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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Discourse 333: For Astronomy and National Observatory

Discourse 333
By Dr. Aliyu U. Tilde

For Astronomy and a National Observatory

I will start this article from its conclusion: The recurrent conflicts and errors on moon sighting in Nigeria can only be resolved by employing the knowledge of astronomy as Muslims before us have done and as many renowned scholars of the past have advised. Astronomy, not astrology, will be a guide as to when the moon should be sighted and also as a verifier of the validity of the sighting.

Relying on the general thinking that we do not need astronomical calculations in moon sighting has helped in no small measure to prolong the problem. In this article, I will rely heavily on two papers written by an old classmate and colleague, Mal. Usman H. Dukku of Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University, Bauchi. I have published one of Malam Dukku's articles in my column earlier. The link to the papers will be given below. In the end, I have made a plea for the establishment of a national observatory that will help us keep track of the moon and guide us on the science of its appearance. May God guide us unto the Right Path.

Astronomy and Moon sighting

The problem starts with what many of us think, that all we need in moon sighting is the following hadith:

“Fast when it (the crescent) is seen, and break when it is seen, but if it is obscured to you, complete Shawwal to 30.”

The instruction in the hadith looks simple but over time it has proved to require great effort to carry out. Initially the Islamic community was made of Arabs in the 7th Century A.D., people who were not given to science and literature then. To them, the above hadith came as a great relief as could be easily inferred from the following hadith of Abdullah ibn Umar that was reported by Buhari and Muslim:

“We are an uneducated community: We neither write nor calculate. A month is so and so days: meaning sometimes twenty-nine and sometimes thirty.”

Later the Muslim nation would expand and encompass people and ages given to writing and calculations. Scholars did not hesitate to learn, approve and employ the science of astronomy wherever they thought it would be useful. Dukku availed us with the following words of the great scholar, Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111 AD), who made a distinction between astrology (or duba in Hausa) and astronomy:

“The study of stars (astrology) whose aim is to predict the death or life of someone; and by the appearance of so and so star the death of someone, the perishing of a certain nation or demise of a kingdom is imminent: this is neither certainty nor even an informed guess. This kind of knowledge is not sanctioned by Shariah.”

Then Al-Ghazali continued to approve of astronomy:

“However, the study of stars with which the motions of the planets, the sun and the moon are determined is a natural science and the Shari’a has never refuted it. In fact, it serves as a means of reckoning of years, months and times of fasting, pilgrimage and prayers. The rejection of this is a (sign of) failure and ignorance.”

That was about 900 years ago!

Coming a century after Ghazali, another great scholar, Shaikul Islam Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328 AD) asserted the exactitude of astronomical calculations in determining, for example, conjugation (when the new moon is formed but still in ‘hiding’),when it is full and solar and lunar eclipses. In his Majmu’ul Fatawa, he said:

“Within the scope of astronomical calculations is the determination or disappearance of the moon and Full Moon, that is conjugation and opposition, respectively. Ordinary people can know these through clear signs such as disappearance of the waning crescent at the end of the month and its appearance at the beginning of the month and complete illumination in the middle of the month.

“Calculations, on the other hand, detect these using hidden events such as conjugation of the two discs during the period of disappearance of the moon and the opposition or the sun and moon which is the moment of Full Moon. Definitely, all these events can be determined through calculations. However, the visibility of the crescent cannot be accurately determined by calculations like the time of solar and lunar eclipse.”

In his comment under the above passage, Dukku said, “In other words, astronomical calculations can tell when and where it is impossible to sight the moon and when and where the moon can be sighted.”

The reason why visibility of the crescent cannot be determined accurately has to do with many physical reasons, including weather, season, position of the viewer,etc. Scientists have found out that visibility starts at least 12 hours after conjugation. May God bless Shaykhul Islam!

