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Mufti Muneeb moon-fighting with Fawad Chawdhry


Pakistan has always taken the matter of moon-sighting very seriously. However, the moon-sighting controversy is not Pakistan-specific. Moon-fighting goes back to the 8th and 9th centuries when Imam Shafi put his trust in science. Imam Ahmad Bin Hanbal required sighting of the moon physically. The Quran doesn’t mention details about this point but the Hadith, as quoted by Bukhari, says: "Do not fast unless you sight the crescent, and do not break your fast till you sight the (following) crescent." (Al-Bukhari, Vol. 3:130). This Hadith is lacking in clarity and different strains of interpretation have understood it differently.

Expressing his disappointment over the issue, Syed Khalid Shaukat, national coordinator, and moon sighting consultant to the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), says: "In the present era of scientific and technological advancement, three decades after man landed on the moon, some Muslims are still avoiding the use of scientific knowledge for making an Islamic calendar and get over with the feuds and having to wait till midnight for a confirmation of moon sighting."

Opponents of scientific calculations maintain that the people at the time of the Prophet (PBUH) were illiterate and thus physical sighting was the method prescribed by Allah. Therefore, it cannot be changed. Well, if we accept an argument like that, then we all should be riding camels instead of our cars because all of Islam’s early leaders did that, and that “cannot be changed”!

The status of the Central Ruet-e-Hilal Committee has been controversial since its creation in 1974. Dominated by the Barelvi sect it has frequently refused the "witnesses" (Shahadats) from other Muslim sects. The committee consists mainly of mullahs who have only a religious education, to the exclusion of a science and technical one.

A man of science, Dr Tariq Masood, Joint Secretary Federal Ministry of Science & Technology, has lately been appointed as a member in the Central Ruet-e-Hilal Committee. Even this move does not do away with the fatal division between religion and religious knowledge and science and scientific knowledge in the minds of our people including the mullahs, which is a major reason for the problems Muslims are facing in our time.

Over the decades, the learned committee has been allowed to perpetuate the moon sighting problem. With the result, Pakistan has had over the years two different Eids. There would be no attempt to solve the controversy.

This year Fawad Chaudhry, in his capacity as Minister for Science and Technology, forecast that the Eid moon would be there on the 23rd. This was an attempt to bring the mullahs back onto scientific reality that can forecast, based on the laws of nature, when the moon will be there regardless of its visibility. And his interference is rightful. It has nothing to do with whether Fawad says his prayers or not- because all he was saying was that he trusted the laws of nature as much as the Holy scripture because both are creations of the same source – Allah.

The central idea of Islam is the idea of unity. But the full dimension of this idea has been somehow ‘lost in transition’. Our mullahs seem not to understand it. Unity means not only the unity of God, the idea that there is only one Creator who has created all the worlds including the universe which are functioning according to the rules that He has made. It also means that all creation is united by the same laws and principles on which it has been created. If we understand this proposition then we have to acknowledge also that there can’t be any unbridgeable contradiction between the laws of nature and the injunctions of Islam.

That is why ‘sighting’ the moon in the quote from Bukhari above does not necessarily mean seeing with the eye – naked or otherwise- but (fore) seeing it as per scientific laws.

One of our leading Muslim philosophers Allama Iqbal in his main work “Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam” tried to awaken the Muslims from slumber and make them finally realize that Islam is a religion that does not have to be thrown away like Christianity was when the church found it impossible to adjust science with its stubborn religious dogma. Islam is a modern religion that is flexible -within certain limits- to bridge the perceived contradiction between scientific knowledge and the injunctions of Islam because it recognizes the fundamental unity of God, the creation and humanity so that in the light of new cognitive knowledge the tenets of Islam can be interpreted and understood in a new way – within certain limits.

Because most readers may have not gone through this fundamental work of Iqbal’s, we allow ourselves to quote some ideas that he had expressed on this account. “The birth of Islam, as I hope to be able presently to prove to your satisfaction, is the birth of inductive intellect. In Islam, prophecy reaches its perfection in discovering the need of its own abolition. This involves the keen perception that life cannot for ever be kept in leading strings; that, in order to achieve full self-consciousness, man must finally be thrown back on his own resources. The abolition of priesthood and hereditary kingship in Islam, the constant appeal to reason and experience in the Qur’an, and the emphasis that it lays on Nature and History as sources of human knowledge, are all different aspects of the same idea of finality.”

“According to the Qur’an, there are two other sources of knowledge (apart from the spiritual) – Nature and History; and it is in tapping these sources of knowledge that the spirit of Islam is seen at its best. The Qur’an sees signs of the Ultimate Reality in the “sun”, the “moon”, “the lengthening out of shadows”, “the alternation of day and night”, ‘the variety of human colour and tongues”, “the alternation of the days of success and reverse among peoples”– in fact in the whole of Nature as revealed to the sense-perception of man. And the Muslim’s duty is to reflect on these signs and not to pass by them “as if he is dead and blind”, for he “who does not see these signs in this life will remain blind to the realities of the life to come.”

The task, then, according to Allama Iqbal, was the reconstruction, the re-thinking of religious thought: "The task before the modern Muslim is, therefore, immense. He has to re-think the whole system of Islam without completely breaking with the past."

The Ruet-e Hilal Committee seems not to have succeeded in that endeavor. While he is a much respected scholar and an author of several books on Islam, Mufti Muneebur Rahman dedicated a considerable part of his moon-sighting speech fixing Fawad Chaudhry in his gunsights. May be he felt slighted by the fact that when the good Mufti along with other scholars was fighting lockdown on prayers in mosques without “social distancing,” Fawad is reported to have said “how can Mufti Muneeb sight the coronavirus bug when he cannot sight the moon.”

However, this only highlights the fact instead of staying on the serious business of the Ruet-e-Hilal agenda for what he is mandated, Mufti Muneeb opted for a personal vendetta to a countryside audience anxiously waiting for the Eid announcement, targeting an elected political person in the government he is supposed to serve.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs has been around for 25 years now(since 1996) supporting the same Barelvi Chairman of the Committee, thus keeping the “great silent majority” of Muslims hostage to the intense rivalry between Deobandis (Mufti Popalzai) and Barelvis (Mufti Muneeb). Given his quarter century in the post, one option will be to retire the respected Mufti gracefully. The mandate must be that Ramadan and Eid in Pakistan subscribes to a neutral stance.

Adhering to the Mecca/Saudi Arabia decision followed by almost the entire Muslim Ummah regarding the sighting of the moon would be a great contribution to the unity of the Ummah. Let’s get back to moon-sighting rather than the good Mufti moonfighting with Fawad!


*This article is jointly written by Ikram Sehgal and Dr Bettina Robotka


(Ikram Sehgal is a defence and security analyst while Dr Bettina Robotka, is a former Professor of South Asian Studies, Humboldt University, Berlin).