"Questions from a Student": Deducing the law out of context (Part II)


Eid Mubarak to you all.

Last time, we talked about taking hadiths individually, out of the context of their original conversation. When the hadiths about sighting the moon in Sahih Bukahri, almost all narrated by Ibn Umar (r), are put together, we get a better understanding: “We are an illiterate nation; we neither write, nor know accounts. The month is like this and this (i.e., sometimes of 29 days and sometimes of thirty days). Fast when you see it, and break your fast when you see it, and if the weather is cloudy, calculate it (the months of Sha’ban and Shawwal) as thirty days.”

Doesn’t this make more sense? Moreover, I looked up an essay written by Sh. Muhammad al-Jibaly in which he wrote: “Some people suggest using astronomical computaions either exclusively or partially for determining the visibility and preciseness of crescent sightings. This is not a new suggestion, as it was raised at the earliest times of Islaam and the Prophet (S) rejected it.” He then quoted the above hadith narrated by Ibn Umar (r).

“This shows, ” Sh. al-Jibaly continues, “that the Messenger (S) wanted to keep this worship simple and at the level of the common people, away from the influence of control of specialized scientific knowledge (whether sound or doubtful). This shows as well, as Ibn Taymiyah stated, that the description of this nation here as being illiterate is one of praise in that the nation is independent of any complicated means in the performance of its basic acts of worship. Anyone who rejects this would indeed overstep the concensus of the scholars and would spoil the beauty and simplicity of this religion, and worst of all, would be bluntly disobeying the Messenger of Allaah (S).”

Does this make sense? Taking Sh. al-Jibaly’s analogy further, that means that the Muslims should never use any sort of astronomical calculations of any kind. Thus, the legions of Muslim astronomers, whose work contributed greatly to the field, were all in error. Yes, God Almightly said in His book, “They ask you concerning the new moons. Say: They are but signs to mark fixed periods of time for mankind and for pilgrimage” (2:189). Yet, does this mean that when technology has advanced to the degree where the moon rise and moon set can be predicted to the exact minute, we are still supposed to stand in the desert and look for the moon?

Perhaps the Prophet (pbuh) meant something else. Could his statement, “We are an illiterate nation; we neither writer, nor know accounts” not mean that we are a “nation [that] is independent of any complicated means in the performance of its basic acts of worship,” as Ibn Taymiyah said? Rather, could it have been a statement of fact? Is it not true that the Arabs did not have a calendar? In fact, the year 570 C.E., in which the Prophet was born, was called “The Year of the Elephant” by the Arabs, in commemoration of Story of the Elephant. Thus, to the Arabs, the month is “like this and this (i.e., sometimes of 29 days and sometimes of thirty days).” Due to this reality, the Muslims should then, “Fast when you see it, and break your fast when you see it, and if the weather is cloudy, calculate it (the months of Sha’ban and Shawwal) as thirty days.”

Does this not also make sense? Is this not also an equally plausible understanding? If I understand the hadith in this way, am I contravening “the concensus of the scholars and [spoiling] the beauty and simplicity of this religion,” as Sh. al-Jibaly says? Am I “bluntly disobeying the Messenger of Allaah (S)”? Do you think the Prophet (pbuh), were he alive today, would totally reject astronomical calculations? I do not think so. But then, again, I am not a scholar…(to be continued)

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