Pragmatic Moon Sighting
The signs of decline are today apparent in the pragmatic approach to deriving rulings for actions that Muslims are due to undertake. Often it appears as a collation of past scholarly opinions on an issue aimed to demonstrate the breadth of opinion; then it is argued that we should either:
a) follow a particular one of these past opinions, due to the benefit that will appear as a result,
b) follow any one of these past opinions, due to the benefit of being tolerant of differences.
Sometimes, the field of options is whittled down a little, as some of the more outrageous scholarly opinions are rejected on the basis of:
a) their evidence being very weak,
b) they do not agree with the majority,
c) they may have some significant harm associated with them,
d) they appear to be impractical,
e) there is no historical precedent for them.
The above approach is then presented as a legitimate approach to adopting a position on the issue, hence Muslims are encouraged to act upon it.
The Islamic fiqh, however, is based upon its detailed evidences, so is a derivation of a specific ruling related to an action of the Muslims. To be a legitimate ‘following of Islam’ it must be based solely on the foundations of the deen and should not be tainted by desires, popularity, majority views, historical precedent, apparent practicality etc. If any of these are taken as the basis for adoption of an opinion, then they prevent that from being a shariah adoption, as it is now corrupted. It was not adopted because it was the most pleasing opinion to Allah, but because of the other reason – i.e. it was most pleasing to the people; easiest on the people; preferred by the people; well understood by the people etc. In such cases pragmatism is the real criteria for adopting that opinion.
Sometimes the pragmatic criteria, although still hidden behind layers of scholarly quotes, is actually held up as a shariah criteria itself. If it helps achieve a particular benefit such as unity of the Muslims, then it is argued that this is a worthy objective, which should take precedence over individual conviction. The argument presupposes that:
a) difference of opinion on a fiqh matter is harmful,
b) differences cannot be resolved by strength of evidence,
c) practical unity is more important than the truth.
This view is highly problematic, as it is actually a liberal secular criteria and has no basis in Islam. It stands in contradiction to the teachings of the Messenger of Allah (saw) and the practice of the Sahabah when the differed. It makes benefit the real criteria, even if past fiqh is sometimes used to narrow the range of options. It makes the ends a justification for the means. It results in Muslims no longer struggling for the truth of what pleases Allah based upon His own words, but seeking compromise instead.
In reality it is also very short-sighted and does not bring Muslims closer to unity, but further entrenches their divisions and the causes of their division. This is so because the ultimate cause of the Muslims’ inability to outweigh different opinions on the strength of evidence today is their weakness in understanding basic shariah principles, coupled with their inexperience in doing so. Adopting the pragmatic approach, even as a temporary measure, further consolidates this inexperience and actually encourages Muslims to view life according to personal benefits; i.e. they become even more individualistic. This is an immediate cause of disunity, as there is almost no way to resolve differing views of benefits, as there is no right and wrong any more.
As for the causes of the Muslims’ divisions, adopting an opinion on the basis of a parochial unity ignores the rest of the Muslims globally. This approach encourages Muslims to disassociate themselves from the global ummah and focus their attention on the Muslims who live in the same country, region or city as themselves. This is the biggest danger to the Muslims and among the most harmful of all thoughts, as the very thing that could resolve the differences is now pushed further away. The temporary benefit proves to be a long-term harm.
The disbelieving colonialists have worked very hard, and still do work very hard, to take the minds of Muslims away from the global ummah, so that their concern for the ummah is weakened and even replaced by thinking about the issues of their locality only. It grieves them greatly when Muslims talk of the ummah and refuse to subscribe to a local, regional or nationalistic unity. It is a duty to remind Muslims that they are part of an ummah and warn them against attempts to replace this global unity with such a parochial one.
Muslims must tehrefore understand that it is the existence of a khaleefah that will solve the difference of opinion in fiqh ‘problem’, as he has two practical measures at his disposal:
a) He alone can adopt one of the opinions, as he is the only legitimately elected amir. He adopts according to the strength of the evidence, as he sees it. The rest of the people adopt it as an obedience to the amir, which clearly takes precedence over individual opinions and interests in the shariah.
b) He is the one who can institute a mass education programme to solve the lack of understanding and lack of experience with fiqh problems.
What are today disguised as parochial solutions to fiqh differences are in fact calls to disunity. Those who champion these calls are unwittingly falling into the trap that aims to maintain a divided mentality amongst Muslims.
The issue of moon-sighting appears every Ramadhan and Eid to remind Muslims of their disunity as a global ummah. The pain and confusion felt by Muslims at the beginning and the end of the month is a blessing from Allah, as it serves to remind them of their neglect of the fundamental duty in Islam, which is to have one khaleefah. The well intentioned but naive attempts of some to lessen this pain is actually akin to a heavy dose of morphine which sends the Muslims back to sleep and stops them thinking about their Islamic duty. It is as though the person hears the alarm clock set to wake a Muslim up for fajr, but rushes to switch it off so that his brother is not disturbed. No matter how good his intention and how much his love for his brother was, he has actually harmed him.
