As you know, there used to be quite a debate every year on how to determine the start of a new lunar month, especially Ramadan. Most scholars did not favor astronomical computations and insisted on manual sighting of the new moon. Phone calls were all over the globe to get the word out that the new moon was sighted or could not be sighted.
About a decade ago, the conviction changed. Most scholars are now comfortable with astronomical computations. No more debates!
However, I’d like to know what you think of the hadeeth, where the Prophet (PBUH) says, “Fast when you see it (the new moon of Ramadan) and break the fast when you see it (the new moon of Shawwal (the month after Ramadan). If it is obscured from you, then complete the count of Shaaban (the month before Ramadan) thirty days.”
That hadeeth was narrated by Abu-Hurayra and Ibn Abbaas, and reported by Al-Bukhaari and Al-Albaani and others. It is authentic.
Let’s follow the proper deduction method, shall we? God orders us to fast Ramadan (2:185), but He does not specifically tell us how to tell that it started. He tells us that crescents are time keepers for us (2:189). The conclusion is that we learn from the new moon whether a lunar month has started.
Now, how do we know a new moon is born? Astronomical computations are very accurate in this. Thus, following these computations enables us to be certain of when a lunar month has started.
But these advanced computations were not available to folks in the Seventh Century. So, how do they know that a new moon is there? That is where the hadeeth comes in. It’s what the Prophet (PBUH) advised for that situation. It is not the only method for us, but it was for them.
Now, what about the new moon being obscured? That can never happen with astronomic computations, but it can and did with naked-eye sighting. Again, the Prophet’s advise, peace be upon him, was to assume it wasn’t born. Without a stronger evidence that it was born, that was a valid, practical advice.
By the same token is the determination of when to start the fast everyday. God tells us to start the fast “when the white thread is distinguished from the black thread” (2:187) Most exegetes regard that criterion as a metaphor for dawn. A fellow of the Prophet (PBUH), named `Udayy ibn Haatim At-Taa’i, took it literally. He told the Prophet (PBUH) that he kept two headbands under his pillow, one white and one black. Then whenever he woke up during the night, he’d look at the two bands and if he couldn’t tell them apart, he went ahead and ate something! The Prophet (PBUH) jokingly replied, “You have a wide neck! It’s the darkness of the night and the brightness of the day.” Narrated by `Udayy and reported by Al-Bukhaari.
So, what is important is to tell that dawn started. All scholars have no problem following computations to make that determination, so why would sighting the moon, to determine when Ramadhaan starts, be any different?