Ramadan is coming, alhamdulillah. Ramadan, a time when all the shayateen are chained up, as the Messenger of Allah (salallahu alayhi wa sallam) said:
Narrated Abu Huraira (radiallahu ‘anhu): Allah’s Messenger (salallahu alayhi wa sallam) said, “When the month of Ramadan starts, the gates of the heaven are opened and the gates of Hell are closed and the devils are chained.”[Saheeh Bukhari, volume 3, book 31, #123]
Ramadan, when people fast all day and pray all night. Ramadan, when we all reach new levels of eman and ihsaan.
Ramadan, a time when, if you live in a country in a western society (like the US, Canada, UK, etc.), there are as many opinions are there are masjids.
So when is Ramadan starting? Why are there so many opinions? How do we pick one–the right one?
Let’s first see why different opinions exist, and whether this is acceptable or not.
The Origin of Difference of Opinion
Difference of opinion existed at the time of the Prophet (salallahu alayhi wa sallam) too. We have lots of narrations about companions differing. For example, this hadith about the battle of Al-Ahzaab:
Narrated Ibn Umar (radiallahu ‘anhumaa): On the day of Al-Ahzab (i.e. Clans) the Prophet (salallahu alayhi wa sallam) said, “None of you Muslims) should offer the ‘Asr prayer but at Banu Quraiza’s place.” The ‘Asr prayer became due for some of them on the way. Some of those said, “We will not offer it till we reach it, the place of Banu Quraiza,” while some others said, “No, we will pray at this spot, for the Prophet did not mean that for us.” Later on It was mentioned to the Prophet and he did not berate any of the two groups. [Saheeh Bukhari, volume 5, book 59, #445]
Notice, they had the Messenger of Allah (salallahu alayhi wa sallam) with them to make a final decision. And he would. And nobody could question it after that. In this case, he didn’t berate either group.
So difference of opinion is not inherently evil. In fact, in Usool-ul-Fiqh, they quote a hadith:
Narrated ‘Amr bin Al-‘Aas (radiallahu ‘anhu): That he heard Allah’s Messenger (salallahu alayhi wa sallam) saying, “If a judge (aka mujtahid) gives a verdict according to the best of his knowledge and his verdict is correct (i.e. agrees with Allah and His Messenger’s verdict) he will receive a double reward, and if he gives a verdict according to the best of his knowledge and his verdict is wrong, (i.e. against that of Allah and His Apostle) even then he will get a reward .” [Saheeh Bukhari: volume 9, book 2, #450, and Saheeh Muslim: book 18, #4261]
“For the mujtahid (who’s qualified to make ijtihaad) who makes ijtihaad, and comes up with the right answer, he gets two rewards. And for the qualified mujtahid who makes ijtihaad and comes up with the wrong answer, he gets one reward..”
Not nothing. Not one punishment. One reward. BUT! Provided he’s a qualified mujtahid. Imam Shafi’ee has a long list of qualifications for what exactly that means. Bottom line, it doesn’t mean you, or your brothers/sisters/aunts/uncles/grandparents/kittens.
So the gem is, accept difference of opinion. Don’t force people into one opinion. Respect it. And don’t act like everybody is going to Hellfire just becuase they started Ramadan one day after/before you did.
The Methodology for Knowing When Ramadan Starts
Are there opinions about when Ramadan starts? You bet there are. They all stem primarily from one hadith of Rasulullah (salallahu alayhi wa sallam):
Abu Huraira (radiallahu ‘anhu) reported Allah’s Messenger (salallahu alayhi wa sallam) as saying: Whenever you sight the new moon (of the month of Ramadan) observe fast. and when you sight it (the new moon of Shawwal) break it, and if the sky is cloudy for you, then observe fast for thirty days. [Saheeh Muslim, book 6, #2378]
This hadith lays out clearly what we should do. Rasulullah (salallahu alayhi wa sallam) said: sight the moon. That means, physically, sight the moon. With your eyes.