Later in the paper, Dukku availed us with the words of 8th Century AH scholar, Al-Subkiy, regarding astronomical calculations that appeared in Ahkam al-Ahillah of Ahmad ibn Abdullah al-Farih:

“What astronomical calculations can determine is the possibility or otherwise of sighting (the crescent)… What is meant here is a situation in which an informant informs about his sighting (of the crescent) while it is impossible (according to astronomical calculation) to see it. Information can either be true or false and giving false information may be either deliberate or due to an error; and either of these has limitless causes.

“Therefore,” al-Subkiy concluded, “it is not rational to accept information that is liable to these, or to testify on it, when it is impossible to sight (the crescent), because the law cannot be based on impossibilities.”

Al-Subkiy gave the reason why the jurists of his time took the stand of rejecting testimonies on moon sighting that contradict astronomical calculations:

“We have not found this issue written, thus we had to analyse it and give a ruling that such a testimony should be rejected. The reason for the (earlier) jurist’s silence on this issue is its rare occurrence (during their time). When it occurred during our time, we got a reason to speak on it. Jurisprudence is a sea no one can traverse and its issues are renewed with the renewal of its events.”

On this, another scholar, al-Abbadiy, was very strong in language:

“If definitive astronomical calculations indicate impossibility of sighting (the crescent), the sighting claim of even a trustworthy person should not be accepted. This is a clear issue. Fasting is not valid under this situation and opposing this is stubbornness and arrogance.”

In the last paragraph of his paper, Dukku said

“It may be concluded, from the foregoing, that astronomical science is compatible with the Shari’a injunction of basing the beginning of the lunar months on physical sighting of the crescent moon. It is a useful guide in moon sighting and helps in reducing errors. It is therefore recommended that Muslims all over the world, but in Nigeria in particular, be encouraged to use astronomical knowledge in enhancing physical sighting of the moon. This recommendation is in line with the resolution of the World Fiqh Council during its third conference, held in Amman , Jordan, in 1986.”

Twenty-five years after Amman, Nigerian Muslims remain adamant. We have expressed total defiance to anything astronomical even though, as shown above, reputable scholars of the highest order have agreed on the need to compliment our visual sighting with astronomical calculations and many Muslim countries around the world have adopted one form of recruiting the aid of astronomical calculations or another.

While differences between regions in moon sighting in ages past went unnoticed, the detachment of Nigeria from the rest of the Muslim world on this issue has become unsettling. The statistics as shown by Dukku in another paper are clear. Nigeria has always taken the gold medal when it comes to moon sighting. Even when it starts the fasting of Ramadan with the rest of the world, which it rarely does except with Libya, it is always – always – the first, and only few times among the first, to break it. The Ramadan moon has always been 29 for over 50 years, something that defies even the hadith of the Prophet (PBUH) who fasted more 30s than 29s in the period of only nine years in Medina.

So let us be practical and agree that there is a problem. I believe we can do it, unlike our inability to solve other national problems where economic interests are involved. This is not petrol, elections, education or transport. The solution here is ready made. It lies in treading the path taken by other nations. They combine astronomical calculations with physical observations to determine their calendar. This is not only in states of Libya or Egypt, but also in Saudi Arabia. In establishing his assertion that “the scholars are unanimous that any claim of moon sighting must be scrutinized and if it contradicts established common knowledge and expert knowledge (urf) about the moon (astronomy inclusive) it should be rejected,” Dukku, once more,cited “an eminent scholar, a member of the High Judicial Council of Saudi Arabia”, al-Shaykh Abdullah Ibn Suleyman al-Mani’ who said:

“For the fact that the testimony of sighting (the moon) should be free from what can nullify it according to practical experience, common sense and common knowledge, if it is not, then it is necessary to reject it. If experts in astronomy confirm that the sun will set before the birth of the New Moon and a witness comes to testify that he has sighted the moon after sunset, it is necessary to reject such a testimony, for it is a testimony about which we can at best say – giving the witness the benefit of the doubt – that the witness has erred in his testimony: for how can the crescent be sighted after sunset while the situation is that the New Moon is not yet born? That is to say the moon is ahead of the sun towards the west – the moon is in the front and the sun behind.” (Unpublished Fatwa dated 17th Sha’ban, 1422 AH)

“How can the crescent be sighted after sunset while the situation is that the New Moon is not yet born?” Sheikh Mani’ should come to Nigeria to get plenty of us that will give him so many answers. It even happened this year. The moon was ahead of the sun by far, yet some of us said they saw it, two days before the conjugation! Whether what they saw was new moon or the old one is a different question.

