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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Before We Revolt (Third article on Moon sighting in Nigeria)

Before We Revolt

“Ina ruwa na? Sun ce mu dauka, mun dauka. Sun ce mu aje, mun aje. In karya ce su da Allah »
The above is the usual answer of the common Nigerian Muslim if asked whether the new moon was sighted correctly or not. He did not have the sharp eye to sight the crescent himself on the first night. Neither has he the capacity to participate in scholastic discourse on the issue. He works with what the Sultan commands. And when the chips are down, the commoner has no defense but to throw the rope round the neck of the royal father, not giving a damn to whether the latter would be hanged by it or not.
The defense of the authorities, starting from the dagaci or hakimi up the royal hierarchy to His Eminence, the Sultan, is also simple. People have reported sighting the new moon, from more than one place. What choice have we other than announcing the arrival of the Holy month, or its departure, as enjoined by the Hadith of the Holy Prophet?
The Scholars on their part depend on a consensus Hadith that says, “Fast when the new moon (of Ramadan) is sighted, and stop fasting when it (the new moon of Shawwal) is sighted”. And it requires the sight of only one upright Muslim for Ramadan and of two independent ones for Shawwal, upon the most authentic and most preponderant view among jurists.
Thus with the above touch of simplicity, the month of Ramadan continued to be an annual source of controversy in Nigeria. All of us seem to have a reason to shy away from the responsibility of any mistake, if at all we accept or believe, even secretly, that any was made.
Speaking honestly though, I do not think anybody is lying. People are innocent. We are only slow in adapting to the impact of new information and technology. That is all. As usual, anything new is received with skepticism. Some would rush to say, “Ah! This is the end of the world. The Prophet has said that controversy over moon sighting is one of its signs.” The majority will run away from it, making all sorts of accusations.
For example, to claim that when the new moon would form could be predicted with good degree of accuracy would sound blasphemous to many ears, some of them scholars. It is considered an indulgence in gaibu (knowledge of the Hidden). Many factors are responsible for this. First, our society has remained a simple one, as far as science is concerned. Our knowledge of the moon is still shrouded with superstitions. Are there many moons or a single one? Is there a moon for each month, as Ramli among the Shafi’ites would claim? The eclipse of the moon or sun is still greeted with fear and clamor. It signifies the end of the world or an impending disaster. To claim that the earth is spherical, suspended in the air and moving round the sun is considered a blatant lie. The sun? Ah, it rises from the East and sets at the West. Simple.
Hence, the news that Apollo XI has landed on the moon in 1969 was received with the fear that America and Russia would “destabilize” the Heavens, or reach the “Kursiyyu.” Shata was exceptionally adventurous. He received the news with a thrill that compelled him to sing in praise of the Americans and their Apollo Program in Kumbo Apollo Eleven. But his contender on the issue, Muhammadu Gawo Filinge, expressed the feeling of the majority in Hausaland in his famous song Rabbi Sarki Mai-Jima’a. Though he conceded that God has given America and Russia luck and “enormous” knowledge, he nevertheless advised that they should desist from landing on the moon. This is how rudimentary our knowledge of the moon and the sun is traditionally. The common man would therefore naturally accept simple explanations based on modern science only gradually.
Secondly, predictions regarding rain, new moon or eclipses, etc. are generally regarded as indulgence in gaibu, the unknown whose knowledge in the doctrine of Monotheism is peculiar to God. The mathematics (hisabi) involved is often regarded as duba (fortune-telling), which along with astrology stands condemned in Islam.
Regarding moon sighting in particular, there is enough ground in some texts of Islamic jurisprudence that appear to support such views, at least on the surface. One of such texts is the most commonly used commentary on the Mukhtasar, the Jawahirul Ikleel of Sheikh Saleh Abdulsami’. In it, he said, “Ramadan will not be established by the calculation of an astrologer even when his truth is manifest because God has instructed that his assertions be rejected. No one should fast based on what he says. Neither could he (the astrologer) himself depend on that. Believing him is haram because the Prophet (S) has said, “Whoever believes a soothsayer, or a fortune-teller or an astrologer has disbelieved in what was revealed upon Muhammad (S).”
