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The Fiqh of Fasting (Lesson 3 & 4)

Lesson 3

Methods of establishing the beginning and end of Ramadān

There are three recognized methods of establishing the commencement of Ramadān and Shawwāl.

No mention is found among them of the spurious method of astronomical calculation, which is not recognized by the authentic savants of Ahl as-Sunnah.

The Lawgiver has made the cause (sabab) of the obligation to fast Ramadān the sighting (ru’yah) of the new moon, and not its mere existence (wujūd), which is no more than an indicator of the possibility that it might be sighted.

Since that topic is worth a separate detailed treatment, we will set it aside for another, more suitable time.

Method 1: Sighting the crescent by two men of integrity

It is even better if a larger number of men of verified integrity (‘udūl) attest the sighting of the new moon.

A man of integrity (‘adl) fulfils the following criteria:

He is Muslim, past puberty, capable of discernment, and free from patent sinfulness.

What is the evidence (dalīl) that the sighting of the Ramadān crescent by a pair of men of integrity establishes the starting point (and the end-point) thereof?

There is more than one such evidence:

  • Mālik has reported from Nāfi’, the freed slave of ‘Abdullāh b. ‘Umar from the latter (the golden chain of hadith-transmission), that the Messenger of Allah, Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa-Sallam, mentioned Ramadān and thereupon said: “Do not fast it until you sight (taraw) the crescent, and do not put an end to it until you sight it. If the sky above you is cloudy, you should compute for it a full 30 days.”

  • Mālik has reported on the authority of ‘Abdullāh b. ‘Umar that the Messenger of Allah, Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa-Sallam, said: “The month is 29 days (at least), so do not fast it until you sight (taraw) the crescent, and do not put an end to it until you sight it. If the sky above you is cloudy, you should compute for it a full 30 days (فَاقْدُرُا لَهُ).”

  • Mālik has reported on the authority of ‘Abdullāh b. ‘Abbās that the Messenger of Allah, Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa-Sallam, said: “Do not fast it until you sight (taraw) the crescent, and do not put an end to it until you sight it. If the sky above you is cloudy, complete for it a full complement of 30 days (فَأكْمِلُوا الْعَدَدَ ثَلاثِينَ).”

  • Inter alia an-Nasā’ī has reported on the authority of Ibn ‘Abbās that the Messenger of Allah, Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa-Sallam, said: “Fast pursuant to its sighting (li-ru’yatih) and end the fast pursuant to its sighting. If the sky above you is cloudy, complete for it a full complement of 30 days (فَأكْمِلُوا الْعِدَّةَ ثَلاثِينَ).”

  • Inter alia an-Nasā’ī has reported on the authority of Abū Hurayrah that the Messenger of Allah, Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa-Sallam, said: “If you sight (ra’aytum) the crescent you should fast, and if you see the next crescent you should complete 30 days’ fasting.”

  • Declaratory law consists in: Causes (asbāb), conditions (shurūt) and impediments (mawāni’). We have already explained that the entry and exit points of Ramadān are determined by a triggering cause: the act of sighting the new moon. The causes by which the judgments of the Law are known have been set up by the Lawgiver, not by any government or committee of scholars and administrators. The Lawgiver is Allah, directly or through the Messenger, Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa-Sallam. The Lawgiver has decided that it is the actual sighting of the crescent, rather than a mere astronomical calculation, which acts as the relevant cause. In so doing, the Lawgiver has made things easy for the generality of people, the ignorant and the educated, as pointed out by Imām al-Māzarī: “If the legal obligation to fast Ramadān depended on calculation, matters would be made tight, since only few people can be familiar with it, whereas the Revealed Law is built on what the multitudes know.” The Dīn of Allah is easy. Our Sicilian-Arab predecessor al-Māzarī died as early as 536 AH (1141 AD). The argument is by no means new. It is a reheated argument. It has been debunked century after century. The only difference is the modern devolution: The paladins of the Law quashed it then, but are being overcome nowadays. The gallant judge from Sevilla, Abū Bakr b. al-‘Arabī, clarified the point further: “The Lawgiver made the judgment depend on sighting (ru’yah), which is possible for the entire creation. In the same manner, He, glory to Him, has set up the causes of acts of worship everyone is mandated to carry out. He made all of them clear by being apprehended through direct perception, since creation includes the savant and the ignorant fellow, the sharp intellect and the inadvertent mind, yet all of them share such direct perception” = it has been facilitated for the totality of mukallafūn.

