Moon gazing – Abid Hussain




A group of men, mostly old and middle aged, with varying lengths and shapes of facial hair and fancy headgear, gathered at a government building in Karachi on June 17 this year. Theirs was not a gathering of religious luminaries meeting to thrash out sectarian differences or engage in theological debates. They were there to decide on what is essentially a question of astronomy.

It was the 29th day of Sha’aban, the eighth month of the Hijri calendar, and the next day could be the start of the fasting month of Ramzan. These men, 26 of them, were to focus on the sky to look for the slender new moon that would announce the start of the new month, a job that did not seem easy on this dusty, hazy, humid day.

Besides the moon, the centre of attention in this august forum was Mufti Muneeb-ur-Rehman — a tall old man with a hennaed beard, thick, almost opaque, glasses and a brown karakul cap. He is the head of the group, officially known as the Central Ruet-e-Hilal Committee, and has been holding this post since 2001 — an unprecedented run sustained through four successive governments.

The venue of the gathering was the Karachi headquarters of the Pakistan Meteorological Department, popularly known as Mausamiat, situated where University Road morphs into a veritable moonscape at its northern limits, all potholed and almost impossible to navigate. The headquarters, built in the late 1950s, is a dull, uninspiring structure with no real aesthetic appeal. On that day, however, there was a lot of excitement — this being the first of a twice-a-year public spectacle to watch the moon, the other being the one before Eidul Fitr, at the end of Ramzan.

A large number of media vans were stationed inside the premises of the Mausamiat building; reporters and cameramen were either milling around or dragging their equipment to the conference hall on the first floor where an official announcement about the sighting of the moon is usually made. Many had already reached the roof of the building where the moon was to be sighted — hopefully. After 6 pm, while most media persons waited elsewhere, Muneeb-ur-Rehman quietly led the members of the committee to a smaller, sparsely furnished room on the second floor. Flanked by Alam Zeb Khan, joint secretary of the federal ministry for religious affairs and chief meteorologist Naeem Shah, he sat at the centre of a table wearing an authoritative scowl that never leaves his visage and a hearing aid that gives away his age, otherwise well hidden below his strong frame. He was livid when he spoke. “Who told [a private television channel] that the moon will be sighted tonight?”

Earlier in the day, the channel had aired the news that the new moon was expected on June 17, citing a Mausamiat report which recorded a “slight chance” of sighting. Accusations flew thick and fast in response to Muneeb-ur-Rehman’s question. The information leaked through Mausamiat officials, complained one member; another was angry that people from the department were undermining the writ of the committee. “Are we mere rubber stamps here?” he asked, angrily putting down the highlighter in his hand. “Moon sighting is a religious assignment and must be left to religious scholars to decide.”

A little while later, everyone was present at the building’s rooftop. The time window to observe the new moon that evening was only 38 minutes long, opening immediately after sunset at 7.24 pm. For the new moon to become visible, it has to be at least eight to 10 degrees above the horizon after sunset — that is, when weather and atmospheric conditions are suitable. Keeping these two facts in mind, Mausamiat officials handling the theodolite, a rotating telescope used for observing lunar objects, expressed little optimism that the moon could be sighted.

In any case, no one cared about the theodolite that evening. Many of those present on the rooftop were taking turns to be photographed on a raised wooden platform, covered with carpets and erected right behind another telescope — a gun-shaped cylindrical apparatus aimed high at the sky. It did not seem to matter to the people posing alongside the telescope that it was not positioned to look at the horizon where the moon was expected to be seen, or whether the telescope was even functional. Most surprisingly, the activity around the telescope was taking place when the sun had not yet set — the new moon was to become visible only after sunset, if at all. At one stage, the crowd posing for the photos became so large that part of the platform crashed — and Muneeb-ur-Rehman tumbled down awkwardly.

While others were still busy posing for pictures, Muneeb-ur-Rehman launched into a little impromptu press conference. He instructed the media to stop jumping the gun and wait till the committee announced its verdict. “Practice caution and don’t rush to make a wrong announcement which may mislead the nation,” he said.

Then came Maghrib prayers — and a brief break in the photo session. By 8 pm, when everyone finally started going downstairs to the conference hall, no one had cared to look for the moon through the theodolite, or through any other contraption. An hour later, Mausamiat officials crunched the data coming in from their 38 regional and local offices across the country. They also confirmed that there was no personal testimony claiming the sighting of the moon in any part of Pakistan.

Having received all this information, Muneeb-ur-Rehman started making his official statement. In a measured tone, a fraction of a second too slow and typically emotionless, he started with the recital of verses from the Quran and ended with a prayer, in between announcing that the first of Ramzan was to fall on Friday, June 19. Everyone dispersed quietly soon afterwards.

