The politics of moon sighting in Pakistan

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By Rasul Bakhsh Rais

Pakistan is where old religious and political controversies keep coming back in new garbs as if time and history are cycling in a well. Seventy-two years on and simple questions about how the moon should be sighted and who the authoritative voice is to decide when Ramadan will begin or end generate conflict. 
The current Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf government has only to blame itself for the fresh controversy on the new moon sighting mechanism. The new federal minister for science and technology, Chaudhary Fawad Hussain kicked up a storm by ridiculing the Central Ruet-e-Hilal Committee saying its members could not recognize a person sitting across the table, much less the moon. He argued that moon sighting was a scientific affair and ordered his ministry to generate a lunar calendar for the next five years which it did within two weeks. 
Of course, a scientific mechanism is required. But the issue is how to sensitively address a problem that is historical, religious and deeply rooted in Pakistan’s conflictive politics. The arrogant manner in which the minister has approached this problem could provoke more resistance instead of settling the issue. He should have known that in traditional societies where religious ethos are deep-rooted, the scientific evidence of any such issue is going to be divisive. 

KARACHI: May05- Central Chairman of the Ruet Hilal Committee Mufti Muneeb-ur-Rehman sighting the moon during evening hours at Forecast Office.

But is moon sighting really a religious issue? Yes, it is. Medieval Islamic texts and various schools of Islamic jurisprudence argue along the same lines as the minister of science and technology and the Ruet-e-Hilal Committee. For instance, Imam Al-Shafi’i is of the view that Muslims can use astrology as a means of sighting the moon, but Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Imam Ibn Taymiyyah and many others believe that the only acceptable evidence is moon-sighting by bare, human eyes. 
How the moon sighting is executed has been a subject of religious interpretation, and many interpretations exist on the matter. Muslims have inherited these controversies but the question is how can we end them, and can science be relied upon in this matter. An educated Muslim will believe simply that astronomy is an exact science and we can predict moon sighting many years in advance, but what about politics, tradition and vested interests?
As expected, the religious fraternity and Council of Islamic ideology have denounced the move as unwise. The chairman of the central Ruet-e-Hilal Committee, Mufti Muneeb ur-Rahman, said the move was ‘interference’ in religious matters. 
Hopefully, the minister has read a few pages of Pakistan’s history and the committee’s background before throwing up such a huge challenge to the religious establishment. Though in a different form, the history of moon sighting goes back to the first year of Pakistan’s creation, 1948, when the central government established such a committee to sight the moon.

President Ayub Khan continued with the mechanism but in 1958 and 1961, his government declared Ramadan’s end without consulting the chairman of the committee, always a noted religious figure. The ulema — religious scholars — acted sharply and decided not to follow the government’s decision. On both these occasions, the people of Pakistan celebrated the festival of Eid on three different days. Religious and political divisions completely marred a day of shared festivity.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto also wanted to resolve the problem by taking the matter to Parliament, which he did by getting an act passed that established the current Ruet-e-Hilal Committee in 1974. The committee has been functioning for the past 45 years without much controversy. It has prominent religious scholars as members from different sects of Islam and it meets to determine the sighting of the moon. It is not just the members who sight the moon; they have scientific assistance from the meteorology department. They collect evidence from every part of the country, and if found reliable, they declare the moon sighted. This traditional mechanism has worked for decades to the satisfaction of most.
After all, it is the ulema that lead the Eid prayers, not government functionaries. They are organized and understandably protective of their respective spheres of influence in society, and they are certainly not likely to give up the power to moon-sight. 
Under these circumstances, it seems likely that this year there might be a repeat of history with more than one Eid-ul-fitr if the ulema decide they will defy the government to make the point they are the ones with real authority.
(Rasul Bakhsh Rais is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS, Lahore. His latest book is “Islam, Ethnicity and Power Politics: Constructing Pakistan’s National Identity” (Oxford University Press, 2017).
Twitter: @RasulRais)