  • When the Lawgiver made fasting and ending the fast, as well as the hajj, conditional on the crescents, He made them conditional on their sighting as opposed to their mere existence. In some of the ahādīth quoted above, you have seen the Prophetic use of the imperative “uqdurū”. What is the meaning of this taqdīr? Is it a form of calculation? No, this taqdīr simply means “computing a full 30 days”. The word is thus ambivalent (mujmal), capable of more than one legitimate interpretation. It thus calls for what particularizes it (mufassal) so as to explain its ambivalence away. The clarifying particularization of such ambivalent term is found in that other cluster of ahādīth which explain it as “the completion of the month by a full 30 day period”. Interpreting an ambivalent word in the texts of the Law by what is clarified through particularization is an arch-principle of the Law agreed upon by all experts of usūl al-fiqh. It is in this way that ambivalent texts are understood. The cause is the moon sighting. If cloudy conditions impede it factually, then 30 days must be fasted to complete the month (= “computed” in that sense), since we are mandated to enter and exit acts of worship based on certainty, as underlined by Judge Ibn Abū Bakr b. al-‘Arabī in his juristic exegesis Ahkām al-Qur’ān. Another Iberian master, al-Qādī ‘Iyād, said: “One cannot soundly interpret the meaning of his (Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa-Sallam) statement “faqdurū lahu” as meaning the calculation of astronomers. Hardship would in fact accrue to people if that was required, since not everyone knows and understands such a calculation, and legal accountability (taklīf) is only valid if it is founded on what is known and apprehended by all and sundry.”

  • Informed consensus (ijmā’) further evidences the judgment that sighting is the cause, and can be used against the few dissenting Shāfi’iyyah who (prior to this age of pervasive decadence) relied on the forecast of astronomers. Imām al-Bājī and al-Hattāb (the author of the magisterial Mawāhib al-Jalīl) both related from Mālik via Ibn Nāfi’ (as-Sā’igh) that it was compulsory not to follow or emulate any political authority who relied on astronomical calculation in this matter. This is the voice of the Salaf!

It is the Sunnah, and not the Book, which has established the cause for determining the entry and exit of Ramadān. As already intimated in a previous lesson, there is no such evidence in His statement: «Any one of you who are resident (shahida) for the month should fast it» (Sūrah al-Baqarah: 185), since shahida bears in the āyah the meaning of being resident rather than the meaning of witnessing / sighting. The mas’alah is a separate one. Otherwise, one would interpret the āyah, quite absurdly, as signifying that whoever failed to sight the new moon would not be required to fast.

Method 2: Sighting the crescent by a large group of people lacking judicially recognized integrity

If a large group of people, even though no man of integrity is included among them, sights the new moon, the beginning and end of Ramadān are sufficiently established thereby, since such a multitudinous sighting evinces certainty. It does so due to the impossibility, in the ordinary course of things, of so many people agreeing upon a lie. It is however necessary that each member of such a vast group, which can comprise both men and women, independently attests his sighting of the crescent without merely passing on the report of someone else who sighted it.

Once a political authority has ruled that the month has begun (or ended) based on:

  • Sighting by two men of integrity, or

  • Sighting by a multitude of people individually lacking judicially recognized integrity –

And once

One (1) man of integrity (‘adl) reports the fact that the political authority has ruled that the month has begun (or ended) based on either an ascertained sighting by two men of integrity or an ascertained sighting by a multitude of people individually lacking judicially recognized integrity, the community is bound by that report, the whole community, and all its members must start or end the fast.

But is that community a locally or regionally or nationally based one, or are its frontiers global?

That is one of the issues to be tackled in the lesson following the current one if Allah so wills.

Method 3: Completion of full 30 days

That is true either at the beginning of Ramadān or at the beginning of Shawwāl, when the sky is cloudy or when, in spite of the sky being clear, the moon is not sighted for one reason or another, given that the criterion is sighting the moon and not its sheer astronomical existence.