If it were not for the fact that we are, unfortunately, living at a time when the verses of the Qur’an carry less weight than the words of ulama, we would not have quarreled with a science that has long ago established what the Qur’an has said repeatedly. So preponderant is the evidence from the Qur’an that one will not be mistaken if he says there is astronomy in the Quran:

“And everything with Him is measured.” (13.8)
“The Sun and the Moon are punctual.” (55.5)
“And the Sun runs on unto a resting-place for him. That is the measuring of the Mighty, the Wise. And for the moon we have appointed mansions till she return like an old shriveled palm-leaf. It is not for the sun to overtake the moon, nor does the night outstrip the day. They float each in an orbit.” (36: 38-40)
And We made the night and the day two signs. Then we make the dark the sign of the night, and We make the sign of the day sight-giving, that you may seek bounty from your Lord, and that you may know the computation of the years, and the reckoning; and everything have We expounded with a clear expounding.” (17:12)
“And landmarks (too), and by the star they find a way.” (16:16)
“And it is He Who created the night and the day, and the sun and the moon. Each float, each in an orbit.”

Etc. Etc…

Astronomy helps us to know the measures that are ordained for these bodies and how we can use them to guide us – or find our way – through time and space. Certainly, it is not the astronomers that were condemned by the Holy Prophet as liars, but astrologers. In Nigeria, we are not willing to distinguish the two; we often jump to the conclusion that both stand condemned. How could it be so in a religion whose scripture has the above verses?

Moon Sighting Committee

The moon sighting committee under the Sultan will benefit a lot from people who have taken the pains to always study the moon in this country. There is a complete body – the Nigerian Moon Sighting Society – whose work will be of immense benefit to the committee if the committee is ready to advance beyond our traditional stand which has not solved our perpetual crisis regarding moon sighting. The truth is that the committee so far is hesitant to the idea of being guided by astronomy, if I am to put the cold war between the two mildly. This is normal. Change is always met with some skepticism and resistance.

If I were to find my way, I will not fail to advise the Sultan to fuse the two camps by incorporating members of the society into the committee. His announcement of when to start searching for the new moon should be guided by astronomical calculations and observations. Gradually, gradually, we will oneday reach a point where we will be strong enough to use the fatwas of al-Subkiy and al-Mani', when we will insist that the sighting should not contradict common or expert’s knowledge.

Also where a mistake is made, expert knowledge and observation (like the day of the full moon) can be used to adjust the calendar of that month such that the mistake does not spill over to the next or even subsequent months. This is often done in countries like Saudi Arabia. This year, given a lacuna in their arrangement, a court in Riyadh accepted the testimony of two people and the end of fasting was announced. Experts, however did not see it in other cities like Medina. Later, it was realized that there was an error. I heard that an announcement was made to adjust the calendar accordingly. If the experts were relied upon since, as Ibn Taymiyyah said, they would have calculated the exact time of conjugation (when the new moon is actually born) and advise that it is possible or impossible to see the crescent at so and so times. This drag-drag wey we de do on the question of using astronomy no go last wo. It was not surprising that Gaddafi's Libya went by astronomical calculations.