It is now generally acknowledged that the vast majority of the ulema of the past were in agreement that there is only one moon sighting for all Muslims in all regions, providing that news of the sighting reaches them in a reliable way. Some of the Shafi’i ulema have advocated different starts in different places, but it appears that they have taken their argument (hujjah) from the understanding of Ibn Abbas of the Hadeeth of Kurayb and not directly from a Hadeeth from the Prophet (saw) himself. Therefore, what Kurayb has reported does not qualify as a hadith, but remains as it is, i.e. an opinion of Ibn Abbas; it does not qualify as evidence and should not be used as such; it also should not be used to specify the general term of a hadith, i.e. the general evidence.
There is such confusion, it is claimed, that it is better to adopt any stance that reduces it. By this line of reasoning the goal is to get as close to certainty as possible, or avoid as much confusion as possible. One approach seeks to discover the truth of the new moon’s birth, while the other approach seeks to unify the perception of Muslims around a commonly adopted opinion. In either case, the shariah is being made subservient to these goals, as though accuracy or unity were themselves shariah legal reasons (illah).
The proponents of calculations for the beginning and end of Ramadan base their argument on the accuracy of modern scientific methods. It is assumed that ancient Muslims would have followed the calculations had they been available. This is despite the fact that many of them were available and known about, yet were still rejected by the absolute majority of ulema. Those who did permit the use of calculations, it appears, did so only with the condition that the physical sighting is not possible due to cloud cover. The desire for accuracy and predictability is not new, however, the shariah start of the month does not require such accuracy and predictability, as there are no texts that indicate this. The assumption is that confusion and doubt are bad, while certainty is good. The call for calculations then, is based upon a call for these generally defined benefits to override the explicit shariah text.
The proponents of adopting a stance based upon the need to avoid disunity consider that unity is a goal in itself and that division is an avoidable harm, so this may override explicit shariah texts. Unity is generally praised in the shariah texts and disunity is often dispraised, so it is said that these are shariah defined benefits (masaalih mu’tabarah). This approach is again using a benefit as a basis to replace textually derived shariah rules, i.e. as an illah.
However, in both of the above cases the results of following a shariah rule are being taken as a reason to stop following that shariah rule, if the result is viewed as negative. This is the foundation of the discussion, as without it there is no need to even start discussing the need to leave the explicit shariah rule.
A hadith is sometimes brought in “Fast the day that they fast and stop fasting the day that they stop, and sacrifice the day they sacrifice” to justify the permission to follow the majority, as it says the day ‘they’ fast. However, this is an evidence in support of following the explicit shariah rule, not for leaving it. Who ‘they’ are is not defined in the hadith, so it is not correct to define it as any particular region. Rather, it should be left general and so includes all of the Muslims, i.e. that all Muslims should fast on the same day, in accordance with the explicit shariah rule.
The above hadith would never even be used as a justification for regional unity, if the need for such local unity had not already been put forward as a justification for leaving the explicit shariah rule. It is used as a supporting justification, not as a foundation for the opinion. This is not a shariah method of derivation, but is rather a convenient misinterpretation. The text does not actually imply localised unity, but is being interpreted that way to support an argument based upon an already invalid premise, that benefits can replace explicit shariah rules.
Upon the basis of a call for unity a unified British Ramadan is being promoted. We are being advised to leave our adopted opinions of the shariah rule in favour of the local mosque imam’s adoption. We are expected to encourage the formation of a national scholarly committee to adopt a method on our behalf. We are encouraged to ‘boldly’ take matters into our own hands, rather than allowing ‘overseas’ Muslims to have undue influence over our affairs.
All of this is despite the fact that a British unity, or any other national unity, is actually a disunity of the ummah. While it is true that unity of the ummah is a vital issue for the Muslims, but its shariah method for achieving this takes the form of a single global Islamic State, the Khilafah.
Finally, an idea is being propagated that the historical practice of the ummah was to have many regionally sightings and not to have a global unified adoption. It is claimed that no proof can be presented that a single khaleefah adopted a single day for all of the ummah, therefore it is even a bid’ah to suggest that this is the desired solution.
But, since when did historical precedent become the basis of the shariah rules? This line of reasoning is being used to justify the current miserable status of the ummah, divided according to Western colonial designs. How can the past or current division of the Muslim lands, and the neglect of clear shariah rules to be unified, be taken as a basis for ignoring other clear explicit texts to have a unified ummah?!
In the end, those with a pragmatic way of thinking will base their opinion on the benefits that they perceive, then will try to justify these benefits with shariah texts, with historical precedents, with scholarly opinions, and if all else fails, exaggerated warnings of the ‘dreadful’ consequences of not adopting their preferred stance. They may be intending good, and it is not for anyone to question the intentions of others, but such an approach opposes the shariah method of adopting rules.
Islam has a clear way of deriving and adopting the shariah rules based purely on the strength of evidence itself and this pragmatic approach has no part to play in it.