Shehroze Ahmed Shaikh

It is nearing sunset in Karachi on the hot and humid evening of Wednesday, 12 May 2021. The weather, however, has nothing to do with the residents of the city’s Gulistan-e-Jouhar neighbourhood congregating on their roofs and balconies. It is not fresh air they are looking for with their eyes peering towards the horizon, but the sleek crescent of the Shawwal moon (the new moon). The city’s polluted air, however, denies them a chance at seeing either of them.

Not that the residents of any other city were having much luck if the news bulletins were to be believed. Like every year on this lunar date, people retire indoors as the sound of a siren followed by the maghrib azaan indicates the time for iftar. The same eyes which searched the horizon now are glued to the TV screens, as they sift through news channels, hoping to find out whether the moon has been sighted. Attention now shifts to the Pakistan Meteorological Department office in Karachi, and more specifically, the Ruet-e-Hilal committee press conference. The committee is Pakistan’s official moon-sighting body made up of religious clerics and experts from the meteorological and space research departments. Over in Peshawar, the unofficial but influential moon-sighting body at Qasim Ali Khan mosque had already announced Eid for the next day. The rest of the country, however, would have to wait. The clock hits nine. To pray taraveeh or not? Ten. To get mehndi or not? Eleven. Surely not now. It would be till midnight before the official committee would be ready to make a decision.

Between the moon and maulana

24 News, a Lahore based news channel, was covering the press conference like every other media outlet in the country. The live feed on their Facebook page started about eleven minutes before the announcement, as members of the Ruet-e-Hilal committee are seen settling down in their respective seats, waiting for the newly appointed chairman, Maulana Abdul Khabir Azad to join them. One of the clerics on the committee, Mufti Yaseen Zafar, receives a phone call. He takes the call and, over the next few minutes, proceeds to lament about how the current committee is “weak”, and that they are about to announce that the moon has been sighted, despite there being absolutely no chance for an actual sighting. He explains that the committee is obsessed with national unity, which is why they are taking this step.

Unbeknownst to him, the camera had been rolling this entire time. And sure enough, ten minutes after this phone call, the chairman announces that the Shawwal moon has been sighted. To further confirm Mufti Zafar’s claim, the chairman also added, “Allah has united the nation once again, and I think we will try to move forward together in the future as well.”  For the first time in many years, a single, unanimous Eid would be celebrated nationwide on Thursday, 13 May. Or would it?

“You cannot have unity over a phenomenon that is variable by its very nature,” says Khalid Marwat, founder and chairman of the Karachi Astronomers Society.

It took mere minutes for the video to leak and go viral. Not that controversies had not already begun; the four-hour gap between sunset and the announcement had already been filled with nation-wide speculations, from ordinary people on social media to those occupying the state offices. Foremost among them was the Federal Minister Fawad Chaudhry, who tweeted that leading the nation astray only to make sure Eid coincided with the Saudi Arabian calendar would not be a wise decision. Chaudhry’s jibe was not the first of its kind, as we will see later, and he was also not the only minister to get in on the act; Federal Minister for Planning and Development Asad Umar took a potshot at the committee as well, arguing that the nation was missing its previous chairman, Mufti Muneeb-ur-Rehman. Mufti Muneeb had served as the chairman for twenty-two years, prior to being replaced by Maulana Azad.

Outside the corridors of power, immediately after the decision was announced, people across the country went into a frenzy. Many had accepted that the delay meant the moon had not been sighted, and thus were unprepared for Eid the next day. Others refused to accept the decision altogether. And yet this frenzy was a familiar feeling for many Pakistanis. After all, this was not the first time that people received a delayed decision on moon-sighting; there had been worse. Nor was this the first time that a decision had led to speculations of foul play; history is littered with them. This was, however, thanks to Mufti Zafar’s leaked video, the first time that anything resembling proof of foul play was discovered.

Science, religion or both?

