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Is the 15th of Shaʿbān Special?

Many people ask whether the 15th of the month of Shaʿbān has any special significance or not. One group of Muslim scholars help that there is nothing special about this day and that it is no different than any other in the same month. The other group of scholars was convinced that the middle of Shaʿbān should be appropriated with extra prayers and acts of worship at night. However, the group of scholars who acknowledged the 15th of Shaʿbān as having special merit also warned people to avoid the many sinful innovations done on this day which became popular among the masses in certain regions throughout history.

Evidence for the Significance of the 15th of Shaʿbān

The Prophet Muhammad was reported to have made the following statements:

إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَزَّ وَجَلَّ يَنْزِلُ لَيْلَةَ النِّصْفِ مِنْ شَعْبَانَ إِلَى السَّمَاءِ الدُّنْيَا، فَيَغْفِرُ لِأَكْثَرَ مِنْ عَدَدِ شَعْرِ غَنَمِ كَلْبٍ

“Allah, exalted is He, descends to the nearest heaven in the middle night of Shaʿbān and forgives more [sins] than the number of hairs on a flock of sheep from the tribe of Kalb [who were known to be shepherds].”[1]

إِنَّ اللَّهَ لَيَطَّلِعُ فِي لَيْلَةِ النِّصْفِ مِنْ شَعْبَانَ فَيَغْفِرُ لِجَمِيعِ خَلْقِهِ إِلَّا لِمُشْرِكٍ أَوْ مُشَاحِنٍ

“God looks at His creation during the middle night of Shaʿbān and forgives all of them, except an idolater or one who has hatred.”[2]

إِذَا كَانَتْ لَيْلَةُ النِّصْفِ مِنْ شَعْبَانَ، فَقُومُوا لَيْلَهَا وَصُومُوا نَهَارَهَا، فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ يَنْزِلُ فِيهَا لِغُرُوبِ الشَّمْسِ إِلَى سَمَاءِ الدُّنْيَا، فَيَقُولُ: أَلَا مِنْ مُسْتَغْفِرٍ لِي فَأَغْفِرَ لَهُ أَلَا مُسْتَرْزِقٌ فَأَرْزُقَهُ أَلَا مُبْتَلًى فَأُعَافِيَهُ أَلَا كَذَا أَلَا كَذَا، حَتَّى يَطْلُعَ الْفَجْرُ

“When it is the middle night of Shaʿbān, pray the night and fast the [following] day, because Allah descends therein, with the setting of the sun, to the nearest heaven, and says ‘Is there anyone who will repent so that I may forgive them, is there anyone who will ask for sustenance so that I may provide them, is there anyone being tested so that I might relieve them?’ This continues until dawn.”[3]

Authenticity of the Reports

These three reports, along with others that have not been mentioned, were all individually graded to be weak by scholars of Ḥadīth.[4] The first report was graded weak by most, if not all, scholars. The second report was deemed acceptable to some scholars who did not consider the defects in the narration to be severe. The third report was graded by most, if not all, scholars to either be weak, very weak, or classified as a known fabrication.

The Final Verdict on the Authenticity of the Reports

There are two methods of dealing with ḥadīths whose chains are not individually strong. The first method is to elevate the overall status of the ḥadīth to be authentic because the numerous reports strengthen each other, as long as they are not very weak.

Shaykh al-Albani explained it this way: “In summary, the ḥadīth, when all the chains of transmission are considered, is authentic without a doubt [ṣaḥīḥ bi lā rayb]. Its authenticity is established with even fewer than the amount of these reports, as long as it is free from major weakness, as is the case of this ḥadīth…as for what has been reported from the righteous and exacting scholars that there is no authentic ḥadīth concerning the virtue of the middle of Shaʿbān, it should not be relied upon. Anyone who claimed such a thing said that due to their hastiness and not putting in enough effort to trace all the chains of narrations as I have presented.”[5] Shaykh al-Mubārakpūrī stated something similar: “Collectively, these hadiths constitute a proof against those who allege that nothing is confirmed with respect to the merits of the middle night of Sha’bān.”[6] Shaykh Ibn Taymiyyah believed the same: “If someone specifically prays during the middle night of Shaʿbān, whether alone or in a small private group like some of the early Muslims [salaf] used to do, then that is good.”[7]

The second method is to not accept the reconciliation of weak reports in this particular instance, because the weakness of the reports are quite severe concerning the 15th of Shaʿbān. Imam Abu Bakr ibn al-ʿArabī said: “There is no reliable ḥadīth about the middle night of Shaʿbān being virtuous…so don’t pay any attention to it.”[8] Other prominent scholars of Ḥadīth agreed with this view, such as Imam Ibn al-Jawzī and Imam Zayn ad-Dīn al-ʿIrāqī.