Sighting by less than two men of recognized integrity whose evidence in court is admissible

We said last time that the sighting of the crescent necessitated two male witnesses of attested integrity.

If, however, the locality one lives in is such that it does not ordinarily concern itself with sighting the new moon, it is enough for the sighting to be based on the report of one trustworthy individual, including a woman or a slave. Islam has to realistically cater for all circumstances.

Where, however, that concern for sighting the new moon is there, it is not enough for one person alone to sight the crescent. Even his own family, notwithstanding their belief in the truthfulness of his report, are not bound to fast, let alone the rest. He is obliged to pass on his report to the political authority, for the latter to search for possible corroboration of his sighting. Personally, however, he is obliged to fast. The fact that the other Muslims do not fast on the strength of his report does not allow him to refrain from fasting. If he refrains from fasting, he has to make up the fast and expiate for it (kaffārah), since his excuse for not fasting (“my fellow Muslims are not fasting”) is too improbable to support his relinquishment of the personal duty to fast. He would thus be deemed to have breached the inviolability of the month.

Not only he has to fast, but he has to publicize that fact together with the reason for doing so (= his personal sighting) if he has sighted the crescent of Ramadān. By contrast, he does not publicize it if he has sighted the crescent of Shawwāl, lest he be accused of having concocted the sighting so as to end the fast. Privately, he has to intend not to fast.

Where concern for sighting the new moon exists, the political authority cannot declare the beginning or end of Ramadān based on a single trustworthy report, unless his school of jurisprudence allows him to follow that route (for then it would bind everyone, including such as the Mālikiyyah who necessitate two witnesses of integrity). Political unity and effectiveness has to be prioritized over narrower jurisprudential allegiance (As we noted, that excludes following an authority who relies on so-called “astronomical calculations”, since he has abandoned the Sunnah altogether, which is something different).

Sound ahādīth are entrenched in the literature to the effect that the Prophet,Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa-Sallam, accepted the single report of ‘Abdullāh b. ‘Umar, while on another occasion he, Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa-Sallam, is said in a hadith reported by Abū Dāwud in his Sunan and transmitted by Ibn ‘Abbās to have done the same with a Bedouin’s single report of sighting the crescent of Ramadān: The ordinary position is that a Muslim who alone reports the sighting of the Ramadān crescent cannot be accused of trying to avoid the hardship of fasting that month, whereas such an accusation can be levelled to a single person claiming to have sighted the crescent of Shawwāl by which the fast is exited along with its hardship and festivity sets in.

The two narrations we have mentioned above clash with what is transmitted on the authority of ‘Abdur-Rahmān b. Zayd b. al-Khattāb (the nephew of the second Rightly-Guided Caliph), where the Prophet, Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa-Sallam, expressly requires two witnesses to begin and end the fast.

The hadith transmitted on the authority of ‘Abdur-Rahmān b. Zayd b. al-Khattāb is accorded precedence by analogy with the requirement for admissible testimony in cases involving people’s rights = at least two male witnesses of integrity are required, in addition to the fact that those two narrations do not exclude the possibility that the Prophet, Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa-Sallam, had received other reports over and above those of Ibn ‘Umar and the Bedouin respectively.

Judge Abū Bakr b. al-‘Arabi, however, held onto the outward indication of those two narrations and ruled that the testimony of a single man of integrity sufficed.

Be it as it may, all the people informed of the sighting by two men of integrity are mandated to act by it (= begin or end the fast as the case may be), regardless of whether the two of them have acquainted the political authority of their sighting.

If none but those two men of integrity sight the crescent, they are bound to inform the political authority of their sighting.

If the new moon of Shawwāl is not sighted after 30 days from their testimony, they will be belied in the event that a) the sky is not cloudy and the moon is therefore visible, and that b) they alone testify to have seen the crescent of Shawwāl, too, whereupon the rest of the Muslim community would make the intention to fast the next day.

Who is bound by the crescent being sighted, geographically speaking?

The correct position is that the Prophetic instruction to fast or end the fast based on the cause (sabab) of sighting the crescent is addressed to Muslims generally, and not to the inhabitants of any particular region or locality.