If the point of forcing Eid this year was to create national unity, it did anything but that. “You can not have unity over a phenomenon that is variable by its very nature,” says Khalid Marwat, founder and chairman of the Karachi Astronomers Society (KAS). Marwat was a pilot with the Pakistan Air Force, and later with a private airline in Pakistan. He is an astronomy enthusiast and formed the KAS in 2009 to bring together other enthusiasts with the hope of making astronomical knowledge and observational activities common in the city. In an interview with the author, Marwat stressed that, scientifically speaking, disagreements over the sighting of the moon is a non-issue. “It is no rocket science that the sighting of the moon differs based on time, geographical position, and even the point where the moon is at in its orbit. The moon’s path is elliptical, which means depending on orbital position, the moon can be closer to the Earth when it is passing over one part of the world and further away when passing over another, all in the space of a day, and this affects visibility.”

Marwat does acknowledge that while the science of moon-sighting is not difficult to understand, it is not linear either. And when astronomical knowledge is not common, the uncertainty that comes from this nonlinear nature creates spaces for controversy. “You get situations, for example, where the moon was sighted in Bangladesh, not sighted in India, but then sighted in Pakistan, and people ask how that’s possible? Or how it is not sighted in Pasni (a coastal city in Pakistan) but is sighted in Peshawar? This is how.” Marwat, thus, argues that the geographical variations in moon-sighting are not the issue, but their reception is. “These variations are fascinating and should be embraced, as they have been for centuries. It is only because of sensationalist media reporting that they become controversies.”

Marwat’s claim is not baseless. However, many argue that in Pakistan moon-sighting is a religious issue that needs to be tackled according to instructions from religious scripture rather than just astronomical models. Where the Quran establishes the moon’s movement as a sign for calculating time, the canonical hadith texts that form the basis of Islamic jurisprudence elaborate further and argue that the primary method of deducing the start and end of lunar months is the naked-eye sighting of the moon. One of these sources, a collection of hadith verses titled Sahih Muslim, follows the account of a man named Fadl, who travelled from Medina to Syria on an errand. He reached Syria on a Friday and found that the Ramazan moon had been sighted and the month had commenced. He fasted accordingly. When he returned to Medina a month later, he found out from the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin, Abdullah ibn Abbas, that the people there had started fasting a day after the people of Syria, despite Damascus being the seat of the ruler at the time: “This is how the Prophet taught us to do it,” he said, establishing religious grounds for geographical independence in moon-sighting decisions, regardless of the state’s position.

In the absence of a sighting, however, Hadith sources instruct Muslims to “calculate about it.” Scholars disagree on what this calculation entails, a debate that dates back to the 8th century CE, to the founders of the four main schools of jurisprudence. One of them, Imam Shafi, argued that astronomical calculations and models should be used to determine the visibility of the moon, while Ahmed bin Hanbal argued that a sighting or a testimony of a sighting of the moon with naked eye should be the only criteria. In subsequent centuries, approaches emerged which aimed to bring the best of both methods together. In 1920, the Al Azhar University in Cairo, one of the foremost jurisprudential authorities in contemporary times, ruled that while a naked-eye sighting should be the primary method, the use of astronomical models should be employed as well, especially to verify the accuracy of a testimony.

It is this method that became the modus operandi of a majority of countries across the Islamic world. There are exceptions; many states base their calendars on moon-sighting decisions in other countries. Afghanistan, Palestine, and the Philippines, among others, have decided to follow Saudi Arabia’s decision, while many former non-Arab Ottoman territories followed Turkey’s lead. In the subsequent decades, many more states would decide to base their lunar calendars on one of the two as well.

However, even before the committee’s establishment, moon-sighting had been a contentious issue in Pakistan, with regional moon-sighting bodies disagreeing.  One of the major reasons for these disagreements was the ongoing debate over the sighting criteria as outlined above. While many regional bodies in the country employed the Al Azhar method, which brought both religious criteria and methods together, some stuck with the idea that a naked-eye sighting or its testimony was the only legitimate method and that astronomical models, use of telescopes, or even conveying a testimony over the telephone, were prohibited.

Chief among these bodies was Qasim Ali Khan mosque in Peshawar. With the Popalzai family at its helm, the mosque has been a centre of moon-sighting since 1825, and its decisions hold considerable sway in the many districts of the now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region of Pakistan. To this day, Qasim Ali Khan mosque is at loggerheads with the official moon-sighting body of Pakistan, often contradicting its decisions and, thus, leading to what many argue is national disunity. However, politics rather than methodological difference has also served as the reason for disagreements.

