2.2 Where on Earth would the Hilaal first be seen?

Some people think that the Hilaal will always be seen in the “Eastern” Countries before the “Western” Countries. But since the Earth is not Flat and instead it is roughly Spherical in shape, “East” and “West” are only relative terms. In reality the Hilal can be seen first in just about any country (usually in tropical zone) around the Globe. Once it is seen in one location, then as we go West, the Sunset time would be later and later, thus making the Hilaal bigger and bigger and hence easier to be seen. Eventually when we cross the artificial International Date Line, the Solar conventional date changes and the Hilal is seen “next day” in the countries beyond the International Date Line. Thus the Hilal would typically not be seen on a single date all around the world!

3 Saudi Arabian Hilal Sighting Process

Alhamdulillaah I got the chance to live 5 years in Saudi Arabia, meeting Scholars like Sheikh AlOthaimeen and Astronomers including the makers of UmmUlQura Calendar. Here are my findings:

3.1 UmmUlQura Calendar is Simplistic and Ahead of Hilal Sighting Possibility

From 1950 to 1972, the UmmUlQura calendar was based on the following: If at sunset on 29th of the month, the moon is at least 9 degrees above the horizon the new month starts the next day. This was very close to actual visibility of Hilal! [17] Then in 1973 it was changed to the criterion: if conjunction occurs before midnight at Greenwich, the next day is the new month! This was very very far from the visibility of the Hilal. Then in 1998G / 1420H, KACST (King Abdul-Aziz City for Science & Technology, Riyadh) changed it to the criterion: if the Moon sets after the Sun (even by just one second), the next day is new month. Finally, in 1423H / 2002G, the criterion was slightly modified to: if the Moon sets after the Sun and conjunction has occurred (even if by just a second), the next day is new month. This is still quite simplistic and often ahead of Hilal Sighting Possibility by one or two days and sets early expectations. It is substantially worse than the 1950-1972 criterion!

The authors (Dr. Fayez AlHargan in KACST) knows that even after the astronomical new moon is born, it must reach a certain age (and other factors), to be visible to naked eye. But they say that UmmUlQura Calendar is only for Civil use and hence need not be accurate. The religious dates go by actual sighting of Hilaal. But since UmmUlQura Calendar sets the expectations of when to sight, it promotes errors and hence should be updated to reflect the current best models like Odeh criterion (www.icoproject.org).

3.2 Official Saudi Hilal Sighting Committees

I was found that due to the Saudi Government becoming aware of the complaints of errors in the announced dates, around 1419H, the ruling council ordered the formation of Hilal sighting committees. Each such committee includes:

  • one member of Qada (Islamic Scholar/Justice department),
  • one member of KACST/Astronomer,
  • one member of Imarah (ruling council of the city), and
  • volunteers.

There are currently at least six [nine] such committees in Saudi Arabia - near Makkah, Riyadh, Qassim, Hail, Tabuk and Asir. While they may carry a telescope with them, the official sighting of the committee is with naked eye only.  Saudi scholars like Sheikh AlOthaimeen (RH) are against use of telescopes. Sheikh AlOthaimeen (RH) for example indicated that using telescopes increases the “Takalluf” (Burden) on Muslims, which Allaah (سبحانه و تعالى) does not want. [The Sheikh seems to have changed his position from 2009 - see his later fatwa titled, "Telescopes & sighting the new moon" - Editor].

These official committees are excellent but the problem is as follows:

3.3 Majlis AlQada AlAla ignores the Decision of Official Hilal Sighting Committees

The problem is because even though these 6 [nine] official Hilal sighting committees exist, the Justice department still accepts the witness of “any” Muslim and not just the 6 official committees mentioned above.  Thus, often the new month is declared while NONE of these 6 official Hilal sighting committees saw the Hilal. In fact, most people, including scholars are unaware of the existence of these official committees. In the case of EidUlFitr 1420H, I myself went with the Makkah committee to a sighting point on a hilltop of Shamesi outside the city of Makkah Mukarramah on Thursday evening. Neither we, nor the other 5 committees sighted the Hilal. But we came back to the Haram Shareef and were astounded to hear the announcement that EidUlFitr was next day (Friday). In fact moonset was before sunset in Makkah for Thursday evening.