Astrophysicist S. A. Zahir
Muslims in India celebrated Eidul Fitr on two different days i.e., November 14 and 15. It was unwarranted. Yet confusion ruled supreme. And even a reputed body such as Imarat -e- Sharia in Bihar declared the sighting of moon on November 13. Noted astrophysicist Dr. S. A. Zahir, who has based his prediction on scientific calculations spoke to M. A. Siraj for Islamic Voice on how flawed interpretations are leading to discrepancies in moonsighting world over. Dr. Zahir, a former professory of surgery with Bangalore Medical College and a noted surgeon has pursued astronomy due to personal interest for the last two decades and is an advisor to Rooyath Hilal Committee in Karnataka. Excerpts from his interview:
Was it right for the Muslims in India to celebrate Eidul Fitr on two days, i.e., Nov. 14 and 15?
There was absolutely no scope for this if we had gone by scientific calculation and the recommendation of the Hadith. The difference between the sunset and moonset which is technically termed as ‘moonsetlag’ was not sufficient for the moon to be visible anywhere in India on November 13. The moonsetlag should be at least 50 minutes for comfortable sighting of the crescent. On November 13, if it was 44 minutes in Trivandrum down south, it was 27 minutes in Srinagar up north. So where is scope for people in Kerala, Jammu and Kashmir and even in Bihar, the seat of Imarat- e-Sharia, to celebrate the Eidul Fitr on November 14.
What should be given more weightage between birth of the new moon or the right amount of time gap between sunset and moonset?
A few facts need to be understood clearly in this context. The holy Prophet, peace be upon him, and the Quran mention actual visualization of the crescent. While the verse number 189 of Surah Baqrah insists on the visibility of the crescent by naked eyes, a hadith by the Prophet asks Muslims to begin the month after seeing the crescent at their respective places. These two basic elements taken together mean that we should take into account the crescent which becomes visible only after 20 hours after the moon is born. Secondly the criterion is actual seeing of the crescent by naked eyes, not by binoculars or other scientific instruments. That is possible only when the moon sets 50 minutes after the sunset.
It appears that Saudis calculate the date and the day of the celebration of Eid on the basis of the birth of the moon which is termed as ‘Amavas’ in Indian languages or ‘Mahaq’ in Arabic. Actually, the birth of the new moon is not the criterion. ‘Mahaq’ refers to a condition of the moon when the whole black face of the moon faces the earth and there is conjunction between the moon, earth and the sun. ‘Mahaq’ does not make the crescent visible. Visibility occurs only 20 hours after this.
Saudi Arabia celebrated Eidul Fitr on November 13 itself. How far was it justified?
It has declared the celebration even before the birth of the new moon which is a glaring and unpardonable discrepancy. While I was in Saudi Arabia, we, a group of friends trying to unravel the exact sighting of the crescent, sat on the summit of a hill and looked for the crescent. It appeared to us clearly 48 hours after the Saudi Government declared its sighting.
Some people in India blindly follow the Saudis. This is more so with one state in the south where various Jamaats take psychological satisfaction in going with the Saudis even when the geographical and astronomical positions do not warrant celebration of Eid on the same day.
Could the moon be sighted on the same day globally?
This is possible in certain conditions. Ideally, the crescent should occur on the two flanks of the equator on the same day globally. But at places on the higher latitude such as the United Kingdom, Turkey or Canada and the US, it could appear the next day or even the third day. It is why the Prophet’s recommendation that one should look for the crescent locally should be an operative part of the guidelines. But it is rather shameful that it is honoured more in breach than conformity. Since several countries and Muslim communities in Western countries are tied to the apronstrings of the Saudis, they apply the discrepant methods. The only difference that has been caused due to scientific intervention today is that instead of insisting on actual seeing of the crescent, the scientific calculations enable us to predict the visibility of the crescent at a particular spot.
Even Egyptians do not follow the Saudis. But even their methods are flawed. They celebrate the Eid even if the moon sets one minute after the sunset.
It is mostly, India, Pakistan, Oman, South Africa and Morocco which take into account the correct interpretation of the Hadith and scientific calculations.
Is there any move to rectify the anomalies that have entered due to Saudi Arabia’s flawed perceptions?
International Islamic Calendar Programme based in Malaysia and headed by noted astronomer Dr. Mohammad Ilyas is working on a project to perfect the Islamic calendar. But there is no progress in recent years due to Saudi efforts to stonewall all academic efforts.