In 2017 I shared a short writeup from one of my teachers Ustad Sayyid Rafipour that explains the four positions on moon sighting and methodologies for determining the start of a new lunar month. The very first opinion in that article is referred to as Birth of the Crescent, a view that seems to have been held by Sayyid Fadhlullah for a period of time, but he later changed his position on it. Today in Qom I am aware of a handful of contemporary jurists who have inclinations towards this position. Recently, a book by Ustad Soroush Mahallati was published on the topic of birth of the month, or sighting of the crescent, in which he proposes arguments for the birth of the new moon as the start of a lunar month, rather than the sighting of the crescent. Ustad Mahallati also delivered a brief Bahth al-Kharij on this topic back in 2020 in Qom. Although I do not have access to the physical book, Ustad Mahallati presented his ideas at Markaz-e Tahqiqaat-i Islami in Mashhad, on April 2nd, 2023. What follows is a translation of that presentation’s summary.
One of the old issues in our jurisprudence is the matter of the beginning of the lunar months. Our scholars have expressed in their juristic opinions that each lunar month begins with the sighting of the crescent moon and ends with the sighting of the crescent moon of the following month, “fast when you see it, and break the fast when you see it.” Until about forty years ago, there was a consensus among our jurists that sighting must be done with the naked eye, and using magnifying tools (such as telescopes) is not valid. In response to a relatively detailed inquiry from Mirza Na’ini (d. 1936), he explained that sighting with an instrument and using similar tools is not enough. This issue has also been raised in the fatwas of Ayatollah Khu’i and Imam Khumayni.
In recent decades, this issue has been re-examined by jurists, and a new opinion has been developed among them that the use of tools and instruments (such as telescopes) is sufficient. Ayatollah Behjat, Ayatollah Fazel Lankarani, Ayatollah Khamenei and a group of jurists who engaged in scientific discussions with him (especially two of them, Ayatollah Khazali and Ayatollah Sayyid Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, who also wrote treatises to prove this position) stated that lunar sighting using tools and instruments is valid, just like sensory sighting. However, these new opinions have not yet solved our society’s problem, and differences have not only decreased but rather increased. I would like to take advantage of this seminar and the presence of scholars and elders to propose a new possibility (not a new final verdict), which is whether we can replace the “sighting of the crescent moon” (ru’yat al-hilāl) with the view of “the birth of the moon” (tawallud al-hilāl) or not?
Firstly, let me explain that there is a difference between birth of the moon or month and sighting of the moon. When the moon emerges from the new moon phase and becomes visible, some time passes until it is possible to see it. Of course, this time varies depending on different conditions. Last year, approximately twenty hours after the birth of the moon, it was possible to see the crescent. It may take ten to fifteen hours from birth to sighting with an instrument, and again about ten hours from sighting with an instrument to sighting with the naked eye.
As mentioned, according to the jurisprudential fatwas, the criterion for determining the beginning of the lunar month is sighting (direct or indirect, with the naked eye or with telescopes), but the theory of birth puts the beginning of the month before sighting. That is, at the moment when the moon emerges from the new moon phase, and there is still no possibility of sighting it, even the most advanced telescopes in the world have not yet been able to capture the moment of birth. Yes, photography of the moment of birth has been made possible, but it is still not possible for a person to sit behind the device and see the moment of birth directly. However, scientists believe that this possibility will be provided in the future. The question is whether we can deviate from the theory of sighting – in both its forms, with instruments and the naked eye – and consider the theory of birth instead. For now, I do not want to discuss the effects and benefits of this possibility if proven, because when examining a jurisprudential issue, we must first clear our minds of those positive or negative effects and consequences, and approach the evidence with an empty mind. But in the end, I will say that if this possibility is established, what effects and benefits will be associated with it.
As this issue is a very complex one and requires at least a month-long worth of discussion, and such an opportunity is not present today, I will list some preliminary foundations that can help with this possibility and, in other words, lay the logical premises for the birth theory. If these foundations lead to a conclusion, perhaps the birth theory can be considered a provable theory.
