Eid Moon and the Lunar Calendar

Astrophysicist Prof. Malik Ingalgi lays down guidelines which may help
determine the sightability of Moon

From time immemorial man has been observing the daily sunrise and sunset (24 hours cycle) New Moon (or dark moon) and Full Moon occurring every month (approx. 29.50 days cycle) and the flooding of rivers year after year (365.25days cycle) in an extraordinarily systematic and rhythmic manner. He also realised his inability to exercise any control over these orderly recurring natural events based on movement of the Sun, Moon and the Earth. Man has accepted that these events must be from the counsel and dominion of a most intelligent and powerful entity, the God or Allah. This fact is found in the Holy Quran…
“ It is He who created, the Night and the Day, and the Sun and the Moon:
All the celestial bodies, swim along, each in its, rounded course (orbits)”.                    (21:33)
In the pre Islamic period there  were many superstitions associated with the New Moon and are still existing in some parts of the world. We are enjoined to disregard all such superstitions:
“They ask Thee ( O Mohammad), concerning the New Moons. Say, they are but signs, to mark fixed periods of time in the Affairs of Mankind and for Pilgrimage ……..”                     (2:189)
To keep track of the flow of time and to relate the day, month and the year man has devised a tool called Calendar. Interestingly none of these, day, month and year, is evenly divisible by the other. The first calendar designed was based on the movement of Moon around the Earth and is in use since almost 2500 BC in the name of Lunar Calendar. The Babylonians, Egyptians, Hindus, Jews and also the pre Islamic Arabs have been using Lunar Calendar for pastoral (religious) observances. Though it is more accurate time keeping system it causes some concern for agricultural activities such as sowing and harvesting which are season based. Twelve lunar months of an average 29 days 12 hour 44 minutes and 2.8 seconds, add up to 354 days and some hours. However the season based Julian and later modified and corrected Gregorian calendar, which has been universally accepted (from 15.10.1582 AD), consists of 365 days with an extra day added every fourth year, a leap year. Muslim community all over the world follows the Lunar based Islamic or Hijri calendar without any intercalation. Because of this difference of 10 to 11 days between the two calendars we notice that the fasting month of Ramadan and the  Eid-ul-Fitr advancing by so many days than the preceding year (though Hindu calendar is also lunar based it counts an extra month after every three years to keep in tune with seasons). As such it may also be of interest to note that we had 34 Ramadans in the past 33 years, (14.08.1980 to 09.08.2013) with two Eids, on January 8 and December 28, in the year 2000 AD.
Scientific Basis of Lunar Calendar
During the course of their celestial journey the Sun, Moon and the Earth align themselves in one line with Moon coming in between once in every month. This situation is called conjunction and this moment is counted for the birth of New Moon. In Indian terminology we call it Amavasya. Conjunction may occur at any moment of the day; but the problem is how to know this precise moment of birth of the New Moon and commencement of Lunar month? During the early period of adoption of lunar calendar, Science was not developed and there were no proper communication systems that are in use today. Hence sighting of the first lunar crescent gained special significance particularly for religious events.1400 years ago the followers  of Islam were confined to Arabia and the surrounding places, where clear desert skies were conducive for sighting the first crescent moon. Here the Prophet (PBUH)’s saying became more relevant and has become a tradition…
“Start Saum (fasting) by sighting the first crescent of Ramadan and         Give up observing fast on seeing the crescent moon of shawwal, If the sky is overcast (and can’t see it), then complete 30 days”. (Sahih Al Bukhari, Vol.3 Ch.11:1909)
This statement is implicit that the month can never be more than 30 days. Thus visual sighting of the crescent on the wide screen, the clear blue desert skies of Arabia was a convenient mode of mass communication of the celestial event, the heralding of the new Lunar Month. There is another Hadith where this point has been emphasised—–
“We are an illiterate nation, We neither write nor know accounts,
The months are like this and this.(sometimes 29 days and 30 sometimes)                        (Sahih Al Bukhari, Vol.3 Ch.13:1913)
Today man is living in much advanced era, the era of Science  and Technology. He is no more illiterate and he has obeyed and followed the Prophet (PBUH)’s dictum  “go even to China to acquire Ilm, the knowledge.” With the help of so gained knowledge exact position of sun, moon can be computed with precision. We are time and again ordained in the Holy Quran to read, read, think, reason and reflect. Moreover is it right to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason and intellect intends us to forego their use? In expounding the scriptural dictums confining ourselves to their grammatical meanings alone there is a possibility of committing error. Take the case of year 2006, Muslims of Karnataka offered Eidul Fitr prayers on 23rd,24th and also on 25th of October; this year also (2013) we celebrated Eid on 8th and 9th of August, presumably having sighted the first crescent moon on several successive evenings, but how? Wisdom lies in seeking core meanings hidden deep beneath the words in the scriptures. It is said “Allah’s language is silence and rest everything is translation.”
The role of science involving Astronomy of New Moon’s earliest visibility on local and regional level providing credible basis for Islamic Calendar has become exceedingly important in the advanced scientific era when abundant media communication systems are in place.
Criteria for Visibility of First Crescent
1. Age of the moon must be at least 24 hours, that is conjunction must have occurred 24 hours earlier to the evening of crescent sighting
2. First crescent must be above the horizon for about 49 minutes after the sunset, that is sunset must be earlier to the moonset
3. Sky must be clear of dust, moisture and clouds. Glaring city lights may create difficulty in sighting.
(Note: Fiqh Council and also Islamic Society of North America (FCNA and ISNA) have adopted the second criteria mentioned above for commencement of Lunar month with Makkah as their reference point.)
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(The writer, Prof. Malik Ingalgi has retired as Principal, Government First Grade College and is based in Bangalore. He holds a doctorate in Astrophysics. Cell- 94487-85659)

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