Now, where do we stand with astronomical calculations? In the first place, there is an ocean of difference between astronomy and astrology. The New Websters Dictionary defines astrology as “the art of predicting or determining the influence of the planets and stars on human affairs.” It defined astronomy, on the other hand, as “the science of heavenly bodies.” So though both pertains heavenly bodies, astrology is an art, a discourse (logos) while astronomy is a science (nomos) concerning the “law or arrangement” of such bodies. That is precisely why the author of Jawahirul Ikleel was quick to say that Ma’zari does not consider the calculation of the astrologer sinful if he has based it on a universal law.
The issue of Ghaib (the Unknown) itself has on a number of matters undergone transformation. Talking about tomorrow does not necessary imply indulgence in Ghaib. If we ask a child, from where would the sun rise tomorrow? His answer will certainly be “from the East.” Now we ask an adult of 40 years: “Would it rain in Maiduguri in December this year?” His answer will be “No.” Now, would the sun set at 7.15pm in Maiduguri today? No, because every year it sets around 6.00pm or just thereabout in December.
So man has learnt, by the Grace of God, how to predict the motion of heavenly bodies depending on the technique he employs. With lenses we know he could see farther than his ordinary eyes could reach. That is no Ghaib. Even issues like where rains would fall what the gender of a womb is, things that were once regarded as Ghaib in classical commentaries, in the famous Jalalain for example, are today, by the Grace of God Who furnished us with satellites and scanners, within the reach of man. That is why Ghaib is what is hidden from us, but remains in the Knowledge of God, which has encompassed everything. Whatever He lets us know would no longer be Ghaib. It soon becomes a tradition (‘adah) known to all and sundry. “They encompass nothing of His knowledge save what He will.” (2:255)
Thus the last two verses in Suratul Luqman are given a fresh commentary by modern commentators like the late Mutawalli Sha’arawi. According to him, the essence of the verse stands. It says “ma fil arham,” not “man fil arham.” The commentary is what changes with our perceptions while the verses of the Quran remain.
Having said this much, it is ripe to conclude that scientific information about the movement of the moon should not be seen as transgression into Ghaib. It is not even astrology. It is something based on empirical calculations that have been tested and found correct many times. The basis for using these calculations is the Quran itself. It has categorically mentioned: “The sun and the moon are made punctual” (55:5). Scientists simply took their time to watch the arrivals and departures of these ever punctual bodies and came out with formulae. So what is wrong with that?
The third problem has to do with the misunderstanding on what we are preaching. No one is asking the public to use these calculations alone and forget about sighting the moon. That will be a violation of the Hadith earlier referred to in this discourse. If it were so, we would have suggested that the last Ramadan should begin on Sunday, 26th November since the astronomical moon started at 12.53am that morning. But the condition of the Hadith needs to be fulfilled: The visual sighting of the moon, with the naked eye. That will require a waiting for about 17 hrs after the conjunction has taken place. In the evening of Sunday therefore, it would be possible for the moon to be sighted, as witnessed by the rest of the world, other than Nigeria.
So the calculation serves as a guide, a compass if you like, towards a correct sighting of the crescent. If I would tell someone that Lagos is southwest of Bauchi, and he flies without a compass straight in that direction, he will most likely end up in Benin Republic. To get to Lagos exactly, he needs a more precise definition, in degrees and minutes, which only a compass can accord. In the same way, astronomical calculations, as used in other countries, give us a more precise data on when to look at the sky and expect to see our newborn moon.
That is precisely the problem in this country. If people were asked to go on moon sighting on the right day, we would not have had any problem. But for both Ramadan and Shawwal, they went a day earlier, coming back to claim that they have seen a moon. They did not lie. Yes they did see a moon, especially on the 24th of December. Mind you, it was the same moon that everybody saw in the morning in the East, an old moon, not a new one. Before the new one is seen, the old one must go into “hiding” and it will not be seen for at least a day.