In our e-magazine Sulwān (, we have set out the inspired view of Shaykh Ju’ayyit, the then Mufti of Tunisia.

Al-Hattāb, in his wonderful commentary on Khalīl’s Mukhtasar titled Mawāhib al-Jalīl, had this to say:

“The ruling that the beginning of Ramadān has been established universally binds whomever it has been transmitted to either by the testimony of two men of integrity or by the testimony of a multitude of other than men of integrity, regardless of whether the sighting on which such transmission is based was by two men of integrity or a multitude of other than men of integrity. It is the same whether the testimony as described is established before a general political authority such as the Caliph or a more specific one.”

Two men of integrity have sighted the crescent

A large number of other than men of integrity has sighted the crescent

Two men of integrity report the occurrence of the sighting

A large number of other than men of integrity report the occurrence of the sighting

Ahmad ad-Dardīr, the noble jurist, mutakallim and Sufi from Egypt, wrote as follows in his large-size commentary on Khalīl’s Abridgment, Ash-Sharh al-Kabīr:

“Fasting is generally binding on all the other countries, whether near or distant. No consideration is paid in that connection to whether the distance is such that a prayer can be shortened or whether the rising points of the moon (= start times of lunar days) are the same or differ. Fasting is incumbent on all those to whom a sighting has been transmitted.”

That is also the authentic position related from Imām Mālik, may Allah be pleased with him, as well as the relied-on view (mu’tamad) of the Hanafiyyah, as stressed by classics such as Ibn ‘Ābidīn and contemporaries such as Taqi Usmani, and the stronger view in the Hanbalī school as well.

It has been related from Imām Mālik, may Allah be pleased with him, that no regard is paid to different rising points of the moon which tend to enjoin a localized sighting. The Andalusian Imām Abu’l-Walīd al-Bājī said:

“If the inhabitants of al-Basrah sight the crescent of Ramadān and news of their sighting reach the inhabitants of al-Kūfah, al-Madīnah and the Yemen, Ibn al-Qāsim and Ibn Wahb relate from Mālik in “Al-Majmū’ah” that fasting (failing which making up the missed first fast) is incumbent on the inhabitants of the latter localities” (Al-Muntaqā, his commentary on Al-Muwatta’).

The witness to a sighting has in fact affirmed (and not negated) something (= he has affirmed that he has positively sighted the new moon), and affirmation is accorded precedence over negation.

Inter alia the Mālikī position, therefore, is that if the crescent appears in any one of the Muslim countries, fasting is incumbent on the entire ummah.

The famous hadīth transmitted on the authority of Abū Hurayrah and reported by al-Bukhārī says “sūmū li-ru’yatih wa-aftirū li-ru’yatih” (“fast on the strength of its sighting and end the fast on the strength of its sighting”), as well as “fa-in ghumma ‘alaykum” (“and if the sky above you is overcast”). The evidence in it is that the obligation to fast resting on all Muslims is conditional on the unqualified event of sighting the new moon = unqualified, that is, by geographical or political boundaries.

The words used in the hadith are of the unqualified (mutlaq) type. The usūlī or foundational rule is that an unqualified word in the texts of the Law must be interpreted in an unqualified sense. Geographical or political divides cannot act as a qualification. Accordingly, a sighting by a collective group or by two men whose testimony is admissible suffices to entrench the obligation to fast as regards all the Muslims [1].

Analogically, i.e. in terms of qiyās, distant countries are assimilated to nearby countries as regards sighting the crescent, since there is no basis in reason, and no textual evidence, for differentiating between the two types.

What about the hadith in Muslim’s collection transmitted by Kurayb, which is to the effect that Ibn ‘Abbās did not accept Mu’āwiyah’s endorsement of the sighting in Greater Syria, as related by Umm al-Fadl, al-Hārith’s daughter?

Does it not support the Shāfi’iyyah’s view that each country has to rely purely on its sighting?

The hadith is open to more interpretations of Ibn ‘Abbās’ phrase “thus has Allah’s Messenger instructed us” than just an invalidation of other than local sighting.