Finally, it will also be a good idea for the Supreme Council on Islamic Affairs to establish a permanent observatory that will assist the moon sighting committee with necessary data to reach an informed decision. Such observatories are found in many Muslim countries. A conference in 1966 held under the auspices of Al-Azhar’s Islamic Research Council urged, among other resolutions, “Islamic governments and peoples to set up Islamic authorities in their respective countries to be assigned the task of determining the first of lunar month with the help of observatories and reliable astronomers.“

I have learnt that finally, after 45 years since that call from Al-Azhar, the Sultan in Nigeria has assigned a competent staff of the SCIA at the National Mosque with background in Islamic studies the duty of observing the moon throughout the year already. The brother has already become conversant with the various available software on astronomy of moon sighting and other things. I consider him to be the precursor of that observatory. All we need is to expand that effort to give it a permanent structure and function.

Such an observatory does not need to be sophisticated. Two graduates and a technician will be able to handle it. A board of few experts and ulama can be appointed to oversee its year round activities.

As for the site, a university or polytechnic in the Northwest where the sky is most clear will be suitable. Its department of physics or geography can host it as a unit comfortably.

Funding to cater for building, equipment, furnishing, salaries, conferences and passages generally can be sourced from various donors, if these items are not assigned to the university in the memorandum.

It will be better if one observatory is maintained as at now than many belonging to different state governments or Islamic groups. This will prevent duplication of effort and the unwarranted misuse of public funds.

At the risk of repeating my conclusion, I would like to appeal to the general public to see the issue of moon sighting with an open mind, devoid of politics or whatever. Astronomy is one tool that will help us minimize the chances of error in that task. The antipathy that some of us have for the field and its employment is uncalled for, going by the sources we read above. We are already using it in our calendars, timings, prediction of eclipses, etc, without any problem. While we continue to use the naked eye to announce the beginning of the new moon, astronomy, with its exact calculations of eclipses, conjugation, opposition, etc, as testified by Ibn Taymiyyah, will intelligently guide us on at least when to start looking for new moon. It will also tell whether what we have seen is possibly the new moon or something else up there in the sky. And, sure, there are many things in the infinitely broad sky up there.

25 October 2011

The links to Dukku’s papers are:


Hamisu Gumel said...

This topic is timely, and thank you Dr. Tilde for bringing it up. The issue of moon sighting has been a vexing issue,and almost every body is becoming tired and fed up with the unnecessary tension and controversies that always accompany announcement of Ramadan moon. I hope this discourse will pave way for the larger discussion among the the muslim intellectuals and ulama so that we will also finally join the rest of the muslim world in employing astronomy in moon sighting. We can't afford to be always backward in both thinking and religious practices.

Aliyu Wali said...

A very insightful read. Indeed '...fas'alu ahlu zikr in kuntum la ta'alamun...' comes to mind. We need to put our act together in order to reap the gains of technology as proof of Allah's all-encompassing wisdom as contained in the Holy Quran. May Allah make it easy.

Conflux Nigeria said...

I find this discourse very interesting from a naive, non-muslim point of view on the following grounds:
1. Is the issue of moon sighting a national issue? I beg this question because, since the moon is one and the same for all, if an effective sighting mechanism is available and is in use elsewhere in the world then there's no need for the Nigerian muslim body to reinvent the wheel, so to speak - why can't they adapt? Further, with current technology, one universally sactioned body could "observe" and communicate the same worldwide.
2. Is the substance of the issue scientific or religious? I beg this question with the understanding that scientifically, the issue is already settled since scientifically, not only could we determine (up to within a second or better) when, any where on earth, the moon could, theoretically be seen, accounting for weather, sand storms, earth's rotation, mountain peaks, etc ...

Anonymous said...

This is timely and insightful,I watched a program on the topic 2 years ago on the Islam channel.They also brought up the issue of Nigeria and how the observatory(which has muslim staff),in England will say the moon cannot be visible to the human eye until after 18hr after it has been sighted by the telescope.yet Nigerians with super human eye's seem to do the business each year.Its sad but i hope we can rectify it Insha Allah

haruna Imam said...

Ironically those opposed to astronomical
calculation for moonsighting wholly
accepted it for their daily prayer times,
suhr and iftar.