What Not to Do on the 15th of Shaʿbān

The scholars who accepted that this night has special virtue encouraged people to pray during the night and perform other virtuous acts. However, they cautioned people to not engage in practices which have no sound basis in Islam.

Three points were emphasized by these scholars:

  1. People should not gather together in mosques to pray on this night. It should be done privately at home.
  2. There is no sound basis for the ‘one-thousand prayer’ where surah al-ikhlāṣ is recited a thousand times. This prayer was invented by some people later on and is based on fabricated reports.
  3. There is no sound basis to specifically fast on the 15th day of Shaʿbān. The ḥadīth concerning that is very weak and is not strengthened by the other narrations.

Shaykh Ibn Taymiyyah warned: “The middle night of Shaʿbān has virtue…however, gathering together to observe it in the mosques or offering the ‘one-thousand prayer’ is a sinful innovation.”[9] Shaykh al-Mubārakpūri also cautioned: “I have not found any acceptable ḥadīth concerning fasting on the 15th of Shaʿbān. As for the ḥadīth in Ibn Mājah…it is very weak…and another ḥadīth mentioned by Ibn al-Jawzī…was said to be fabricated.”[10]


There is clearly a difference of opinion among prominent Muslims scholars whether to believe that the 15th night of Shaʿbān has any special virtue or not. While it may be tempting to take the position that this night should be observed ‘just-in-case’ its virtue is established, I incline towards the view that these reports should be rejected. The reason is because accepting them would raise an even more difficult question: why didn’t the Companions unanimously act upon these reports and ensure that they are reliably passed onto the next generation of Muslims? One may argue that accepting the reports and praying on this night is the safest way to go, but I would argue the opposite: that accepting these reports results in an epistemological problem of explaining why something so significant was not preserved properly by the Muslim community.

Nonetheless, respectable scholars have held the opinion that the night has virtue, so the average Muslim must follow the scholar(s) whom they trust to be the most qualified on this issue to decide whether or not to observe this night or not.

Mustafa Umar

May 20, 2016 – Anaheim, CA

[1] sunan at-Tirmidhī #739, 3:107; Sunan Ibn Mājah #1389, 1:443.

[2] sunan Ibn Mājah #1390, 1:443.

[3] sunan Ibn Mājah #1388, 1:443.

[4] For a detailed discussion of all the other narrations see tuḥfah al-aḥwadhī 3:364-366 and silsilah al-aḥādīth aṣ-ṣaḥīḥah 3:137-138.

[5] silsilah al-aḥādīth aṣ-ṣaḥīḥah 3:138.

[6] tuḥfah al-aḥwadhī, 3:367.

[7] al-fatāwā al-kubrā 2:262

[8] aḥkām al-qur’ān 4:117.

[9] al-fatāwā al-kubrā 2:262

[10] tuḥfah al-aḥwadhī, 3:367.


Halloween and Conformity


Halloween is around the corner once again. It is the second largest holiday in the US after Christmas. Every year Muslims are compelled to make the difficult decision of whether to participate in the festivities of Halloween occurring around them or to simply ignore what people are doing with the hope that they will not be pressured by either their children or peers to conform. It’s not an easy situation to be in.

The modern ritual of Halloween contains many aspects of innocent fun and entertainment, especially for children: dressing up in costumes, getting candy from neighbors, and getting to carve pumpkins. Intrinsically, there is nothing wrong with any of these acts, which is why many Muslims participate in the rituals.

But there is another aspect of Halloween that revolves around witchcraft and black magic, evil and superstition. It is common to dress as witches, vampires, demons, zombies, and even Satan [or what people assume he looks like]. School classrooms and work offices are adorned with cobwebs and spiders. Some creative residents decorate their lawns with fake coffins and corpses or hang human skeletons from their doors.