At 11 pm, television channels started flashing news reports that the new moon had been sighted — somewhere in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Mufti Shahabuddin Popalzai, chief cleric at Peshawar’s historic Masjid Qasim Ali Khan, declared that the first of Ramzan would be on Thursday, June 18, the same day that the fasting month started in Saudi Arabia.

During interviews, Muneeb-ur-Rehman promises himself multiple times that he will not answer questions about Popalzai. Yet, any mention of moon sighting announcements from Peshawar – which seldom coincide with the ones he makes – easily riles him up. The mere fact that there exists what he sees as “a parallel and unauthorised moon sighting mechanism” is an abomination to him.

“How is it possible that nobody sees the moon except some people in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa?” he asks. “We compile scientific data from across Pakistan and supplement it with information provided by the Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission and the Pakistan Navy. We reach out to key mosques in different areas where there is a possibility of moon sighting,” he says, explaining the official methodology.

Then he castigates the media for what he sees as a case of overhyping a minor issue. “You have almost 90 per cent of the country marking the fasting month together yet [the media] is obsessed with the 10 per cent.” And he insists that his disagreements with Popalzai have no personal or sectarian basis. “Learn your history and you will find out this issue has been cropping up since Partition.”

Born in February 1945 in the upper Tanawal area of Mansehra district, Muneeb-ur-Rehman has an elephantine memory: while describing details from his past, he mentions events complete with the day, month and year they happened. He grew up in a deeply religious family: his father, Qazi Habeeb-ur-Rehman, was an Islamic teacher. Muneeb-ur-Rehman received his early education in his hometown and then went to a madrasa in Lahore for further studies. In December 1964, he moved to Karachi and acquired degrees from Karachi University (in Islamic studies) and Darul Uloom Amjadia (in Islamic theology and jurisprudence). Since then, he has made the port city his home.

Muneeb-ur-Rehman taught Islamic studies at a government college in Karachi for years but does not talk much about it. He has also been heading the federation of Barelvi madrasas in Pakistan – Tanzeem-ul-Madaris Ahle Sunnat – for years and it is this position that initially brought him to official notice back in the mid-1990s. But he denies accusations that he pulled political strings to put himself as the head of the moon sighting committee. “I was travelling to Abbottabad in a rented car when the driver switched on the radio for news. My name was in the headlines, announcing my appointment as the committee’s chairman,” he says in an interview, claiming no political affiliation. “It was not something I ever planned or aimed for.”

On a quiet but sweltering Sunday morning in June, he occupies a steel and rexine chair in his two-room office at his madrasa — Darul Uloom Naeemia, set up by him and his associate Mufti Shujaat Ali Qadri back in 1973, not far from Muttahida Quami Movement’s central office, Nine Zero, in Karachi’s district central. The madrasa is closed for Ramzan break and none of its more than 500 students are around — its vast courtyard wears a deserted look.

Arranged like a library of religious books, adorned only with functional furnishing, his office is a reflection of his spartan, and academic, lifestyle. Always dressed in white, with a black waistcoat, he spends most of his time reading, writing and teaching. His only child, a son, also worked with him at the madrasa before he died of cancer in 2013 at the age of 38. Muneeb-ur-Rehman lives with his wife, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren in his house in Gulistan-e-Jauhar and does not talk much about his personal and family life beyond brief, rather evasive remarks. “It’s like what you see in most households,” he says when asked about his relationship with his family.

He shows little restraint as soon as controversies over moon sighting are mentioned, though. In a long and angry monologue, he asks why and how it is possible that one individual – Popalzai – is allowed to ridicule the state’s writ (read: the writ of the official moon sighting committee that Muneeb-ur-Rehman heads) every year. “It is the state’s responsibility to create systemic checks and balances to ensure that the official committee’s decision is considered final and binding.”

Controversies over moon sighting have plagued Muslim history since the very beginning. Al Majmu, a treatise written by the 13th century Arab scholar Muhyi ad-Din Yahya al-Nawawi, shows the founders of various Islamic schools of jurisprudence, including Imam Shafi and Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal, respectively from the eighth and ninth centuries, to have expressed different opinions on the issue. Shafi put his entire trust in arithmetic and astronomical calculations; Hanbal deemed the physical sighting of the moon mandatory, although he did not see local sighting as necessary — once the moon is sighted anywhere in the Muslim world, every follower of the faith must accept that. Ibn-e-Taymiyya, another 13th century scholar, writing in his Risala fi’l-Hilal (Tract on the Crescent), “…categorically rejects the use of astronomical calculation in determining the lunar month.” Yaqut ibn Abdullah al-Hamawi, a 12th century Arab biographer and geographer of Greek origin, gives the government complete authority in making such decisions. He cites a legal maxim: “Hukm al-hakim ilzamun wa yarfa’ al-khilaf” (decision by a ruler is decisive and erases differences). In the 1920s, the grand mufti at Jamia al-Azhar in Cairo, Shaykh Mustafa Maraghi wrote in a paper that personal testimony of moon sighting cannot be accepted if scientific calculations conclusively prove that a moon sighting was not possible.