First Preliminary: The subject matter (mawḍū‘) of the obligation of fasting is the actual shahr (month)
The obligation of fasting is in reality related to the month of Ramadan, as the verse in Surah al-Baqarah states: [2:185] “Whoever witnesses the month, let him fast it.” Therefore, the subject matter of this fasting obligation is the month of Ramadan. Ayatollah Khu’i has expressed this matter well, stating:
The benefit derived from the verse (Whoever witnesses the month, let him fast it) and the narrations is that the actual existence of this month is the subject of the obligation to fast, and its verification must be made with knowledge, in the same manner as in other external matters subject to religious rulings.1
They state that the month of Ramadan, its actual existence, is the subject of the obligation to fast, and this does not apply exclusively here but rather in all cases where an obligation pertains to a particular matter, the subject’s “actual existence” is the basis for its ruling. Therefore, the obligation of fasting during the month is based on its actual existence, and this matter must be verified to produce its effects. This verification of the subject can be done through methods that produce knowledge or what is established by valid religious law. The same situation applies to other external matters subject to religious rulings.2 This is the first preliminary, thus we are after the actual month and the actual moon of the blessed month of Ramadan.
Second Preliminary: The criteria for a real month has not been defined by the Shari’ah, and depends on customary conventions
What are the criteria for a real month and the month of Ramadan? One possibility is that we can use tools and methods that can reveal reality since we have said that science is for verifying external material realities. Therefore, to ascertain a real month, we have no concern for either customs or religion. The second possibility is to say that the month itself has been defined by religious law, and its boundaries have been specified, indicating when the month begins and ends. The third possibility is that religious law has not intervened, and it has been left to the conventions of people, and whenever customs say that the month of Ramadan has begun, it is the same criterion, which may differ from the first criterion (scientific precision) in terms of customary view. In examining these possibilities, if the second and third possibilities cannot be proven, the first possibility is strongly reinforced.
Third Preliminary: Lack of proof for the relevance (mawḍū’īyyat) of “sighting”
Can we use hadiths to determine the beginning and end of the city? Can we use any evidence to show that the Shari’a law has interfered in the matter of defining the month’s boundaries and stated, for example, that the month begins with “sighting” and ends with “sighting”? Is the beginning of the month in this case provable or unprovable?
In this regard, the most significant thing we have are those narrations that say, “Fast when you see the crescent moon and break your fast when you see it again“. Therefore, the blessed month begins with the “sighting” and ends with the “sighting” of the next month. But how acceptable is this argument? Referring to the narrations that mention these statements can clarify the issue to some extent. I will briefly read some of these hadiths to you.
One of these narrations is an authentic narration from ‘Ali bin Muhammad Qasani, quoting Imam Hadi (a) which Saffar records as follows:
“I wrote to him (a) while I was in Medina about the day on which there is doubt in the month of Ramadan as to whether to fast or not. He replied, “Doubt does not overpower certainty. Fast when you sight (the crescent) and break your fast when you sight (the crescent).”3
The question is about the day of doubt, and the Imam (a) mentions that certainty cannot be ruined by doubt. If you are certain that yesterday was part of Sha’ban and today you are in doubt, do not pay attention to this doubt. Observe fasting when the crescent of Ramadan appears and continue until you sight the crescent for the next month. When the crescent of the month of Ramadan is sighted, the doubt is removed, and start fasting until you sight the crescent of the next month. Note that this phrase “observe fasting when the crescent is sighted, and break your fast when the crescent is sighted” is actually an application of the principle of istiṣḥāb (continuity). In fact, Ayatollah Behjat has pointed out in his short treatise on this topic that in the narrations, “sighting” means that one cannot rely on doubt at the beginning of the blessed month of Ramadan and istiṣḥāb is applied, which negates the relevance of “sighting”. His interpretation is as follows:
“It is indicated that relying on sighting is one of the arguments for istiṣḥāb…With knowledge that the next month has arrived, the previous situation no longer remains.”4
Anyway, if we gain knowledge that the moon for the next month has entered, even if we do not see it, knowledge of that fact is sufficient for the realization of the occasion, and seeing is not necessary.
One of the authentic narrations is from Ishaq ibn ‘Ammar:
From Abu ‘Abdillah (a) who said, that in the book of ‘Ali (a) it is recorded: “Fast when you see it (the crescent), and break the fast when you see it, and beware of doubt and speculation.”5
The Imam (a) is saying that act according to seeing the crescent, and do not act based on doubt and speculation. “Seeing” is opposed to doubt and speculation, meaning that you must be certain that the moon has entered a new phase. The conventional criterion of certainty for individuals in those circumstances has been the same sighting, but it is important to understand from this contrast between sighting and doubt that we should not rely on doubt and speculation, meaning that we need knowledge. Therefore, the relevance of sighting cannot be established according to these narrations.