I heard a young Imam around denouncing the necessity for the moon to “hide”. It has aligned with the sun, so our naked eyes cannot see it. As it moves away from that alignment, now being a new moon, it starts to become visible and its visibility increases everyday until it becomes a full moon. God has said “And for the moon We have appointed mansions till she return like an old shriveled palm leaf.” (36:39) All commentators, old and new, have asserted that these mansions are 28 if the moon is 29-day and 29 if it is 30-day, as written in Raddul’ Adzhan. What we are saying is nothing new.
If we have seen it in the East, how do we see it as a new moon later in the day? And how comes it completely disappeared the following evening, on Monday, the day we were busy celebrating Sallah?
What is really disturbing is how Nigeria came out different from the rest of the world. Though it is not possible for the whole world to begin fasting or observe Sallah on the same day due to the difference in timing, it is doubtful whether Nigeria was correct in being a loner, almost every year. Though the issue of moon sighting is not a completely settled one, we have every reason to doubt our stand if we alone could be on one side, and the rest of the world on another. Tolerable differences due to differences in latitude must never be more than a day. But to see the new moon two days earlier than the rest of the world can hardly be justified even by common sense.
And that is the danger: the fact that people have common sense. My advice here is for the Supreme Council on Islamic Affairs to reconsider its practice on moon sighting. Let it be bold enough to imbibe new ideas that have only come to confirm what previous scholars have said. One important step in that direction is to use astronomical calculations as a guide towards sighting new moons. This alone will drastically reduce the chances of mistakes. The Council would then be able to compare notes with countries with which we share timing zones. The issue of timing zones is an old one in Islamic literature. Navigating without a compass is a risky business.
People may wish to underestimate the importance of my advice. But it needs to be taken seriously to avert the possibility of revolt both within the royal circles and among commoners like myself. A difference of a day last year was enough to cause a rift between the royal fathers during Eid al-Adha. Many did not follow the Sultan. This year the arithmetic will be a more difficult one. We will be two days ahead of the world except if both Shawwal and Zhul Qida would be 29 days only in Nigeria and 28 days in the rest of the world. But could a moon be 28 days? Or both months will be 30 days in Nigeria and 29 days each in the rest of the World. But Nigerians are not used to 30-day moons. Head or tail, all permutations show that we are heading for a crisis in two months, especially if Nigeria will observe one of the months as 29 and the world observes it as 30. The difference then will then be three days or Nigerians will a lunar month of 31 days! The discrepancy will only be averted if the authorities will be bold enough to concede to the population that there was a mistake in our Ramadan. Mistakes are human. So what is wrong in confessing to a making one?
One really wonders why it is taking time for the leaders and scholars to adjust. In the past we can afford to isolate ourselves from the rest of the world because information took days or even months to traverse the globe. Today, it could be within seconds. Immediately people learnt over the BBC and VOA that we were alone in Sallah, they became disturbed. Some even rushed to withhold eating and fast the following day. Education is circulating wider and faster, making people to ask questions. When they cannot find satisfactory answers here, they will listen to those coming from overseas. We cannot cock people in bottles any longer.
This matter, simple as it may seem, has the capacity to undermine the reverence that people have for traditional institutions and the local clergy. It can be averted if both groups will become more adaptive and adventurous in scholarship. Holding on to traditions and superstitions will only facilitate revolt and the search for alternatives. It is in our collective interest that we remain together.
It will benefit us a lot also if our Ulema would strive to acquire even the rudimentary concepts of science. Their counterparts in other parts of the world are busy doing so. They organize international conferences where they seek explanations from scientists on recent advances in various fields of science.
The two classes of people have everything to lose by not heeding to my call. If they however take it seriously, they will retain their most precious possession – their followers. Meanwhile, let them contend with the approaching dilemma on the issue of Arafat and the next Sallah.

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