Quran, Moonsighting and Ramadan

Every year there is a controversy right around beginning and end of Ramadan (“Ramzan” if you are a Pakistani) wherein people fight over the need to see the moon when the computer models have predicted to the second whether it will be visible on that night or not. People wonder why there is a need to see the moon when we have so much technology at our disposal.

I was reading Gai F. Eaton’s “Islam and Destiny of Man” and I came across the following passages that put the case for it so lucidly.

The Quran and the great phenomena of nature are twin manifestations of the divine act of Self-revelation. For Islam, the natural world in its totality is a vast fabric into which the ‘signs’ of the Creator are woven. It is significant that the word meaning ‘signs’ or ‘symbols’, ayat, is the same word that is used for the ‘verses’ of the Quran. Earth and sky, mountains and stars, oceans and forests and the creatures they contain are, as it were, ‘verses’ of a sacred book. ‘Indeed Allah disdaineth not to coin the similitude of a gnat or of something even smaller than that’ (Q.2.26). Creation is one, and He who created the Quran is also He who created all the visible phenomena of nature. Both are a communication from God to man.

‘In your creation and in all the beasts scattered on the earth there are signs for people of sure faith. In the alternation of night and day and in the provision Allah sendeth down from the heavens whereby He quickeneth the earth after its death, and in the distribution of the winds, are signs for people who are intelligent’ (Q.45.4—6). And: ‘Truly in the creation of the heavens and of the earth, and the succession of night and day, and in the ships which speed through the sea with what is useful to man, and in the waters which Allah sendeth down from the heavens … and in the order of the winds, and the clouds that run their appointed courses between heaven and earth, are signs indeed for people who are intelligent’ (Q.2.164). Because: ‘He it is who hath spread the earth wide and placed in it firm mountains and running waters, and created therein two sexes of [many kinds of] plant, and causeth the night to cover the day. Truly in all this are signs for people who reflect.’ Whether we scan great distances or look within ourselves, the message is the same: ‘We shall show them Our signs on the horizons and within themselves until they are assured that this is the truth. Doth not thy Lord suffice thee, since He is over all things the Witness?’ (Q.41.53).

Although signs may be found in everything that comes to us, as though a river at our doorstep carried these messages on its surface, the Quran (like other sacred books) speaks in terms of empirical experience, since it is intended to endure through the ages and cannot bind itself to the ‘scientific’ theories of any particular time. Its images are the phenomena of nature as they appear to us in our experience — the rising and setting of the sun, the domed sky above and the mountains, which are like weights set upon the earth. Scientific observations change according to the preconceptions of the observer and the instruments at his disposal, and the speculations which blinkered human minds construct on the basis of these observations change no less swiftly. But man’s experience of the visual universe does not change. The sun ‘rises’ for me today as it ‘rose’ for the man of ten thousand years ago.

Symbolism resides also in the incidents and patterns of our experience, but it is less easily found in the underside of things — the mechanism by which they are brought about. A clock is a clock. The hands moving on its face convey information. Its inner works do not tell us the time.

To be fully aware of this flood of messages requires a closeness to the natural world that is uncommon in our time, and the man who is wholly indifferent to nature is much like the man who is deaf to the Quran; not only is he separated from the world about him, but he is inevitably divided within himself. The French writer Jacques Ellul, whose book La Technique is among the most profound and perceptive critiques of the modern world published in this century, has remarked (as have many others) that the sacred has always been an experience related to nature, to the phenomena of birth, death, generation, the lunar cycles and so on. ‘Man who leaves that milieu is still imbued with the feeling and imagery derived from the sacred, but these are no longer revived and rejuvenated by experience. The city person is separated from the natural environment and, as a consequence, the sacred significations no longer have any point of contact with experience. They soon dry up for lack of support in man’s new experience with the artificial world of urban technology. The artificial, the systematized, and the rational seem incapable of giving birth to an experience of the same order.. .’

He adds that it was ‘in relation to the forest, the moon, the ocean the desert, the storm, the sun, the rain, the tree… that the sacred was ordered’, and elsewhere he defines the sacred (in relation to man) as ‘the guarantee that he is not thrust out into an illogical space and a limitless time’. The novelty of our era, he says, ‘is that man’s deepest experience is no longer with nature… Man in the presence and at the heart of the technical milieu feels the urgent need to get his bearings, to discover meaning and an origin, an authenticity in this inauthentic world.’ The outcome, he says, is ‘a sacralization of society’, as also of the ‘masters of desacralization in our modern era (Marx, Nietzsche, Freud)’, while political manifestos replaced sacred scriptures. Then blood begins to flow and the broken bodies pile up, and a new idolatry, more deadly than the old, demands human sacrifice. To save him from falling into this trap the Muslim needs the Quran, but he also needs its complement, the revelation written in natural phenomena; without this, much of the Quran is incomprehensible.

The sacred rites of Islam, in particular the five daily prayers and the month of fasting, are intimately related to the natural cycles rather than to mechanical time. The times of prayer are determined by the breaking of dawn, the rising of the sun, its coming to the zenith, its mid-decline, sunset and the close of day. And although the calendar tells us when the month of Ramadan begins and ends, it is considered essential that the dates should be established by the physical sighting of the new moon, so that the lived experience takes precedence over all scientific calculations. A computer can establish not only the minute but the exact second at which the new moon will become visible in a given locality; this counts for nothing beside the actual sighting of that slim luminous crescent on the horizon. By clinging stubbornly to the principle of ‘sighting’, the Muslims — not least those living in the West — demonstrate their awareness that the ‘signs’ of God are to be found in our experience of nature rather than in our thought processes.

Gai Eaton, “Islam and Destiny of Man”


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