The dark side of the moon

The first major instances of disunity over moon-sighting following Partition came in 1958, when Peshawar and many other districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa celebrated Eid a day before the rest of the country. The martial-law administrator at the time, Field Marshal Ayub Khan, claimed that the clerics making these decisions were obstructing the nation’s progress, an opinion he held about the country’s clergy in general, as recorded in his autobiography Friends Not Masters.

In a manner fit for a dictator, Ayub Khan and his cabinet reversed the decision made by the committee regarding the Eid al Fitr date in 1961. The committee had earlier announced that the moon had not been sighted, whereas the government, late in the night, announced via radio that the moon had indeed been sighted. As a result – with Peshawar disagreeing with both the government and central committee – people of Pakistan celebrated Eid on three different days. The regime would bypass the committee’s decision twice more. In 1966, the newspaper Dawn reported that many people went to sleep after hearing the announcement by the committee that the moon had not been sighted and woke up in the middle of the night to fast another day, only to find out that it was actually Eid. Funnily enough, 55 years later, Twitter was full of people telling similar tales after this year’s fiasco.

Pakistan was one of the few countries which made the conscious decision to formulate its own moon-sighting mechanism based on local sightings.

A similar reversal in 1967, however, was the breaking point for many. A crisis had already been gradually brewing, as the military regime faced staunch opposition from religious clerics, pro-democracy opponents, as well as student and worker unions. As a result, the issue would be politicised even further, and many celebrated Eid according to the committee’s decision rather than the government’s. It was in the midst of all this turmoil though, one of the country’s most popular urban legends first raised its head. According to cultural critic Nadeem Farooq Paracha, multiple Urdu newspapers of the time wrote that the modernist and rational Ayub was actually the victim of a superstition and that the decision to change the date was to make sure the Eid did not fall on a Friday. This superstition dictated that two sermons on the same day – which is possible only when an Eid falls on Friday – are a bad omen for a ruler.

If Ayub thought changing the date of the Eid was going to save his regime, it bought him no more than two years. The superstition, however, has long outstayed its first victim and made its latest appearance this year. For many, the leaked video from this year’s Ruet-e-Hilal committee session is proof enough that the decision to have Eid on Thursday, 13 May, was forced. In fact, the preceding chairman of the committee, Mufti Muneeb, who many still consider to be the foremost authority on moon-sighting, announced the following morning that Muslims in Pakistan should observe an extra fast following Eid to make up the 30th fast that they missed because of the government’s decision.

Many articles reporting on the issue, however, did not shy away from alluding that the decision may have been forced to avoid Eid falling on Friday and saving Imran Khan’s regime. It does not help Khan’s case that his superstitious personality is an open secret, ranging from speculations about his personal life as well as political decisions. However, between Ayub and Imran, such claims of superstition among Pakistan politicians are no groundbreaking revelation. That it is the supposedly superstitious Khan whose tenure managed to intersect with one of the country’s most widely entertained urban legends is mere coincidence. Admittedly, Mufti Yaseen Zafar’s lack of awareness of cameras does not reveal anything to confirm or deny these claims. What they do reveal is a much more telling obsession: national unity.

The clock hits nine. To pray taraveeh or not? Ten. To get mehndi or not? Eleven. Surely not now.

Speaking to the Karachi-based Herald magazine in 2016 about the differing decisions between his Ruet-e-Hilal committee and Qasim Ali Khan mosque’s Mufti Popalzai, Mufti Muneeb ur Rehman accused the Pakistani media of making a mountain out of a molehill. He argued that these differences had long preceded his tenure and have featured heavily in history. He also maintained, however, that the committee was entrusted with the responsibility to make decisions and announcements regarding the moon sighting, and that the government should protect this mandate in the face of “a parallel and unauthorised moon sighting mechanism.” Mufti Muneeb, belonging to the Barelvi sect, also dismissed claims that sectarian differences fueled his disagreements with the Deobandi Popalzai. However, in the years that followed, Popalzai would not be the only opponent to the committee and Mufti Muneeb.

In April 2019, Federal Minister Fawad Chaudhry was given charge of the Ministry of Science and Technology. One of his first moves as minister was to lament the state of moon-sighting decisions in Pakistan and how reliance on unscientific methods was leading to disunity on the occasions of Eid. Whether Chaudhry was unaware of the role played by the Pakistan Meteorological Department and the Pakistan Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO), in the work of the Ruet-e-Hilal committee is unknown. What began was a new power struggle over the next two years, in which Chaudhry attempted to wrest the mandate for moon-sighting away from the committee and secure it for his ministry. To this end, he commissioned the development of a moon-sighting app, which would use astronomical models to predict whether the moon would be visible or not.

