Friday, September 18, 2015

Staring at the moon

Photo Shafiq Morton
THERE is a view that moon-sighting, or the physical observation of the lunar crescent, is an anachronism – an out-dated methodology of determining the lunar calendar.

“Why use the naked eye when we can use technology?” is the mantra. Of course, there are advantages in technology. However, it is my argument that in the case of crescent observation, the advantages of computed and mechanical outcomes are outweighed by other factors.

This is because a reliance on calculation alone distances us from the inherent wonder of the skies and removes the positive communal aspects of moon sighting. Technology takes us away from Creation and community; it reduces the heavens to yet another material abstract, which is certainly not the message of Qur’an – as it enjoins us to marvel at what is around us.

Having been involved in Islamic calendar work for over 20 years – and having had to calculate over 300 lunar months in advance on probability – I can vouch that the stellar universe is sometimes far beyond our maths, and even the laws of physics.  

There are so many aspects to observing the lunar crescent. We have to consider its distance from the earth, its age, its lag time, its luminosity, its position in the sky and what the seasonal conditions are. It’s not just a question of age, as so many think.

These variables can also throw up surprises. There have been occasions when the crescent shouldn’t have been sighted, and it was; and there have been times when it should have been sighted, and it wasn’t. Indeed, the dictum that Allah knows best is profound – it becomes a truly humbling experience when the laws of probability are defied.

Yet in spite of this, the lunar year – based on physical observation – has always balanced itself out in terms of 29-day or 30- months, as well as the total days for the year (355). This is, I believe, its inherent miracle.

Nonetheless, there is still a certain school of thought that attributes cultural “primitiveness” to all this – with the underlying assumption that crescent observation is somehow “unscientific” or “medieval” and that it can summarily be replaced by formulae.

This, of course, betrays the fact that crescent observation (with the naked eye) is specifically mentioned in the Qur’an. The execution of Sacred Law is not my brief, and people are entitled to their views, but the calculated calendar can go awry sometimes. The observational one – as I’ve said – has its own inimitable cycles.

A lot of crescent observation has to do with experience and accumulated skills. This was proved some years ago when members of the Cape Town Observatory, armed with telescopes, asserted that the new crescent for a certain month could not be visible. To their utter amazement, the “maankykers” (as we call our observers) found the crescent within minutes and pointed it out to them.

For the hilal process (hilal is the Arabic for “crescent”) there have to be three things in place: a knowledge of fiqh (or application of Sacred Law) on crescent observation, an understanding of astronomy, and naturally, an expertise born of experience from looking at the skies.

I would suggest that the South African model of observing the crescent on a co-ordinated regional basis is the most viable. It combines the skills of a Hakim (a qualified Islamic scholar) with scientific data and the practical experience of the observers.

The final decision, adjudicated by the Hakim, is based on shura – or mutual consultation – of the observers around the country. We are one of the few minority communities in the world able to coalesce as one around this point.

This system was used in the heyday of the Islamic realm when Baghdad and Bukhara hosted the biggest observatories on earth. The scholars of the day would synthesise their fiqh and science with, yes, actual hilal observation.

Whilst there is debate on the conditions of creditworthy witnesses, I would argue that crescent observation should remain in the province of those qualified to do so. If one does not know what to look for in the sky, things such as jet streams, other planets and even cirrus clouds can be misleading.

But I have to be honest – my enthusiasm for gazing into the heavens is based on personal experience. Many years ago, I was told that the Prophet (SAW) used to look up at the skies.

When asked by his Companions why, the Messenger would answer that he was looking to see if the last days had arrived, and when he saw the stars in place, his gratitude would increase.  This may not be a reliable Hadith, but what I do take is its universal principle.

No longer do we shell peas or draw water. Modernity has many benefits. But it does distance us – as I’ve already said – from our world.

Many years ago I remember looking at the Milky Way in the Richtersveld, far from city environs, on a cold and clear night. It was overwhelming in scope. The Milky Way – a massive smear of light across the sky – had so much sparkle, scale and colour. But more significantly, as shooting stars streaked across the deep, it vibrated with energy.

On another occasion I was in the Namib Desert. It was ominously dark. But then the moon started to rise. First there was a glimmer, a luminescence and suddenly, the dunes were bathed in a soft radiance. I could see forever.

This was not an unnoticed pallid city moon with its hijab, or veil, of pollution and artificial light. This was a bursting into life, like Barzanji’s famous dedication to the Prophet (SAW): “anta badru” (you are the full moon), "anta nurun fawqan nuri” (you are light upon light).

I have never forgotten my encounters with the night skies. The ancient Egyptians were so awed by them that the Milky Way became a heavenly attribute of the Nile. However, as a Muslim I am constantly reminded of the singularity and breath-taking scope of Creation every time the new crescent is observed.