Using science and technology for moon-sighting

Shakir Lakhani

It was one of those rare occasions when we actually heard someone in this government talk sense. The minister for science and technology pleaded that we should not depend on clerics to determine whether the moon has been sighted or not. There is no need, he said, to waste so much money on transporting scholars to one place and paying for their accommodation and food (Rs 4 million every time they meet) when astronomical science can help us do the job. The minister said he had formed a committee to prepare an ‘Islamic’ calendar that would make the Ruet-e-Hilal committee redundant. I heartily agreed.
Controversies about moon sighting have plagued the country for many years. Before independence, and even in the early years of the country’s existence, it was common for people to celebrate Eids on different days. The decision belonged to local committees. As early as 1958, residents of Peshawar and adjoining areas were known to celebrate Eid a day earlier than most parts of the country. In 1961, people of Karachi had two Eids as some religious parties did not agree with the government’s announcement on moon-sighting.
The confusion persisted until 1974 until the Bhutto government formed the Ruet-e-Hilal committee to announce the start of every Islamic month.
For several years now there has been much controversy over moon sighting due to announcements made by the private committee of Mufti Popalzai of Peshawar. This year again, Mufti Popalzai found 22 men who said they had seen the Ramazan moon, again a day earlier than those living in the rest of the country.
Before proceeding further, I have a simple suggestion to resolve the problem. Fawad Chaudhry should form a committee to examine the said 22 witnesses closely. I doubt if some of them would be able to see even a full moon on a clear night. Also, next time, the government should have its own people at Masjid Qasim, headquarters of Mufti Popalzai, to question the witnesses, if any.
As for the followers of Mufti Popalzai, have they never wondered why the moon-sighting announcement by Popalzai is always done so late, usually after the moon has been sighted in Saudi Arabia? By the way, does Popalzai arrange to see the new moon every month? If so, did the month of Shahban, according to his committee, also begin a day earlier in Peshawar than in the rest of the country? All these aspects will have to be examined before this issue is resolved. After all, when science predicted that the moon would be sighted, even in KP, on Monday, why did 22 men see it a day earlier?
Back to the committee for making an Islamic calendar, which is expected to be completed in a few days from now, there is already such a calendar in existence for a thousand years known as the Egyptian Calendar. But it is meant for Egypt and surrounding countries including Saudi Arabia. Some communities like the Bohras have been using it for centuries. It is very easy to prepare such a calendar for Pakistan. Since six lunar months are of 29 days and six of 30 days it can be predicted with great confidence that this year Eid-ul-Fitr will fall on June 5, Eid-al-Azha on August 12 and Ashura on September 11. Anyone can make these calculations on a spreadsheet in a few minutes.
The writer is a freelancer