Another authentic narration is from Muhammad bin Muslim:
“When you see the crescent moon, fast and when you see it again, break your fast. It is not a matter of conjecture or assumptions.”6
The issue is that we cannot prove the sighting of the moon based on guesswork and assumptions, and we should not rely on conjectures. The opposite of conjecture is to attain knowledge, so this aligns with the principle of istiṣḥāb and does not refute the validity of knowledge. Rather, it emphasizes the importance of knowledge in the matter of the month of Ramadan. In this third preliminary, it is claimed that the narrations “fast for the sighting and break your fast for the sighting” do not prove the relevancy of sighting (rather knowledge and certainty), and this preliminary is very necessary for this discussion.
Fourth Preliminary: The status of ascertaining by customs
We must clarify the duty of this discussion as well, which is, what is meant by the authority of custom (‘urf) in the matter of identification (tashkīṣ) by customs. Where is the authority of custom accepted and where is it not accepted? It is possible for someone to claim here that the beginning of the lunar month is from the point of the “sighting”, because customary conventions recognize the beginning of the month by sight, and birth is not sufficient because customary conventions do not have a specific origin for the lunar month. Therefore, the status of customs must be specified here.
In this matter, Ayatollah Khu’i raised the issue of referring to customs and stated that the extent determined by customs is the very sighting of the crescent, and the use of precise scientific devices to determine the beginning of the lunar month has no credibility:
“Just like the appearance of the moon above the horizon based on the precise calculations that can only be established by devices and instruments is also not a measure of the new month according to customs, because customary matters do not depend on such precise accuracy and mathematical or astronomical calculations.”7
He basically says that the moon entering the new moon phase is not a sensory matter (not visible to the naked eye nor can it be seen with an instrument) but is determined based on precise scientific calculations, and they say that the authority for the beginning of the month is based on customs, and this measure and this standard of precise scientific calculation for going into the new moon phase is not a measure used by customary conventions. This measure is only used by specialists and experts like astronomers.
Someone who wants to confirm and establish this possibility (the birth of the new moon), must also determine the scope of customary authority and in order to confirm this possibility, we can say that customary authority has two domains. The first domain is the determination of concepts, which is undoubtedly determined by customs, and there is no difference in this regard that concepts should be determined by custom. The second domain is the matching of concepts to their instances; is customary authority accepted here or is it accepted with intellectual precision and accuracy? In other words, are customary tolerances accepted or not when it comes to the application of the concepts? Our discussion here is not about the mental concept of Ramadan or the lunar month, but about matching those concepts to external instances; the moon has moved beyond the new moon phase and the sighting has not yet occurred and sighting is not possible for the next ten to fifteen hours. Does the concept of the month of Ramadan apply here or not? It is a matching to an instance, not a determination of concept.
Here is where the difference of opinion exists, and some great scholars like Mirza Na’ini believe that determining instances and giving opinions about them is beyond the scope of customary authority and that custom determines concepts, and then it is just us and the reality as it is and precise accuracy and customary authority have to interfere in determining instances. We ask people how many grams are in a kilogram. This is a customary concept, and custom determines the limits, quantities, scales, and limits of it; it says 1000 grams. After customs have stated this concept, we move on to the instance, we see that the instance is 999 grams, and customs tolerates and calls it one kilogram. Does this opinion coincide with the tolerance of customary authority here or should we accurately identify the instance, meaning it should be considered a little less than one thousand grams, not exactly one thousand grams? Customary authority cannot solely be relied on here. It is like when we intend to travel for ten days, or a person reaches the age of responsibility, both of which have a precise quantitative aspect and precise calculation to it. Even if custom says we are staying for ten days in a city, and they may generally ignore the fact that they are one or two hours short of the ten day mark, their customary application is not authority and instead they must determine the days precisely.
This is a premise; if we accept this premise, our problem becomes clear. We want the true instance of a “month,” and the true instance of a month is that the moon has left the new moon phase and the month has started—whether that is how custom understands it or not is irrelevant. If we do not accept this and accept the second premise, the premise of Imam Khumayni, where custom is a reference point for both identifying concepts and for implementing instances of concepts, but without leniency. As an instance of this lack of leniency, he gives the example of the colour of blood after it is washed and says that custom does not consider this to be blood. Of course, this non-lenient custom is not the same as rational precision. In this case, custom judges with precision, and says this is the colour of blood, not blood itself. However, rational philosophical precision will say that blood is an accidental attribute, and when it remains on this fabric, it indicates that particles of blood still remain.