Most people don’t stop to question why these things are associated with Halloween. But Muslims are not supposed to be like ‘most people’. Islam encourages them to think and question, reflect and criticize. Why are people doing what we are doing? Why do they dress up in costumes like this? Where did the idea of going ‘trick or treat’ come from? Why are pumpkins mostly neglected throughout the year but become prevalent during Halloween season? Who came up with the game of ‘bobbing for apples’?

The Origins of Halloween

Researching the origins of Halloween reveals a lot of interesting history.[1] Halloween traces its history back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain [pronounced sow-in]. The Celts lived in and around modern day Ireland about 2000 years ago and celebrated their new year on November 1st. On the last day of the year [i.e. October 31st] they believed that dead spirits returned to the world, so their priests would light huge bonfires where people would make sacrifices to their gods.

Later, the Romans conquered the Celtic territory around 43 C.E. They were also pagans and had two festivals: one to commemorate the passing of the dead in late October and the other to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit. These two celebrations were eventually merged with the day of Samhain.

Centuries later, the Catholic Church established a day to honor all the Christian martyrs who had been killed and called it All Martyrs Day [also known as All Hallows Day]. This was originally celebrated in May but was eventually moved to November 1st to displace the pagan day of Samhain that was still celebrated in the region. Later, another day was added called All Souls Day to include all dead people. The night before All Hallows was called All Hallows Eve and the name evolved to become Halloween. The pagan Celtic ritual about dead spirits mixed with the Catholic one about honoring of the dead.

In colonial America, observing Halloween was originally very limited because the Protestant Christians wanted nothing to do with pagan rituals. In the second half of the nineteenth century, more immigrants from Europe began to migrate to America, many of them coming from Ireland due to the potato famine of 1846. These white immigrants brought the celebration of Halloween with them and it began to spread throughout the country. By the 20th century, Halloween became a little more sanitized and the religious and superstitious aspects of the day were mostly gone. The symbols of ghosts and witchcraft remained but were not widely believed in due to a change in American attitudes. Nonetheless, many neopagans and Wiccans still believe in and celebrate Samhain. Today, Halloween has become commercialized and rakes in about $6 billion every year in the US alone. A fourth of all candy sold throughout the year is purchased for Halloween celebrations.

It is clear that Halloween is a day that has evolved over time, incorporating many different elements and cultures, mostly pagan, into it. The practice of dressing up in costumes originated from the fear of ghosts roaming the earth on Halloween. The Celts believed that if someone wore a scary mask or costume then the ghosts might not recognize them as humans.

To prevent ghosts from coming inside their homes, they use to leave food outside for roaming spirits to eat. The food also served as a ‘treat’ for the good ghosts from their deceased family members. The Catholic Church tried to displace this practice by encouraging people to give out ‘soul-cakes’ so people would pray for the dead instead. During the All Souls Day celebrations in England, poor people would go from house to house begging for food and families would give them some if they promised to pray for their dead ancestors. Over time, the twin practices of leaving treats for ghosts and begging for soul-cakes merged to become ‘trick-or-treating’. The ‘trick’ was added when people began to threatening others that if they do not give some ‘treat’, a ‘trick’ will be played on them through some mischievous act.

The ‘jack-o-lantern’ originated from the practice of carving scary faces into turnips or pumpkins and leaving them outside the house to scare away ghosts. The game of ‘bobbing for apples’ originates from the festival of the Roman deity Pomona, whose symbol is the apple. There were many other customs and superstitions associated with Halloween that have died out with the passage of time.

Symbolism and Secularism

Since Halloween has mostly become a secularized festival in the West, some Muslims argue that there is nothing wrong with adopting it. Knowing the history of Halloween and the origins of the symbols that are still associated with the day, we must be more cautious.

When the Christian ʿAdī ibn Ḥātim accepted Islam, he went to go visit the Prophet Muhammad with a golden cross around his neck. The Messenger of Allah pointed to his necklace and told him, “ʿAdī, throw this idol away.” It is important to reflect on this statement. ʿAdī had already accepted Islam, which means that he had already abandoned the idea that Jesus is divine. For him, the cross around his neck was only a symbol now. Maybe he liked the way it looked or had become accustomed to wearing it as a fashion piece. Prior to accepting Islam, that cross symbolized belief in Jesus being God and having died for the sins of all people. The moment ʿAdī accepted Islam, the cross that he was wearing immediately ceased to have this meaning, which is why he continued to wear it. Nevertheless, the Prophet made it clear to ʿAdī that this cross was still considered an idol because of what it symbolized, and must be discarded entirely.

