One of the most established traditions in the South African Muslim community has been the sighting of the new crescent to herald the Islamic lunar months. This is a tradition that was born over 350 years ago in Cape Town.
Sixty-seven years ago this community function was formalised with the founding of the Crescent Observer’s Society (COS) and the election of a Hakim, a qualified scholar to act as its legal arbiter.
The principle of sighting the new crescent with the naked eye (ruya in Arabic) is an act in conformity with Shari’ah, or Sacred Law. So is the ruling (the hukm) of the COS Hakim whether the moon has been sighted or not, and whether a new Islamic month will commence.
In this context the hukm is a juridicial ruling as opposed to a fatwa, which is a juridicial opinion.
For more than six decades the COS has faithfully served the community. Each month its observers have gone to Three Anchor Bay, Signal Hill, Soetwater near Kommetjie and Stellenbosch to observe the crescent in the Western Cape region.
Today the observation footprint has expanded to South Africa’s major centres. KwaZulu Natal, Kimberly, the Eastern Cape and Gauteng go out to sight the crescent in conjunction with the COS.
For decades, the sighting of the crescent has been strictly governed by national consensus. If during the winter months the Cape was occluded, and the crescent visible in the north, sightings from the north would be taken into consideration by the Hakim. The same would apply in the summer months, when the chances of the rest of the country being clouded over were high.
In addition, all parties working with the COS had agreed that in order to avoid chaos, 10.30 pm in summer and 9.30 pm in winter would be the cut-off times for moon-sighting testimonies.
Whilst minority communities in Great Britain and the United States have been stricken with bitter conflict on hilal matters, South Africa has – until very recently – been a shining exception.
However, this was tested earlier this year when the United Ulama Council of South Africa (UUCSA) was accused of undermining the integrity of the COS and in so doing, threatening to divide the community.
This led from events on the 29th Rabi ul-Awwal (February 11) when the COS reported that the crescent had not been visible in the sky, and that the lunar month would extend to a final 30th day.
It was an interesting scenario – if not a minor anomaly – because the crescent was 34 hours old (an observable age) with a viewing time of 29 minutes. The problem was that the moon had an extremely low trajectory – its position was in the light orange of the sunset, as opposed to the deeper-coloured higher layer.
Consequently, COS observers did not see the crescent anywhere in the country. After hearing nation-wide testimony from certified witnesses, the Hakim ruled that the following day would be the 30th Rabi ul-Awwal. This would mean that the next month, Rabi ul-Thani, would begin on the 13th February.
As for the past 1,000 or so months the COS has viewed the crescent, the decision was unanimously accepted. The judgement was broadcast over the airwaves of the Muslim radio stations.
Five days later, Islamic broadcasters received a press release on the letterhead of UUCSA on behalf of its Hilal Committee. The statement said that the hukm of the COS Hakim had been abrogated, and that the calendar now had to be reversed. Rabi ul-Thani had started on the 12th February and not the 13th.
According to the UUCSA official, a maulana in the north had seen the crescent on the night of 29th Rabi ul-Awwal, but had only reported it three days later. I discovered that the maulana (not identified by UUCSA) hailed from a community in Venda.
I also found out that UUCSA’s ‘Hilal Committee’ was a somewhat vacuous entity of undetermined members. Investigation also revealed that this decision had been unilateral, conducted without consultation, and agreed to by two officials from UUCSA – one from the Gauteng Jami’at and one from the Cape-based Muslim Judicial Council.
According to MJC sources even its President had not been informed, only learning about the calendar reversal via other means.
The COS responded by sending a letter to UUCSA in which it accused UUCSA of failing to consult with it on the matter, and having ignored decades of protocol and procedure. It also said that UUCSA had flagrantly violated the agreement of cut-off times for crescent-sighting testimonies.
In its brief COS said that the shart – or foundational condition of any ruling – preceded everything else in basic Islamic jurisprudence, specifically if it complements the tenets of Shari’ah. In other words, UUCSA had no legal Islamic right to mandatorily reverse the original Shari’ decision.
The only exception, said the COS, would be a re-deliberation on the matter by a consensual majority and full consultation with all role players – something that had clearly not occurred.
The COS had also posed the question of what would have happened had UUCSA made its decision during important dates such as Ramadan, and speculated on the pandemonium that could have ensued.
Shortly after the letter was sent, the COS was asked to attend a meeting at the MJC offices in Cape Town. This meeting was postponed. It has remained postponed ever since, begging the serious question of which tail is wagging which dog in the netherworld of scholarly politics