Wait. Your eyes, or the eyes of the guy “down under” in Australia? Check out this ayah:
شَهْرُ رَمَضَانَ الَّذِي أُنزِلَ فِيهِ الْقُرْآنُ هُدًى لِّلنَّاسِ وَبَيِّنَاتٍ مِّنَ الْهُدَى وَالْفُرْقَانِ فَمَن شَهِدَ مِنكُمُ الشَّهْرَ فَلْيَصُمْهُ وَمَن كَانَ مَرِيضًا أَوْ عَلَى سَفَرٍ فَعِدَّةٌ مِّنْ أَيَّامٍ أُخَرَ يُرِيدُ اللَّهُ بِكُمُ الْيُسْرَ وَلَا يُرِيدُ بِكُمُ الْعُسْرَ وَلِتُكْمِلُوا الْعِدَّةَ وَلِتُكَبِّرُوا اللَّهَ عَلَى مَا هَدَاكُمْ وَلَعَلَّكُمْ تَشْكُرُونَ
Translation: The month of Ramadhan [is that] in which was revealed the Qur’an, a guidance for the people and clear proofs of guidance and criterion. So whoever sights [the new moon of] the month, let him fast it; and whoever is ill or on a journey – then an equal number of other days. Allah intends for you ease and does not intend for you hardship and [wants] for you to complete the period and to glorify Allah for that [to] which He has guided you; and perhaps you will be grateful. [Surah Baqarah, verse 185]
Notice here, as shaykh Ibn Uthaymeen (rahimahullah) points out in his fatwa, the verse is conditional–fast if you see it. Notice also, the hadith we quoted earlier–whoever sees the moon should fast. Again, a condition. The condition, then, is valid for whoever it applies to–meaning if YOU see the moon, then YOU fast.
This is, Allahu ‘alam, the strongest opinion; that fasting is city-based, or region-based. So in fiqh, you’ll read about “horizons.” That’s the translation; it means one place where all the people fast the same fast. Usually, in Muslim countries, the whole country fasts together.
And if you can’t sight the moon? It’s cloudy? Then you count 30 days. And by count, some people say, calculate. Count means, you know all Islamic months are 29 or 30 days; so you can count the days of Sha’ban. If they’re 30, then today’s the first of Ramadan. Or if they’re 29, it could be 30th Sha’ban, or 1st Ramadan.
Ok, so we know that ikhtilaf is ok. And we know the proper method; and we know that, even if the proper method is followed, different opinions can be followed. So …
But What Did They do Before?
Wait. You might say, “hey, we used to have an Islamic state, and a real khalifah. How did they decide when to fast?”
The answer is simple. The khalifah calls all the scholars and advisors around. He says, “tell me which opinion you think is the best.” So one says “moon-sighting!” the other says, “no, not that! Calculating!” “No, not that! …” and so on.
And they debate. And it goes back and forth.
And then the khalifah says, “ok, let me think.” He thinks. He considers the evidence. And he says: “For this year, we’re going with this opinion.” [Mentioned by Muhammad Alshareef in Rizq Management]
And it’s decided. And if you start a masjid across the street on a different opinion, you can be whipped. It’s a serious matter. Don’t go against the ummah. [Mentioned in Rizq Management]
As for us, today? We should be like the people before, and acceede to authority once a decision is made.
So Whose Opinion Should we Follow?
Well, there is no khalifah. And as we said, there can be multiple correct opinions. So which do you choose? Who do you follow?
Shaykh Muhammad Alshareef was asked precisely this. And his response was, find a masjid you trust with people of knowledge and taqwa, and follow them. Leave them the difficult, complex, brain-exploding task of looking at different opinions and evidence and choosing what to do.
Why a masjid you trust? Because Allah says, in the Qur’an: “Ask the people of knowledge.” And taqwa is often the fruit of knowledge. So find a masjid where the imam has knowledge, someone you trust, someone who you believe has taqwa, and run with it.
Because, remember, you’re not a mujtahid. Don’t even try to figure out all the opinions. Just make it easy.
And, a final tip: Try and get your family on board with the same opinion. Do this by buying them into the knowledge of the masjid. Or, if you’re The Authority in your house, explain to them why it’s important to be together, take their opinions, and pick a masjid. Together. It’ll be really a sad ‘Eid if half the family has Eid while the other half is fasting.
And finally, what if you’re given two or more equally-trustworthy choices to pick from? How do you choose? At the end, you have to make a decision. So try:
- Consensus: Go with what the majority of people in your city are doing.
- Consult: Ask your family members who they want to go with. Most likely they have some preference. If you really are ok with either option, this will probably decide it.
- Make Istikhara: Allah will not let you down. If you make istikhara, you will never regret your decision insha’Allah.
- Make du’a: Nothing beats sincere, heartfelt du’a as a means of achieving goals.
We ask Allah to make easy this often tumultuous and emotional time, and to help our ummah understand and implement “unity” in the way that we fast–allahumma ameen.
- Muhammad Alshareef. Lecture. AlMaghrib. Rizq Management. University of Toronto, Toronto. June 2006