The power struggle would climax in a double dismissal. In December of last year, Mufti Muneeb’s 22-year tenure as the chairman of the Ruet-e-Hilal committee came to an end as he was replaced by Maulana Azad, who, like Mufti Popalzai, belongs to the Deobandi sect. A day before the committee’s moon-sighting session, Maulana Azad convened a meeting with several religious scholars in the country in an attempt to make sure the clergy and government were on the same page regarding the committee’s mandate. Mufti Popalzai was also invited. He declined to attend. On the other hand, Chaudhry was replaced by Shibli Faraz in April 2021, whose first move in office was to withdraw the Ministry of Science and

Changing faces of the moon

If there was ever to be an overhaul to address the controversies of the moon-sighting, the Pakistani state attempted it early this year. However, controversy surfaced all the same. “They are obsessed with unity,” said Mufti Yaseen Zafar in the leaked video. The outcome of the overhaul and this obsession was one of the most divisive Eids in recent memory, as well as a question mark on the legitimacy of the moon-sighting mechanism altogether. What, then, is the answer to Pakistan’s moon-sighting woes? Why does the Pakistani state, in the face of contradictions from both religious and scientific points of view, persist in its attempts at a single, unanimous Eid?

As a nascent state, Pakistan was one of the few countries which made the conscious decision to formulate its own moon-sighting mechanism based on local sightings. It was not the only one. As nation states emerged in Southasia, they made the conscious decision to base their decisions on local sightings. India decided against forming a single committee for the whole country, and central committees across different regions retained their jurisdictions. Over in Sri Lanka, the All Ceylon Jamiyat ul Ulema incorporated a Hilal Division within its ranks, which formulated a centralised system based on local sightings for its Muslim minority to follow. Following its independence, Bangladesh would also retain an official centralised moon-sighting system.

Many articles reporting on the issue, however, did not shy away from alluding that the decision may have been forced to avoid Eid falling on Friday and saving Imran Khan’s regime.

It is important to note, however, that despite the different ways in which Southasian countries approached the question of moon sighting, controversy and “disunity” are common themes across the board. In 2018, Ramazan started on two different days across India. Committees in Delhi, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh and several other states accepted the sightings from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu to begin the month on the 17th. Maharashtra, however, began the month on the 18th, citing the lack of sightings in Mumbai as the reason. In 2019, the Hilal Committee of Bangladesh announced that the Shawwal moon had not been sighted, only to have a second meeting late in the night to change the decision.

Hence, as troubles with the moon go, Pakistan is clearly not an anomaly. Muslim communities in Southasia have long had a tradition of basing their decisions on local sightings. This tradition represented a network which connected localised Muslims in a particular space to those in the rest of the region through their respective mosques and committees. Pakistan, like other states that emerged in the wake of British departure from the region, had to contend with this inheritance, and it did so by centralising it – the first in the region to do so. Where India was content to let regional committees hold their respective forts, the question of the Islamic calendar presented the Pakistani state with an opportunity to connect itself tangibly to its Muslim population.

With the creation of the Ruet-e-Hilal committee under which regional committees in local mosques could come together, the state was able to situate itself at the centre of the religious expression of its citizens. By virtue of their connection with their local mosques, the citizens were now connected to the nation-state. This independent, localised mechanism was thus an expression of the state’s quest to establish its sovereignty and a sense of unity among its people. However, you cannot have unity over a phenomenon that is variable by its very nature, is what Khalid Marwat had said.

To a state like Pakistan, sovereignty is in uniformity, and fissures bring out anxiety. When these fissures reached their zenith in the 1960s, Ayub tightened his iron fist, hoping to turn grains of sand into rock. This year, Imran tried to change gloves, hoping the new ones would provide a better grip. Both of them failed. Maybe the state needs to accept that some grains of sand will always slip through its fingers. Which, for certain, is not a prospect it will be over the moon about.

Shehroze Ahmed Shaikh studies and teaches history at Simon Fraser University. He likes to write about politics, religion, and visual culture.

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