The article tells us that Saudi Arabia Ummul Qura calendar was off the mark 21 % of the time for the last 19 years. I doubt that Ummul Qura calendar is purely scientific based. Since It's official calendar of the Government of Saudi Arabia I think it carries certain political considerations. I assume that pure scientific base lunar calender for a particular geographical location would be much more accurate.
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Jun 05, 2019 10:59am
If we have to be lure traditionalists then we should look with the naked eye only. The use of high power telescopes and even binoculars invalidates so called tradition. By that logic we should all be using maswak for cleaning teeth and camels for transportation too.
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Jun 05, 2019 11:02am
@Asm, "Why would more than hundred people lie in KPK about moon sighting". And why is it that without fail, every year KPK sites moon 1 day before all the rest of humans do? Defies science and logic.
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Jun 05, 2019 11:07am
@Alla Bux, they should not use glasses either as even glasses did not exist in those days?
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Jun 05, 2019 11:10am
@Ferdous, we need to educate the mullahs in real knowledge. Just mudrassah education should not be accepted.
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Jun 05, 2019 12:04pm
Their bad eye sight is being compensated with powerful telescopes for moon sighting. Though the average person can usually site the new moon with his/her naked eye. So either get rid of these aging mullahs or their telescope. Then avail your average citizen for moon sighting and take consensus out of 5 or 7 people to confirm.
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Shakil Khan
Jun 05, 2019 01:13pm
Absolutely Cultural hang over of centuries
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Jun 05, 2019 01:15pm
@faiz, actually it wasn't sighted in Saudi arabia. They do not even bother looking for the moon. They have a fixed calender which is against the rulings of Islam.
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Jun 05, 2019 01:16pm
@Asm, It wasn't possible to sight the moon. If 100 people in KP said they saw the sun rise at 1AM would you believe them? In this day and age did any of these 100 people take a photo of the new moon? No they didn't...cause they are all liars
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Jun 05, 2019 03:14pm
Modi trying to steal the moon by landing Hindustani rover on the moon that may effect the breaking of fast in Pakistan thereby causing nationwide hunger in a neighbouring country. We are all aware that hunger can effect the proper functioning of our brains.
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Jun 05, 2019 04:20pm
@SajjadX, Might be due to the location and altitude of KP.
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M. Siddique
Jun 05, 2019 05:06pm
Disband the Ruet-e-Hilal and use the calculation method.
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Doctor H
Jun 05, 2019 05:45pm
@Pakistani, Modern science can tell you when the first of the lunar month falls upon, and whether it would be possible or not to sight the moon on that day. What mullahs of different schools of thought need to decide upon is some rules about the use of science in this. As for tradition, well I do not see anything in tradition about nikah over the phone. One can cite so many other examples. The point is that mullahs came upon an agreement over such things. Why not sighting of the moon?
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Jun 05, 2019 07:06pm
Good information! However, the change in orbits can also be predicted very accurately and for next 5-10 years it is not even an issue at all. So the calendar can be very accurate and not estimate.
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Jun 05, 2019 07:15pm
Ruet cannot be eliminated.It is not redundant.It is necessary.
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Jun 05, 2019 07:48pm
Just celebrate Eid as soon as new moon is sighted by any Muslim organization across the globe. Unity is what matters and more so when the Islamic world is divided and in tatters. Use calculations as a back confirm. Its a win win for both shahada and calculation followers..
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Reality Bites
Jun 05, 2019 08:21pm
@Dr Humaid Khan, You don't get it. Science is way more accurate than tradition and faith.
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Lahori Kid
Jun 05, 2019 09:00pm
Millions of Rupees spent on this committee for only finding a moon, two days out of the entire year would serve a better purpose if that money was used to feed people on both Eid's. Imagine that.
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Jun 05, 2019 10:35pm
Is it not against shariyat.
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Jun 06, 2019 08:26am
I have a very simple question to all those Muslims who insist on watching the moon by naked eye and dont want to follow the astronomical Calender. wWitch Hadith tells that fast begins at 4.35 am and ends at 7.35pm or isha prayer starts exactly at this hour and minute.Obviously we have slowly after along time accepted a scientific fact .Now is time to follow the monthly astronomical calender as well.
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Khalid iqbal
Jun 06, 2019 08:52am
The Muslims were always ahead in the field of astronomy , and hence were ahead in scientific understanding , till the Mullahs came and developed their rigid attitudes and want to exert their control over matters of which they have little knowledge.
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Yes Right
Jun 06, 2019 09:38am
This issue was settled already 100s of years ago by several scholars who already interpreted the arabic term 'roya' to mean 'to find out, to know or to discover ' The means of this discovering does not have to be necessarily visual sight. It may be astronomical data etc. Why the current ulema of this modern age insist on visual discovery is strange.
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Jun 06, 2019 12:13pm
Thank you for highlighting this! Agree with the point of the view that scientific knowledge and information should be embedded into the moon sighting process! This will simplify things!
