Gazing up at the vastness of the skies, it is difficult not to believe that there is something, or someone, greater than ourselves. Yet in this modern age, perhaps there are too many people who simply see the sun as a way of getting a tan, the moon and stars a romantic ceiling to the world. Others explore the galaxies with probes, throw satellites into the stratosphere or express concern over the degradation of the ozone layer. But for Muslims, the sun and moon play a vital part in daily life and all things celestial have a role in Islam.
[He is] the cleaver of daybreak and has made the night for rest and the sun and moon for calculation. That is the determination of the Exalted in Might, the Knowing.
And it is He who placed for you the stars that you may be guided by them through the darknesses of the land and sea. We have detailed the signs for a people who know. (Qu’ran, Al-An’ām 6:96-97)
Given the numerous references to celestial bodies in the Qu’ran, it’s clear that an understanding of astronomy allows a greater appreciation of many of the fundamental aspects of Islam. The sun’s passage from sunrise to sunset dictates the times of daily prayers and fasting. As Muslims use a lunar calendar, the beginning and end of each month is calculated by the phases of the moon. Even the qiblah, the precise direction of the Ka’bah in Makkah which Muslims face during prayer, is determined by astronomical calculations.
The challenge for the early Arab mathematicians was to find exact methods to determine timings and relative locations. In addition, the results had to correlate with the 12-month year as laid down in the Qu’ran. Between the seventh and 13th centuries, Muslim scholars were at the forefront of astronomical and mathematical discoveries. Al-Khwarazmi is credited for bringing Arabic numerals to the West and writing the first book on algebra; al-Biruni established trigonometry as a specific branch of mathematics; and al-Battani developed the zij book of astronomical tables in which he describes a quadrant – used to measure altitudes and distances between astronomical objects.
Words such as zenith, nadir and azimuth are relics from the Middle Ages, but are still in current use by astronomers and mathematicians. They are still important, and relevant, to Muslims today because they relate to the formulas required to ascertain the altitude of heavenly bodies and their angle to a given point on the globe at any specific time. Translated into normal English, it enables astronomers to calculate, for example, the exact time the sun will rise over the horizon or set, anywhere in the world. But it’s not quite that simple.
Fajr, the day’s first prayer, starts in the pre-dawn when twilight appears across the full width of the sky. Zuhr, the midday prayer, begins just after the sun has reached its zenith and is commencing its decline. The timing of the afternoon prayer of Asr is based on the point when an object’s shadow is in a particular ratio to that object’s length. Maghrib is the after sunset prayer when the sun has completely disappeared below the horizon and lasts until Isha, the evening or night prayer, when darkness has fallen.
During Ramadan, fasting begins at the time of Fajr while Maghrib signals its end. Therefore those times are of key importance to Muslims around the world. Consensus holds that the sky is dark when the sun is 18 degrees lower than the horizon – the level required for Fajr and Isha. However, in summer, at higher latitudes the sun will not fall that low and will still shed light, so times have to be adjusted accordingly. Fortunately, few Muslims today have to study the skies to determine the levels of apparent light, relying rather on computerised tables that simply require the latitude and longitude of a location to set the times of prayers.
But Islam uses a lunar calendar called the Hijri, the first year of which started in the first month of the Hegira, the Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) migration from Makkah to Medina. While solar equations may be used for daily timings, the waxing and waning moon determines the passage of the year. It marks the beginning, end and length of each month; it fixes the day of Eid al-Fitr that sees an end to the fasting of Ramadan; and also influences the celebration of Eid al-Adha after the final day of the Hajj pilgrimage, on the 10th day of the 12th month, Dhu al-Hijjah. And the key to each of these important moments is the first sighting of the hilal, the new, waxing crescent moon.
They ask you [O Muhammad], about the new moons. Say, ‘they are measurements of time for the people and for Hajj’. (Qu’ran, Al-Baqarah, 2:189)
Working along traditional lines, the first day of the month begins with the first visible sighting of the young crescent moon soon after sunset. If the hilal is not seen on the 29th day of the month then that month will last 30 days. (Months in the Islamic calendar are either 29 or 30 days long, without any specific order within the year.)
In the UAE, teams of trusted Muslims – from Dubai, Abu Dhabi and elsewhere in the Emirates – search the skies for the hilal each month, reporting their news back to the Moon-Sighting Committee. According to the ‘old rules’, the hilal should be seen with the naked eye, but in modern times the use of telescopes and other technologies has had growing acceptance. On occasion, aeroplanes have been utilised when the sky has been overcast or when it has been too bright.
Taking into account climatic complications, the variable elevation of the moon around the world and other indeterminate factors, many Muslims believe that the Islamic lunar calendar should be based on astronomical calculations rather than physical sightings of the hilal. Saudi Arabia’s Umm al-Qura calendar is actually based on such calculations, but is principally used for administrative purposes. However, actual sightings are still used to determine the months and times of specific religious observance.
Islamic societies in the USA and Europe have opted to follow a calculated calendar on similar lines to the Umm al-Qura. Certainly, computer programmes and applications for mobile devices that provide such calendars have proliferated. The purists argue that these can be erroneous, leading to mistakes in dates by up to two days.
But while disputes continue to rumble between academics and theologians, Muslims around the world continue to bow their heads towards Makkah, perhaps separated by time zones and detail, but bound together by faith.