The Almighty has prescribed the month of Ramadan for keeping fasts and the month of Dhu al-Hajj for offering the hajj. Since both these months belong to the lunar calendar, the issue of ascertaining the days of these months has always remained under discussion. Even before the recent advances made in the science of astronomy, people were aware that a lunar month could not exceed thirty days; however, general observation showed that a lunar month could also be of twenty nine days.
When the Qur'an directed people to keep the fasts of one whole month, it was suspected that people would insist on completing thirty days while complying with this directive. Consequently, the Prophet (sws) cautioned people to begin the month of Ramadan when the moon was sighted and to end it too when it was sighted; it was not essential to complete thirty days and in case the sky was not clear, thirty days must necessarily be completed. It is this very directive of the Prophet (sws) which was given an entirely different form by various narrators: as per this changed scenario, it was thought that the Prophet (sws) had bound people to observe the moon for ascertaining the commencement of Ramadan. It is our good fortune that in one variant of this narrative, this directive of the Prophet (sws) has been reported in its original form. He is reported to have said:
الشَّهْرُ تِسْعٌ وَعِشْرُونَ فإذا رَأَيْتُمْ الْهِلَالَ فَصُومُوا وإذا رَأَيْتُمُوهُ فَأَفْطِرُوا فَإِنْ غُمَّ عَلَيْكُمْ فَاقْدِرُوا له
A month can also be of twenty nine days; so if you sight the moon, begin the fast and if you sight it break the fast; if the sky is not clear complete the days.
This narrative is reported by 'Abdullah ibn 'Umar (rta). A variant from Abu Hurayrah (rta) is reported precisely in the same words.
It is evident from this discussion that sighting the moon for ascertaining a lunar month was never made incumbent; on the contrary, it was made incumbent to begin a month after sighting the moon so that people should not insist on completing thirty days thinking that one whole month's fasts have been made mandatory for them. Consequently, the very words reported from the Prophet (sws) begin thus: "a month can also be of twenty nine days."
The purpose of sighting the moon is to determine a lunar month. If thirty days are completed in a month, moon-sighting is not required since in this matter we are absolutely certain that whether the moon is sighted or not, the previous month has ended and a new month will now begin. With advancement of technology, we are now in a position to determine if a lunar month can be of twenty-nine days. We are now in a position to know with full certainty when the moon is born for this earth each month. Hence, there is nothing wrong if the lunar calendar is instituted on the basis of the moon's birth with respect to Makkah, and if all religious festivals are celebrated in accordance with it. The purport of religion is ascertaining the lunar month. If it can be ascertained by sighting the moon, it was adopted in the past, and if now it can be determined through some other way, then no objection can be raised against it. After the invention of watches, just as we no longer need to observe sunrise and sunset to ascertain prayer timings, similarly, we are not required to ascertain a lunar month through moon sighting. The issue of sighting the moon has arisen because of misreporting of the narrators. After collating all the variants on this topic, it becomes evident that the Prophet (sws) had an entirely different objective before him.
Should one still insist on sighting the moon after all this? Our scholars need to deliberate on this question.
(Translated by Dr Shehzad Saleem)
. Muslim, Al-Jami' al-sahih, vol. 2, 759, (no. 1080).