One of those interpretations is that al-Madīnah, where Ibn ‘Abbās was located, had clear sky, and he, therefore, did not sidestep certainty in favour of a possibility, so he prioritized eye witnessing over an outside report.

It does not mean that Ibn ‘Abbās discarded the contents of Kurayb’s report. He looked at the form (the formal nature) of that report. It was a single transmitter’s report which did not establish certainty about the sighting of the crescent, so he refused to take by it. Thus it has been interpreted by the Hanābilah who have not adopted the view of a localized sighting.

Not only that, but Ibn ‘Abbās’ phrase “thus has Allah’s Messenger instructed us” was an ijtihād on his part, which is beset by ambivalence (ijmāl) due to a concatenation of reasons:

  • He did not quote the speech of the Prophet, Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa-Sallam, neither verbatim nor meaning-wise, so his is not a transmission from the Prophet, Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa-Sallam, as such;

  • He did not specify what the Prophetic instruction actually consisted in: Not to act by the sighting in another country in the absence of a local sighting, even when the Caliph resides in the place where the new moon is sighted? Not to act by a single witness’ testimony when he attests a sighting elsewhere, which implies that fasting is binding if the attestation is by more than one witness since certainty would be established thereby?

There are other interpretative possibilities as well.

The end-result is that, on account of the said ambivalence in Ibn ‘Abbās’ statement, and its contradiction to two legal truths if interpreted as meaning that sighting in one place does not bind other places, our savants have refuted reliance on it.

Here are the two contradicted legal truths:

  • The Prophet, Sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa-Sallam, has commanded fast to follow sighting, and that command is addressed to the totality of Muslims, without being exclusive to any one specific community, as stressed by many scholars over the centuries, such as al-Māzarī and al-Ju’ayyit. Accordingly, al-Qādī ‘Iyād summed things up thus: “This hadith (of Kurayb) is actually a proof in support of the majority of jurists”, which unlike the Shāfi’iyyah do not restrict the binding nature of a sighting to narrow local confines.

  • The arch-rules of the Law tell us that Muslims are bound to act by the testimonies and reports of their fellow brethren, i.e. some members of the ummah, notwithstanding their mutual distance from a geographical viewpoint.

As Prophetically foretold, this is an age where time zones and markets are close to one another, and where means of communication are faster than the speed of light; where geographical barriers are increasingly friable, and where Muslims, in the fraction of a second or at a click of a mouse, are connected worldwide with mutually significant events and information.

The day of doubt

Two factors must combine for it to be defined as such:

  • The 30th night of Sha’bān must be cloudy;

  • The crescent must not have been sighted. If the sky is clear and the crescent is not sighted, then the following day is definitely the last day of Sha’bān and not a day of doubt.

If one fasts on the day of doubt as a precaution in case it turns out to be the first day of Ramadān, the fast is reprehensible (makrūh). In case it is proven to be the first day of Ramadān, the fast does not count for the month, since the intention to fast it as part of Ramadān was missing.

If a person is used to fast on a certain day, say on Mondays and Thursdays, the day of doubt falls on such a day, and he fasts as part of that habit of his, the fast is lawful and not disliked.

The same is true (according to the stronger view) if he simply keeps a voluntary fast on the day of doubt with the intention of merely keeping a supererogatory fast.

It is fine to fast on the day of doubt to make up a missed fast of Ramadān. If, however, it is proven that it was the first day of Ramadān, the fast would not count for the month, since the intention to fast it as part of Ramadān was missing, nor would it count as making up a missed fast of Ramadān, inasmuch as he would be in Ramadān itself and not at a time for making up past fasts (qadā’).

If it is a day of doubt as defined by us, it is recommended (mandūb) to refrain from nullifiers of a fast until certainty on its status is achieved.

If it is discovered that it was the first day of Ramadān, it is imperative to fast the remainder of the day, even for one who did not cautiously fast it at first, in order not to breach the inviolability of the fast.

Whoever fails to fast the remainder of the day owes that fast plus the expiation for it if he knew it was part of the inviolability of the month, whereas he only makes it up if he genuinely and reasonably believed that he was not required to abstain from nullifiers of the fast during the remainder of the day.

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