Some people suggest using astronomical computations either exclusively or partially for determining the visibility and preciseness of crescent sightings. Such position is in direct conflict with the Sunnah, and disagrees with the opinion of the great scholars of the Ummah.
Relying on astronomical computations in determining the beginning of the month is not a new suggestion; it was proposed to the Prophet , but he rejected it. Ibn `Umar () reported that the Messenger said:
We are an illiterate nation. We do not use astronomical writing or computation (in our fasting). A month is so and so and so (and he pointed with his hands three times, folding the thumb on the third time, meaning twenty nine days) or so and so and so (and he pointed with his hands three times, meaning thirty days).1
Abu Daawood's narration further adds, "Thus Ibn _Umar used to end his fasting with the rest of people without relying on those computations".
This shows that the Messenger wanted to keep this worship simple, at the level of common people, and away from the influence or control of specialized scientific knowledge (whether sound or doubtful). This is what Ibn Hajar (r) noted when commenting on this hadeeth as follows:
"The Prophet has stated, If it is obscure to you then complete the count of thirty days. He did not say, 'Then ask the people of computation.'"2
This shows as well, as Ibn Taymiyyah (r) said, that describing this nation as illiterate is a compliment, in that it is independent of any complicated means in performing its basic acts of worship.
Rejecting this instruction of the Prophet would represent a violation of the `ijm_aa` (consensus) of the worthy `ulamaa', an attempt to spoil the beauty and simplicity of this Deen, and, worst of all, blunt disobedience of the Messenger .
Criteria For Verifying A Testimony
We indicated above that "just" Muslim witnesses are needed to establish crescent sighting. Just Muslims are those known to outwardly adherence to Islaam and avoid major sins.
The astronomical possibility of seeing the crescent has never been a condition for accepting a Muslim's testimony about crescent sighting. A trustworthy Muslim's testimony is more valuable than the astronomical calculations. It constitutes an absolute innovation and insult to the Sunnah to replace, or reject, eye-witness testimony through theoretical astronomical calculations and forecasts.
Some people adamantly claim that the inability of selected observers to see the crescent proves that it was not seen by anyone at all. Such claims are beyond normal standards of reason! Furthermore, they defy the basic fiqh principle that the affirmation of an occurrence takes precedence over a negation of it. Let us assume that some individuals witness an event, while others do not, even though they attempted to. The testimonies of those who affirm witnessing it give definite knowledge about it, while the testimonies of those who did not witness it give no definite knowledge about it. Thus, the testimony of the first group takes precedence in this case.
It is well substantiated that if the crescent is witnessed by a trustworthy Muslim, then the Sunnah is to accept his witness under the above conditions. Abu `Umair bin Anas said on the authority of his paternal uncles, who were companions of the Prophet :
"Some men came riding to the Prophet and testified that they had sighted the hilaal (crescent) the previous day. He therefore commanded the people to break the fast and to go out to their place of prayer in the morning."3
The True Beginning Of A Month
There is a common misconception among some people. They think that any testimony of crescent sighting must be confirmed by the astronomical forecasts of where the moon will be at what time, and who can or cannot see it, etc. They think that if this is not done, they might risk nullifying their worship by fasting on wrong days. This understanding demonstrates ignorance of when an Islaamic month really begins. Ibn Taymiyyah (r) explains:
"Many people think that once the crescent rises in the skies, that night should be the first of the month, regardless of whether the people see it or not. This is not correct! It should appear to the people and they should see it to start a month. That is why the Messenger said:This view is further clarified by the following narration. Abu al-Bukhturee said:Fasting starts on the day that you fast.Which means: this is the day that you know as being the time to fast, etc. If you did not know it, it would carry no value for you."4
"We went to `Umrah and saw the crescent of Ramadaan at Thaatu `Irq. It seemed to have been two or three nights old. Later, we met Ibn `Abbaas and mentioned this to him. Ibn `Abbaas () informed us that Allaah's Messenger said:Allah has set crescent sighting as an indication of Ramadaan. Thus Ramadaan starts on the night that you see it. If it is obscure to you, then complete the count."5
Woes Of Astronomical Computations
Thus, relying on astronomical computations in determining the beginning of the month involves various violations to basic Islaamic principles, some of which being the following:
1. Mistrusting the Muslim Witnesses
Stating that a month will begin on a certain day, and that the crescent cannot possibly be seen before that date, results in rejection of a Muslim's testimony. It involves casting doubts about the truthfulness of just Muslims (`udool).
2. Conflicting with the Sunnah
Such practice conflicts with texts of the Qur'aan and Sunnah, as well as the practice of the Messenger who accepted, without delay, the sighting of some people, not waiting to compare it against astronomical possibilities.
Furthermore, this practice exhibits a tendency to tighten the Islaamic laws and make them harder to apply. It resembles the behavior of the Jews who tightened the laws on themselves; and Allaah punished them by making them even tighter. The Messenger said:
Beware of excessiveness in Deen. Indeed, those before you were destroyed because of their excessiveness in Deen.6
Another demonstration of excessiveness is to use binoculars, telescopes, hot air balloons, etc., to sight the new crescent for establishing the new month. None of these artificial methods was practiced by the Salaf, and doing so contradicts with the simplicity of Islaam as explained above.
As explained above, this also demonstrates ignorance of when the month truly begins according to the Shar`.
What If The Witnesses Were Wrong?
Of course, there is always a possibility that those who claimed sighting the crescent were lying or mistaken. However, as long as they are apparently acceptable and trustworthy Muslims, and as long as their claim to sighting the crescent falls within the Islaamically possible nights, then their testimony must be accepted and acted upon by fasting (or ending the fasting). No one has the right to reject that without a definite proof (by applying means that conform with the Sunnah, as outlined above.) If they happen to be indeed lying then the sin will be theirs only.