Between the early Muslims and their current religious descendants, multiple texts have been written and debated on the issue, each more informed than the previous one due to gradual improvements in the astronomical sciences as well as the increased reliance on technology to observe celestial objects with better accuracy. Yet controversies have proliferated at the same speed as interpretations of earlier religious texts have become sophisticated and complex.

The first official institution to decide on the sighting of the moon in Pakistan was formed in 1948; an executive order set up a central committee which would receive reports from districts committees from all the regions, including its now separated eastern part. The meteorological department, too, was consulted before a decision on moon sighting was made.

In 1958, this mechanism faced its first reported shock as Peshawar celebrated Eidul Fitr a day before the rest of the country. This was the first of many controversies to come, created by regional, and sometimes political, differences over moon sighting. In the 1960s, Karachi differed with the central government’s decisions on the sighting of the moon three times in seven years.

On March 17, 1961, the official mechanism all but self-destructed. Ayub Khan’s military government made an announcement about Eidul Fitr and then, in a late night development, changed its announcement without consulting the committee and its chairman, Ehteshamul Haq Thanvi, a respected cleric from Karachi. The residents of the port city were already chafed by the government’s decision to shift the federal capital from Karachi to Islamabad and saw the shifting of Eid day as another political snub. As a result, most parts of Karachi observed a fast on March 18 while most of the rest of the country – except, of course, Peshawar – observed Eid that day. Peshawar had already marked Eid on March 17, following a Saudi announcement. Pakistan thus had three Eids that year.

A few years later, the problem cropped up again. Both in 1966 and 1967, Ayub Khan’s government changed its earlier moon sighting announcements, again late in the night. In the latter year, the final official declaration that the Eid moon had been sighted appeared particularly galling since the weather that day had made it impossible to see the moon. Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), a Karachi-based party which was campaigning at the time for the removal of Ayub Khan’s decade-long authoritarian rule, vehemently opposed the official decision. Most residents of Karachi sided with JI and did not observe Eid on the government-designated day.

Ayub Khan’s administration saw this as an act of subversion and arrested three leading scholars, including JI founding chief Abul A’la Maududi, Thanvi and Muhammad Hussain Naeemi, a prominent Barelvi scholar from Lahore. The trio were sent behind bars for three months. The government’s jitters gave rise to the urban legend that it had changed its announcement only to avoid having Eid on a Friday — the coincidence was seen as ‘a bad omen’ for the rulers.

In order to resolve these conflicts, the government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto decided to give legislative cover to the official moon sighting mechanism. In January 1974, the National Assembly passed a law for the creation of a Central Ruet-e-Hilal Committee as well as four zonal/provincial committees. The central committee was to have nine members, including a woman, and it was bound to consult the zonal/provincial committees before making any decision.

With this purportedly consultative and inclusive arrangement, the government expected an end to any future controversies over moon sighting. Retaining Thanvi as the head of the central committee, the law also stipulated that its members, including the chairman, would have only a single three-year tenure.

By that rule, Muneeb-ur-Rehman’s tenure at the committee should have ended a decade and a half ago.

When he first became a part of the moon sighting committee in 1997, it was a particularly fractious time. There were reports of rifts between members and then chairman Maulana Athar Naeemi. In December 1999, for instance, Maulana Mohammed Yousuf Qureshi, a member of the committee from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, accused Muneeb-ur-Rehman and Naeemi of distrusting testimonies from his home province to make a hasty announcement that the new moon had not been sighted anywhere in the country. He walked out of a meeting of the committee as did other members from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Muneeb-ur-Rehman likes to highlight the fact that Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is his native province. Yes, but he comes from the Hindko-speaking area of the province, say his critics, suggesting that he exhibits an anti-Pakhtun prejudice.

He insists that his views are coloured neither by sect nor ethnicity and points out how, in the committee, he has brought together clerics from different schools of thought, from Deobandis and Barelvis to Shias and Ahl-e-Hadith, to make unanimous decisions. “It is only that one individual and those who follow him,” he says, referring to Popalzai.

