Islamic Perspectives

Islamic new year 1437 continues the lunar calendar controversy

October 14, 2015 marked the first of Moharram, the beginning of the new Hijra year 1437, according to the Islamic calendar announced by the Fiqh Council of North America and endorsed by the Islamic Society of North America, a leading American Muslim civil advocacy group.

However, the New York-based “Central Hilal Sighting Committee of North America” announced on October 13 that the crescent of Moharram was not sighted anywhere in North America therefore the first day of Moharram will be Thursday, October 15, 2015. Many mosques in North America follow the decision of the Central Hilal Sighting Committee which has local hilal committees throughout the US, Canada, and the Caribbean Islands. The Central Hilal Sighting Committee  was formed in June 2009 after a meeting of Islamic religious leaders in New York.

In a bid to end the controversy over the beginning of the month of Ramadan and Eid celebrations, the Fiqh Council of North America (FCNA) and Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), in August 2006, announced a 20-year Islamic calendar based on astronomical calculation abandoning the traditional method of actual sighting of crescent.

However, after nine years, the ISNA’s bid to create unity in the American Muslim community for Eid celebrations did not succeed, since many prominent Islamic centers and mosques in U.S. and Canada have refused to adopt ISNA’s Islamic calendar and followed the traditional method of announcing the beginning of the Islamic months locally on the basis of sighting of crescent. These include: Islamic Sharia Council of California, Islamic Supreme Council of Canada (ISCC), Hilal Committee of Greater Chicago, the Committee for Crescent Observation International and the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) which advised its followers to celebrate the beginning of the month of Ramadan and the Eid holidays with their local masajid, communities and Islamic centers. 

In its decision, the Fiqh Council said that Muslims living in North America and Europe face more problems due to starting Ramadan at different timings and celebrating Eids on different days. The issue of Moon sighting is causing discord among Muslims and is a bone of contention all over the Muslim world. Hence the Council, in a bid to save the Ummah this enormous wrangling and bickering over the sighting of the new moon, decided to abandon the traditional method and announced a  20 year Hijra calendar on the basis of astronomical calculations.

Interestingly, just like North America, efforts are being exerted in Europe to introduce an Islamic calendar based on astronomical calculations rather than actual moon sighting. In February 2012, a conference, titled ‘Islamic lunar calendar in light of scientific knowledge’, was organized  in Paris by the Union of Islamic Organizations of France, in partnership with the European Council for Fatwas and Research and the Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe. In the end, a resolution was adopted, to determine all Islamic dates on astronomical bases (including for the Ramadan and Eids, but not for Hajj, which will always be set by the Saudi government).

The second attempt to unify Hijra calendar

Probably this is the second time in 1400 years of Islamic history that an attempt is being made to abandon actual moon sighting for the beginning of the new Islamic months. In the 10th century AD a calendar based on astronomical calculations was instituted by the sixth Fatimid caliph Abu Ali Al-Mansur Al-Hakim (985–1021). It is therefore sometimes referred to as the Fatimid or Misr (Egyptian) calendar. The calendar was rejected by the scholars of the time as an unacceptable innovation. According to some historical accounts of the Fatimids in Libya, the Qadi of Barqa was put to death in 953 for observing the fast of Ramadan by sighting the new moon instead of following the astronomical calculations.

It is believed that the Fatimid practice in using astronomical conjunction as the starting point for Ramadan was not due to the complexity of calculating physical sighting but rather to their belief that their doctrines were scientific. Other than the Fatimid practice, there is no evidence that Muslims have ever advocated calculation in lieu of sighting until the 21st century.

Probably, with the exception of Saudi Arabia, Islamic calendar is not followed by the 1.6 billion or so Muslims for their day to day routine. They follow the Gregorian calendar in mundane affairs while Islamic calendar is used in religious matters such as the beginning of the month of Ramadan and Eidul Fitr and Eidul Adha.