Anyway, if we accept this premise, the application of this discussion is that even though customary conventions consider the beginning of the month by sight, but after we explain to them that the moon has emerged from the new moon phase, do they understand this or not? Is it understandable and credible for them or not? If it is understandable and comprehensible for them that yes, there is a moon, but we do not see it, the result is that we have no regard for the leniency of customs here and we go with the reality (uncompromising customary convention).
Fifth Preliminary: The validity of astronomical calculations
The issue of the validity of mathematical and scientific calculations should also be clarified. Of course, there is no doubt that if the calculations are based on conjecture and estimation, they are certainly invalid, and there is no debate about it from a jurisprudential perspective. But if the calculations are precise, certain, and without any discrepancies, are they valid or not?
In various cases, jurists have discussed the reliability or unreliability of the words of an astronomer, and there are also narrations in al-Makāsib and so on. What our great scholars such as Shaykh Baha’i (d. 1621), Ṣāḥib al-Jawāhir (d. 1849), and later jurists have stated is that what has been negated in our narrations is not scientific calculations, and the views of astronomers are twofold; sometimes they express their opinions about good and evil, happiness and misfortune, and the like, which have been negated, but sometimes they express their views about eclipses and the like, for which precise scientific calculations are valid. For now, the birth of the moon is based on calculations, so we must accept that scientific calculations are valid.
Of course, from the perspective of those who are experts in astrology and astronomy, the calculations related to the moment of birth are precise and accurate, unlike the issue of visibility, which they also calculate but which is not a precise calculation. They sometimes say that visibility exists, but it doesn’t occur because there are various factors involved in the calculation that reduce its accuracy. And it should be noted that the calculation of birth is not a new issue. For centuries, the problem of the moon’s moving into a new phase has been calculated accurately, and it is still being calculated today, with no difference of opinion in this regard. So the fifth preliminary is that we must consider precise calculations valid in this regard.
Sixth Preliminary: The intervention of Islamic law on external issues
What is the discussion regarding the intervention of Islamic law on external matters such as the month of Ramadan? The Shari’ah imposes regulations on these external matters, which is not the subject of discussion, but how is the subject matter identified? This matter, which is a fundamental issue was raised by Akhund Khorasani (d. 1911) in his treatise on Dimā’ Thalātha (Three types of blood seen by women), and of course, it has supporters and opponents, but it is an important topic. The intervention of Islamic law in external subject matters is to the extent of providing signs that are valid for individuals who have not developed knowledge, otherwise, they are not valid. An example that he has given, which is an important issue is the issue of Dimā’ Thalātha, which is one of the complex jurisprudential issues. The actual treatise itself is also very important – despite it being brief – and Akhund has mentioned some very crucial remarks there, and I have heard that when Hajj Shaykh ‘Abdul Karim Ha’iri Yazdi (d. 1937) entered Arak, the text of his Bahth al-Kharij was this treatise on the three types of blood by Akhund.
When you refer to the jurisprudential books, you will see that signs and symptoms have been listed for menstrual blood; such as its minimum and maximum duration, at what age it occurs, and the difference between a Hashimiyyah and non-Hashimiyyah woman, the continuity and characteristics of the blood, etc. Scholars have mentioned these so women can determine whether this is menstrual blood or not. However, Akhund has stated that all of these are mere indications for someone who does not know the reality of menstruation. But if someone knows that this blood is indeed menstrual blood, even if it occurs after ten days, they will be subject to the rules of menstruation. If they know that this blood is indeed menstrual blood, even if it lasts less than three days, they will be subject to the rules of menstruation.
The Shari’ah has merely mentioned these signs as indicators for someone who does not know, so that they can refer to these indications. After menopause, if this bleeding continues and a lady is certain that it is menstrual blood, it will be considered menstruation. However, many jurists at the time of Akhund criticized him severely and objected to his interpretation. His statement in that treatise is as follows:
These specifications are only for distinguishing the actual instance of menstruation from other forms of blood, not for setting a legal definition.8
If we pay attention to this issue, our approach to many subjects changes. The Shari’ah has interfered in a certain discussion, but how has it interfered? Does the Shari’ah want to specify the external subject of Ramadan by stating that it begins from here, meaning the moment of the sighting, or is it merely saying that the month, like the other lunar months, is a reality that must be recognized; and so the recognition of this reality is sometimes through sight, in situations where there is no other means to understand this reality and throughout history, from the time of the Prophet and the Imams: people in the city and village had no other means to attain knowledge and understand that reality. But this does not mean that if humans were able to truly ascertain this reality, they should not be obliged to do so.
