SEREMBAN: Hari Raya Aidilfitri, which will be celebrated tomorrow, marks the end of Ramadan, when Muslims fast daily between dawn and sunset. The festival, too, heralds the beginning of Syawal in the Islamic calendar.
Unlike the Gregorian calendar, the start of a new month in the Islamic calendar is determined by the lunar cycle, which is 29 or 30 days, coinciding with the birth of a new moon.
However, determining this occurrence is not straightforward. One debate is whether to take a traditionalist or modernist approach.
On the night when the new moon is expected, Falaq Syarie (Islamic astronomy) committees will observe the hilal (the crescent moon), but the reliance on eye sighting means that even a cloudy night may extend Ramadan or delay Hari Raya Aidilfitri by a day.
According to Malaysia Falaq Syarie Association deputy president Dr Kassim Bahali, the country adopts the rukyahand hisab in determining the beginning and ending of Ramadan, as well as the beginning of Syawal, known as imkannur rukyah (possibility of sighting).
In the rukyah, the sighting of the new moon is observed with the eye after sunset. If the moon can be seen, it is considered the beginning of a new month.
Hisab is the use of astronomical calculations to determine the arrival of the new moon.
Kassim said both methods, which combine the sunnah (exemplary customs and conducts of Prophet Muhammad) and scientific calculations, were implemented since 1992.
“On every 29th of Ramadan, a committee appointed by the Conference of Rulers will observe the hilal as soon as the sun sets. According to the Islamic calendar, a new day begins after Maghrib, when the sun goes down.
“To determine the dates for Ramadan and Syawal, the committee will observe the crescent moon, either through the naked eye or supported by equipment, such as a telescope and theodolite. This process is conducted in 29 locations in the country.”
He said Syawal would fall the next day if the appearance of the new moon on the 29th of Ramadan was apparent.
However, Kassim said, the rukyah, even with the help of equipment, might sometimes be affected by weather.
“Cloudy nights, rain, fog and haze can prevent the sighting of hilal. If this happens, then the hisab will be applied.”
Kassim said hisab could determine the beginning of all 12 Islamic months, including Ramadan and Syawal, based on the calculated positions of the moon and sun.
“When using hisab, there are two conditions that must be met. First, the age of the thin crescent moon must be a minimum of eight hours at the time it sets, or the moon at sunset is above the horizon at an altitude greater than two degrees, and the curving distance between the moon and sun is more than three degrees.
“If these two conditions are fulfilled, then the new month will begin and, in the case of Syawal, Hari Raya Aidilfitri will be celebrated the next day.”
However, in the event where rukyah and hisab fail to give a clear result, then Muslims in this country are obliged to fast until the 30th of Ramadan.
With the increasingly sophisticated technology available, many countries have adopted them in favour of rukyah, which is said to have many weaknesses.
Recently, Pakistan announced its Aildilfitri dates for the next five years with the establishment of its moon-sighting centre.
Kassim, however, said technology would not be totally relied on in determining the dates of Ramadan and Syawal.
He said rukyah is a sunnah, which the Prophet had told Muslims to undertake.
“Despite technology, rukyah is still a priority because this was what Prophet Muhammad used. There are methods that we still refer to in al-Quran and sunnah,” he said.
“Sighting with the naked eye under rukyah is a manifestation of our devotion in Islam. Observing nature is also one of the fields in science that can’t be ignored.”
Commenting on some nations that relied on technology, Kassim said the matter depended on the country’s fatwa council.
“There are countries that rely solely on rukyah and there are those that choose to use hisab. This decision is up to their fatwa council.”
He said Malaysia also had its fair share of inaccuracies in determining Ramadan and Syawal.
“We used to rely on rukyah solely in the past. When confusion arose, the fatwa council began incorporating hisab in 1992, which is used until today.
“In terms of technology usage, our country is on a par with others. However, we choose to follow imkannur rukyah, which combines the teachings of the sunnah and hisab to get accurate results, and that is the advantage of our country.”