In 637 AD, 16 years after the Hijra or migration of the Prophet from Mecca to Madina, the second caliph Omer Ben Khattab instituted the new Hijra or Islamic year. The first of Muharram 622 AD, which coincided with the 16 of July 622 AD, began year one of the Islamic era.

The Islamic or Hijra calendar of 12 lunar months is determined by observation of the new moon with no effort by intercalation (addition) or other means to synchronize the lunar year with the solar year.

A lunar month may vary roughly from 29.26 to 29.80 days. The average Lunar month is 29.530588 days or slightly more than 29.5 days. Twelve average Lunar months are equal to 354.3670 days while the solar year is 365.2422 days. Therefore, the Islamic calendar gains ground in relation to the Solar Calendar at the rate of about 11 days a year or about one-year in every 33 years.

Since no effort is made to link the Islamic calendar with solar year the Islamic months do not correspond with particular season. A lunar month is not less than 29 days or more than 30 days. But in solar calendar the days of months vary from 28 to 31.

Luni-solar calendars

Like Muslims, Jews followed a calendar based upon naked-eye observation of new moons for more than a thousand years. However, persecution of the Jews under the Roman Emperor Constantius (337-361) in the name of Christianity prevented communication among the Jews about the observed calendar, and forced them to switch to an entirely computed calendar. This forced Rabbi Hillel II to promulgate the fixed computed calendar in 358. Its computations were designed to simulate the practical constraints of the observed calendar (including postponements and intercalations) as closely as possible. The Jews never returned to their original tradition of following a purely lunar calendar determined by eyewitnesses; instead, they continue to determine the new moon calculation.

Two other major world calendars which used lunar dates for religious and cultural festivals are Chinese and Hindu calendars but both are now lunisolar like the Jewish calendar, i.e. synchronized with the solar calendar.

The Chinese calendar is a lunisolar calendar based on calculations of the positions of the Sun and Moon. Months of 29 or 30 days begin on days of astronomical New Moons, with an intercalary month being added every two or three years. Although the Gregorian calendar is used in the Peoples’ Republic of China for administrative purposes, the traditional Chinese calendar is used for setting traditional festivals and for timing agricultural activities in the countryside. The Chinese calendar is also used by Chinese communities around the world.

As a result of a calendar reform in A.D. 1957, the National Calendar of India is a formalized lunisolar calendar in which leap years coincide with those of the Gregorian calendar. In addition to establishing a civil calendar, the Calendar Reform Committee set guidelines for religious calendars, which require calculations of the motions of the Sun and Moon. Tabulations of the religious holidays are prepared by the India Meteorological Department and published annually in The Indian Astronomical Ephemeris. Despite the attempt to establish a unified calendar for all of India, many local variations exist. The Gregorian calendar continues in use for administrative purposes, and holidays are still determined according to regional, religious, and ethnic traditions.

Most religious holidays occur on specified lunar dates but a few occur on specified solar dates.

The Gregorian calendar regulates the ceremonial cycle of the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. The ecclesiastical calendars of Christian churches are based on cycles of movable and immovable feasts. Christmas is the principal immovable feast, with its date set at December 25. Easter is the principal movable feast, and dates of most other movable feasts are determined with respect to Easter.

Conclusion

Reverting to the ISNA calendar which did not attract much attention in the Muslim countries but many mosques and Islamic centers in Europe and North America adopted it. However, ISNA did not succeed in its primary objective of promoting unity in the Muslim community at least outside the Islamic World. According to my research a large number of the Islamic centers and mosques still ignore the ISNA calendar for beginning the month of Ramadan and Eidul Fitr and for Eidul Adha.

Interestingly, the 56-member states Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) in 1997 passed a resolution on a unified Hijra calendar for the beginning of lunar month and the unification of Islamic holidays. However, no Islamic country dared to ignore the tradition of announcing the beginning of the Islamic months through moon sighting committees. Even Saudi Arabia which relies on astronomical calculations for its official lunar calendar relies on the decision of moon sighting committee for religious events.

Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the Chief Editor of the Journal of America (www.journalofamerica.net) Email: asghazali2011 (@) gmail.com

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