Moon Sighting Wars



رمضان ولى هاتها يا ساقي *** مشتاقة تسعى إلى مشتاق

ما كان أكثره على ألافها *** وأقله في طاعة الخلاق

بالأمس قد كنا سجيني طاعة *** واليوم من العيد بالإطلاق


Ramadan has left – bring her forth O’ bartender

A yearner coming to one yearning for it

How much he used to frequent her

And little he spent in obeying the Creator

Yesterday we were imprisoned by obedience

And today Eid has blessed us by setting us free

These lines are from a poem by one of the greatest Egyptian poets, Ahmed Shawqi. When he published this poem in the early 1930’s, very shortly before his death, it caused quite a stir with the religious leaders in Egypt. It was understood that Shawqi was talking about the month of Ramadan being a shackle that stops one temporarily from imbibing their alcohol and enjoying themselves. Shaykh Muhammad Mutawalli Ash-Sha’raawi was reported to have gotten worked up enough about this that he went looking for Shawqi to ask him why he would write such a poem. Shawqi laughed and gave a clever response. He asked Shaykh Ash-Sha’raawi, “Don’t you have the Quran memorized?”, to which Shaykh Ash-Sha’raawi replied, “Of course we do!” Shawqi then retorted, “Then don’t you recall the verse that says (And as to the poets, those who go astray follow them. Do you not see that they wander about in every valley? And that they say that which they do not do?) [26:224-226]”

Although the immediate imagery from these lines is that of becoming intoxicated with alcohol, the beauty of such literature is in the symbolism that can stem from it. Most observant Muslims don’t consume alcohol or use drugs. But many are under the influence of a much more dangerous intoxicant – their own egos. Nothing exemplifies this better than how the beginning of Ramadan and the determination of Eid are handled by many Muslims.

Not a single Ramadan or Eid goes by except that some cosmic battle between the moon sighting and the calculation camps must take place. Both sides have their arguments, and for the present purposes it doesn’t matter who has the “stronger case.” This is something to be addressed later when the conclusion will not have immediate impact upon practice. Only then will the intellects have a chance against these monstrous egos that want nothing but to come out on top of everyone else.

For now, I just wanted to share a few remarks about the actual battle royale between the two sides. It seems that 99% of those engaging in this battle have nothing to do with Islamic scholarship. They are average Muslims who are either students or professionals in various fields. This is evident by the fact that they fight about a matter that has a legitimate difference in opinion between the scholars on. On the surface they claim they want unity among Muslims on when they start Ramadan and observe Eid. But in reality, this fight is fuelled by the desire to subject the other to one’s own biases and convictions. Each side doesn’t want to acknowledge the simple fact that the other has the same intellectual capacities as themselves, but they just happened to be convinced by the opposing argument.

As for the unity, I’m really not sure from where this idea of Muslim unity necessitates observing the start and end of Ramadan on the same day comes from. It seems that in this day and age of materialism and false appearances, even Muslims have fallen victim for giving importance to outward practices while neglecting the realities behind them. From the very beginning of Islam, the companions of Prophet Muhammad PBUH were differing in how and when to conduct certain rituals. The most famous example used in the books of Usūl al-Fiqh (Foundations of Jurisprudence) is that of Prophet Muhammad PBUH’s command to the companions not to pray Asr except in the land of Bani Quraytha. The companions split into two camps: one argued that Prophet Muhammad PBUH didn’t literally mean to miss praying Asr on time, but to hasten their pace. The other argued that the command was quite clear and they delayed Asr until past its time because they didn’t want to pray it except in the land of Bani Quraytha.

Neither group of companions condemned the other. In fact, the group that delayed their prayer waited until the other finished praying. They maintained their unity in spite of not having observed the practice at exactly the same time. When they all returned back to Prophet Muhammad PBUH and told him about the differing conclusions and practices that stemmed from them, he remained silent, which indicated his approval of both conclusions.

Shawqi’s lines at the beginning can be taken to speak of how many Muslims deal with their egos. Ramadan is supposed to be a time when one breaks their ego down and conquers it. However, as evident by the fighting over when it begins, and the fighting over when it ends to mark Eid, it’s clear that instead of breaking their egos, many of us have merely restrained them for Ramadan, and have let them loose once the month has ended. In addition, some Muslims have the audacity to claim that Muslims scholars have failed us because in this age of technological advancements they should’ve been able to unite us all on a unified calendar. No claim can beat this one in exposing the one making it for not having even the most basic grasp of how the Islamic Tradition functions.

Muslim scholars did not fail at unifying Muslims. It’s Muslims that have failed at getting over their egos, which is what is required to achieve this unity everyone is looking for. Before arguing about the moon sighting ask yourself what you’re trying to accomplish while acknowledging the impossibility of forcing everyone to agree with what you have concluded. More importantly, before arguing about any religious matter ask yourself what and who qualified you to do so. It’s acknowledged in the Islamic Tradition that argumentation is disliked for the scholars and prohibited for non-scholars.

Looking at how many Muslims conduct themselves at the beginning and end of Ramadan makes it no longer a wonder why Prophet Muhammad PBUH described the battle against the ego as the Greater Jihad. Most of us seem to flee from it by failing to withstand its final major assault at the start of Ramadan, and its first major assault at the end of it. Einstein said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Every year Muslims engage in the same fights at the start of Ramadan and at the onset of Eid. Are we really that insane?