Allah (SWT) gave me a chance to work and stay in Saudi Arabia for about 5 years (1416-1421H / 1995-2000). I wanted to use my stay to find out about the system for Hilaal sighting there, and to check my personal sighting attempts there. I also wanted to find more about the “UmmUlQura Calendar”. First, as was perhaps expected, I found that most local people had no idea of any mistakes in the Saudi announcements for Hilaal, and an extremely small percentage of my local Saudi practicing Muslim friends had ever attempted to sight the Hilaal in their life. Then Alhamduilillaah I was able to meet some Astronomers and also find that the UmmUlQura Calendar is designed in KACST – the prestigious King Abdul Aziz University for Science and Technology in Riyadh. UmmUlQura Calendar.
The local Astronomers brothers I met were very warm and welcoming. I found that there has been a major change in the UmmUlQura Calendar computation criteria starting 1420H. Before that year, the UmmUlQura calendar was based on Greenwich and not Makkah. Also it was based on the dark invisible Astronomical new moon being born. Thus it was totally different from the actual Hilaal observation. Starting about 1420H, the new criterion is that the Moonset be after Sunset in Makkah (even by one second). Starting 1423H Insha’Allaah it will again change slightly to directly take the astronomical new moon (conjunction) also into account. But the main input I got was that the UmmUlQura calendar was for CIVIL use only, and NOT for predicting the Hilaal for religious dates. The Astronomers were well aware that the moonset needs to be after sunset by a long time, and not just one second (along with other factors) for the Hilaal to be visible. But the point was that the UmmUlQura calendar neither attempts nor claims to predict the Hilaal. It is merely used for the official dates in the Ministries, schools, Saudia Airlines, and indeed all over the country Alhamdulillaah. Also, the local Astronomers were very well aware that there were a LOT of errors in the Saudi announced dates.
Official Saudi Hilaal Sighting Committees
Further, I was found that due to the Saudi Government becoming aware of the complaints of errors in the announced dates, around 1419H, the ruling council ordered the formation of Hilaal sighting committees.
Each such committee includes:
one member of Qada (Islamic Scholar/Justice department),
one member of KACST/Astronomer,
one member of Imarah (ruling council of the city), and
As of 1421H / 2000 there were six such committees in Saudi Arabia – near Makkah, Riyadh, Qassim, Hail, Tabuk and Asir. While they may carry a telescope with them, the official sighting of the committee is with naked eye only. Saudi scholars like Sheikh AlOthaimeen (RH) are against use of telescopes. Sheikh AlOthaimeen (RH) for example indicated that using telescopes increases the “Takalluf” (Burden) on Muslims, which Allaah (SWT) does not want. These official committees seemed to be a wonderful news and excellent solution Alhamdulillaah. So why should there still be a problem ?
Well, the answer is as follows:
The problem is because even though these 6 official Hilaal sighting committees exist, the Justice department still accepts the witness of “any” Muslim and not just the 6 official committees mentioned above. Thus, often the new month is declared while NONE of these 6 official Hilaal sighting committees saw the Hilaal. In fact, most people, including scholars are unaware of the existence of these official committees.
In the case of EidUlFitr 1420H, I myself went with the Makkah committee to a sighting point on a hilltop of Shamesi outside the city of Makkah Mukarramah on Thursday evening. Neither we, nor the other 5 committees sighted the Hilaal. But we came back to the Haram Shareef and were astounded to hear the announcement that EidUlFitr was next day (Friday). In fact moonset was before sunset in Makkah for Thursday evening. In this case the error was quite brazen. Later I learned that Sheikh Yusuf AlQaradawi issued a Fatwa indicating that Muslims who celebrated Eid 1420H on Friday following the Saudi announcement should make up one missed Ramadaan fast………………………….Dr Salman Shaikh