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Jun 06, 2019 12:17pm
Verse 2:189 has been translated as "They ask thee concerning the New Moons. Say: They are but signs to mark fixed periods of time in (the affairs of) men, and for Pilgrimage." (Yousuf Ali). Why did people ask specifically about the crescent? It was perhaps because the crescent was an ancient goddess the Diana of the Greeks and its Arab equivalent the Manat ( of Lat, Manat and Uzza).People wanted to know if some special sanctity was accorded to the crescent worshiped as Manat. It was made clear that no sanctity was attached to the crescent and it should be used like other material things in a rational manner. The point is that it was never prohibited to use some other better measure of measuring time like say vibrations of a cesium atom for measuring time. By deifying the crescent , raising it aloft or saying that only crescent can be used for measuring time as there is something sacred about it we are just continuing the worship of Manat under the garb of religion.
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Jun 06, 2019 01:53pm
@Zak, Please read Mufti Muneeb's articles in Daily Jang.
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Aslam 66
Jun 06, 2019 02:17pm
If the "moon sighters" committees will never stop fighting even if they are standing on the moon.
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Jun 06, 2019 02:54pm
The burning issue in Pakistan is moonsighting over which government functionaries are coming to the blows.
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jehan nadan
Jun 06, 2019 09:26pm
How do you couple a truant moon with non-truant science?
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Zarak J Khattak
Jun 07, 2019 12:08am
This article raises so many questions: 1.) Moon visibility by the naked eye is based on the elongation and altitude of the moon. Who has ever done research on what elongation and altitude people would not be able to see the moon? Remember humans have different eyesight and moon sighting motivation (specially in KPK) capabilities. 2.) Based on the moon visibility maps shown, the moon couldn't have been sighted in Asia and Africa and yet all the middle east countries claimed to have seen the moon on June3rd. Does that mean all of the witnesses were lying and not being honest about their sighting claims? 3.) According to the author 21% of the time sighting the moon can contradict the estimated lunar calendar. Doesn't this mean you are again relying on moon sighting to verify the calendar which again takes you back to the same issue of who can be trusted and who cannot in their moon sighting claim? The only way to end this impasse is to ditch the sighting and only rely on the calendar.
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Jun 07, 2019 01:09am
Having read through the article and comments below, it appears either people did not read the article or are ignorant and have not understood the conclusions. The writer advocates a scientific side the committee which already existing in form of lunar scientist which help confirm moon birth however birth of moon can not mean that moon will be visible via naked eye. It has been approximated (not agreed upon) that the moon needs to have been born for ~18 hours before it can be visible to naked eye. The main point of article here is a confirmation that born could not have been visible to human eye on 3rd of June in middle east or what do people make of the 100+ witness and the mullah who made the month of Ramadan into 28 days, particularly those advocating scientific approach.
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Capt. Ahsan Bin Aslam
Jun 07, 2019 01:55am
Every seagoing vessel carries a publication called the nautical almanac or to put it precisely Admiralty Nautical Almanac there is another one the Brown's Nautical Almanac but being a seafarer i have always preferred the one published by the Admiralty. In the Almanac each page has 3 day tabulations of the Sun, Moon, navigational planets and stars to help determine positions at sea when using a sextant. It also gives times of sunrise, sunset, twilights, moonrise and moonset, phases of the Moon and eclipses of the Sun and Moon to help navigators plan observations. For the moon and sun it gives the local mean times of the upper and lower meridian passages on different days. Using the longitude of our ship we convert lmt to utc and then add/subtract the zone time to / from utc to bring it to the ship's mean time to know precisely when the moon will be over our meridian of longitude. My contention here is that if only the govt engages a few navigating officers of the merchhant navy and give them sextants and a nautical almanac asking them to sight the moon, they will do a perfect job and if the moon is risen they will sight and pinpoint it after which the ruet e hilal authority can verify it.
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Jun 07, 2019 02:20am
From a medical perspective I suggest the upper limit of membership to ruet e hilal committee as 30 years. You want people with a 6 by 6 (20 by 20) eye sight and not someone waiting to get their cataracts removed. Use of eye glasses and contact lenses and any ocular pathology should immediately disqualify a person from being part of this committee.
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Jun 07, 2019 02:41am
So much fuss about moon sighting. Can’t believe this is the biggest issue Pak is facing
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Jun 07, 2019 04:46am
Science is good but not perfect. Scientists themselves do not claim to be perfect. In addition, if we totally rely on scientific data, then we are giving the data owners a lot of leverage to use their own knowledge to their advantage. In addition, governments can also manipulate scientists. I think we should rely on the human being's naked eye as witness for sighted ness of moon and put this issue to rest.
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Jun 07, 2019 04:49am
@Majeed at Thani, Good idea but moon sightation at any one place in the world should not be the basis for celebrating Eid throughout the world. Only those places which share the same horizon should celebrate.
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Jun 07, 2019 05:56am
@Pravin Limaye, yet most of the world. From China to the traditional Jews still follow it. Your opinion is that of an uneducated, illiterate commenter from India, aka troll.
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Shahid Raza
Jun 07, 2019 05:59am
Excellent a brief and short article with a nice solution to moon sighting and there will not remain any objection and problem for sighting the moon.
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Jun 07, 2019 05:59am
@faiz, it is a complex issue, and sighting the moon is fine, we don't need to make it a holiday like Christmas, that is fixed, but has nothing to do with real Christians.
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Jun 07, 2019 08:53am
Please don't take away useless Mullah's 2 mins of fame of declaring the moon has been sighted.
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