Ayatollah Sayyid ‘Abdul A’la Sabziwari (d. 1993) supports this point and courageously raises it in detail in his book Muhadhdhab al-Aḥkām:
“The first and last day of the month are ontological matters (al-umūr al-takwīnīyyah), and there is no place for ritualistic submission (ta’abbud) in ontological matters. Yes, submission can be done in terms of the apparent ruling that follows it, but there is no place for the apparent ruling when the opposite of it is proven with valid evidence.”9
Then he reaches a point where he says that based on arguments that lead to certainty, the beginning of the month is based on the moon’s emergence from the new moon phase, and then draws some conclusions from this discussion:
The first of the month based on conclusive evidence (al-barāhīn al-qaṭ’īyyah) is when the moon emerges from the new moon phase and appears in the horizon, whether it can be sighted or not, and it is from the ontological matters that relate to the rotary movements of the planets…10
Therefore, we must also pay attention to how the Shari’ah has interfered in these discussions.
I present these points to you, my respected and knowledgeable colleagues, as a means of stimulating thought. After all, all academic discussions begin with the consideration of probabilities. It is well-known that Muhaqqiq Ardabili (d. 1585) would propose a possibility, and then figures such as Ṣāḥib al-Madārik (d. 1600) and the Ṣāḥib al-Ma‘ālim (d. 1602) would strengthen those possibilities. Then, they reached authors like Ṣāḥib al-Dhakhīrah, Muhaqqiq Sabziwari (d. 1679), who would make them conclusive. Sometimes, there is a basis for confirming probabilities, and sometimes it may be possible to invalidate them, but in any case, this is the essence of academic discourse.
If someone can prove these principles (I am saying this in the conditional sense), a new perspective will emerge in our jurisprudence, and the issue of “birth” may replace “sighting”. If this probability is established and its foundations and principles are strengthened with the same precision as in other jurisprudential discussions, according to the conventional method of jurisprudence that Imam Khumayni referred to as Jawāhirī jurisprudence, then it will have many effects. Then, the current differences will be resolved in two ways:
1) The first aspect of the differences is among people in a city, region, country, or day, when the day of Eid may vary because of different sightings, while the issue of birth is a universal matter and will not differ for all people in the world. This relativity will be eliminated and this difference will disappear.
2) The second aspect is that if we can strengthen this possibility, the gap between jurisprudence and modern sciences, which leads to accusations of indifference towards scientific achievements by students and scholars of jurisprudence (although we defend and explain that this is not the case and the issue is not opposing scientific achievements, rather it is about what the sacred law says in this regard and what rules it has placed, but anyway) a convergence and closeness also happens, which can, of course, be useful in other issues as well.
I know that besides expressing some general points, and perhaps adding to your ambiguities and generalities, I have not done much in this discussion, but even this is a step forward, which means that raising the question is enough – without presenting a convincing answer. When I discussed this issue with my colleagues a few years ago, I initially had a conflicting view on the issue of direct sensory perception, and my tendency was that direct sensory perception is necessary, but anyway during the discussion and conversations, I realized that this possibility is considerable, and in this session, I was able to present this possibility to my esteemed friends and scholars.
Sayyid Ali studied in the seminary of Qom from 2012 to 2021, while also concurrently obtaining a M.A in Islamic Studies from the Islamic College of London in 2018. In the seminary he engaged in the study of legal theory, jurisprudence and philosophy, eventually attending the advanced kharij of Usul and Fiqh in 2018. He is currently completing his Masters of Education at the University of Toronto and is the head of a private faith-based school in Toronto, as well as an instructor at the Mizan Institute and Mufid Seminary.
- Mawṣū‘ah al-Imām al-Khū’ī, vol. 22, pg. 60
- Translator’s Note: To give a simple example, the subject matter for the obligation of the Maghrib prayers is when the sun disk physically disappears (or when the eastern redness disappears depending on the view of the jurist), and has nothing to do whether you sight the sun disk disappearing and whether that sighting happened with the naked eye or binoculars.
- Wasā’il al-Shī‘a, vol. 10, pg. 255-266.
- Risālah fī Ru’yah al-Hilāl, by Ayatullah Behjat, pg. 29
- Wasā’il al-Shī‘a, vol. 10, pg. 255.
- Risālah Ḥawl Mas’ala Ru’yah al-Hilāl, pg. 120.
- Risālah fi Dimā’ Thalātha, pg. 3.
- Muhadhdhab al-Aḥkām, vol. 10, pg. 273