Muneeb-ur-Rehman says clerics from Masjid Qasim Ali Khan have been going against the decision of the central moon sighting committee regardless of whether it was headed by a Deobandi or a Barelvi. (There have been nine chairmen of the committee, including Muneeb-ur-Rehman, since 1974 — four of them Barelvi, others Deobandi.)

He equates their act to rebellion, one that the government should put down as a matter of priority. An official of the religious affairs ministry also believes that the legislature should stipulate a penalty for those defying the official moon sighting decision.

Why, one wonders, do Popalzai and his followers always choose to disagree with the official committee’s decisions? Popalzai denies that ethnic and sectarian factors determine his moon sighting announcements. He says his differences with the central committee are religious – that it is not a Sharia-compliant institution – and cites history and geography to support his stance.

Masjid Qasim Ali Khan has been a centre for moon sighting since 1825, he points out, and local sighting is more easily possible in the high-altitude mountainous regions in the north of Pakistan where, additionally, the atmosphere is much cleaner than in the central and southern regions which are lower in altitude and more polluted.

Also, he says, people in areas such as Charsadda, Bannu, Kohat, Mardan, Tank and Hangu are far more adept at observing the moon than others in the country because they have been doing it regularly — as part of their daily life.

Evidence suggests that these moon gazers could be wrong. This year, for instance, the position of the moon on June 17 was five degrees above the horizon which, as geographers and astronomers vouch, is impossible to see except for a fleeting moment and, that too, only in coastal areas where the horizon is lower than in the mountains.

Many in Pakistan argue that one way of ending the controversy over moon sighting once and for all is to follow Saudi Arabia in marking the start of Ramzan and celebrating Eid. Muneeb-ur-Rehman has countered this argument in his book, Tafheem-ul-Masail. Saudi Arabia, he says, follows a fixed lunar calendar called Ummul Qura and has an open moon sighting policy. Anybody can come up to the government claiming they have sighted the moon and if their testimony is found credible then this leads to an official announcement about the moon having been sighted.

This is not a flawless system, though. There were instances in the recent past when Saudi authorities conceded to having made mistakes. One significant incident took places 10 years ago when, on the evidence of two 80-year-old men, the Saudi government reversed its announcement about the sighting of the moon for Zil-hij, the last month in the Hijri calendar. The reversal was itself later reversed, even though this double mistake had a major impact on the timing of one of the most important religious rituals for Muslims — their annual pilgrimage in Makkah. Similarly, at least once in the 1980s, the Saudi government announced the sighting of the new moon on the 28th day of the outgoing lunar month, a scientific impossibility.

Besides these generally methodological flaws, many Muslims around the world have doctrinal reasons to not follow Saudi Arabia. Many scholars emphasise that local sighting of the moon is mandatory; others have argued that the announcement of one Muslim government is not binding for those not living in its jurisdiction. And then there are sectarian differences. Almost all Barelvis, as well as Shias, and even some Deobandis in Pakistan do not see Saudi religious and political authorities as representative of all the Muslims in the world, or at least of all those living in Pakistan. Whatever the reason, the result is that Pakistanis have had two different starts to the month of Ramzan, and resultantly two Eids, almost every year. In the last 15 years, there have been just two years when this was not the case.

“What people don’t realise is that we are doing this to serve religion and perform our religious duty. It is not meant for any personal glory or selfish reasons,” Muneeb-ur-Rehman says in a recent interview. Moon sighting, he says, “is voluntary work and involves no salary except a small amount – 500 rupees per day – as travel and daily expense for each meeting called for a sighting.”

Considering that these meetings are mere photo-ops and, at the end of the day, all decisions are based on data and scientific evidence, one wonders why Muneeb-ur-Rehman and his associates need to meet at all. Why does moon sighting require sanction by a group of religious scholars who find it difficult to agree among themselves — and always bicker with outsiders? How difficult could it possibly be to sight the moon, given all the scientific knowledge and technological apparatus to do so? Didn’t we land a human on the moon decades ago? Have we not already crossed the boundaries of galaxies? Have we not built websites devoted to tracking every moment of the moon’s orbit, as well as of countless other celestial bodies? Then why, in this day and age, does moon sighting remain a subject in which clerical decree still reigns supreme — and that too leading to divisive outcomes?

In late 16th century, Galileo Galilei was engaged in a similar contest between science and superstition, between empirical fact and Revealed Truth, mostly about celestial objects such as the moon. Thus wrote he in his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems: “…come either with arguments and demonstrations, and bring us no more Texts and authorities, for our disputes are about the Sensible World.”