Likewise, despite the secularization of many symbols that were once antithetical to Islam and its core message, the advice of the Prophet should continue to resonate with us. Muslims should be proud that they have the insight to trace rituals and customs back to their origins, and ascend beyond the blind conformity of imitating whatever cultural practices and rituals exist in their society. Halloween is a ritual that is yet to be purified of its pagan and satanic symbols and elements. Until this is done, Muslims should be weary.

There is nothing wrong with ordering a pumpkin spiced latte from the local café that only serves this drink around Halloween. Likewise, leaving out some candy to prevent your neighbor’s children from becoming disappointed might be a wise move, depending on where you live, but Muslims should generally avoid observing Halloween as a day of celebration. Instead, they must develop alternatives to where children have fun, get treats, get to wear costumes, and carve out fruits. However, these alternatives need to be stripped of their pagan elements. The Muslim community will continue to wait in anticipation for those creative individuals to arrive who can introduce these alternatives. In the meantime, the corporations who profit from Halloween will continue to develop the holiday in whatever direction will gain them the most profit, without any concern for what symbols are promoted or what impact they have on people.

Muslims must remember that it is ok to be different. Halloween has evolved over time and theoretically has the potential to be stripped of its pagan symbols and made into a purely secular holiday. But until it is, we should discard the superstitious pagan symbols and replace them with something better.

[1] See, last accessed 10-29-15; Also see Nicholas Rogers, Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).


What is the day of ʿĀshūrā’?

ʿĀshūrā’ is the 10th day in the month of Muḥarram, which is the first month in the Muslim lunar calendar. When the Prophet migrated to Madīnah he noticed that the Jews living there used to fast on this day and celebrate. Upon asking them why, they responded that this was the day when Allah saved Prophet Mūsā [Moses] and his followers from Firʿawn [the Pharaoh] by splitting the Red Sea for them and drowning the oppressive Egyptian army. They also noted that Prophet Mūsā himself fasted on this day as a sign of thanks to Allah. Upon hearing this, the Prophet Muhammad responded, “We are closer to Mūsā than you are”, indicating that Muslims should also be fasting on this day. The Prophet then ordered his followers to fast on the day of ʿĀshūrā’ as well.[1]

When the Prophet Muhammad first prescribed it, fasting on the 10th of Muḥarram was mandatory because Muslims did not fast in Ramadan at that time. Then, when the month of Ramadan was prescribed for fasting, the obligation for the day of ʿĀshūrā’ was reduced to a recommendation. [2]

Some Companions chose not to fast on this day since the Prophet had given them the choice, but he himself continued to every year. In fact, ʿAbdullah ibn ʿAbbās related that he had never seen the Prophet so keen on fasting any other day than the day of ʿĀshūrā’.[3] The Messenger of Allah emphasized fasting on this day to such an extent that he once said, “I hope that Allah would forgive the sins of the previous year for the one who fasts on the day of ʿĀshūrā’.”[4]

Near the end of the Prophet’s life, he wanted Muslims to differentiate themselves from other religions so he stated, “Fast the day of ʿĀshūrā’ but differentiate yourself from the Jews by fasting the day before or after it.”[5] After a detailed analysis of all the teachings of the Prophet relating to fasting on the day of ʿĀshūrā’, Imām Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī [d. 852 A.H./1449 C.E.] concluded that there are three different ways to fast this day, in order of ascending virtue:

  • Fast only on the 10th day
  • Fast on both the 9th and 10th day
  • Fast on the 9th, 10th, and 11th

Whichever one of these a person chooses will have the reward for fasting on the day of ʿĀshūrā’. [6]

One of the misconceptions that has occurred in the minds of many Muslims is that the 10th of Muḥarram should be observed as a day of mourning because Husayn ibn ʿAlī, the righteous grandson of the Prophet, was killed on this day. It is true that the day he was killed was indeed sad and a great tragedy. However, many righteous people have been killed on other days, yet none of those dates have been taken as days of mourning. Ḥusayn’s own father, ʿAlī, was also killed unjustly in the month of Ramadan in the year 40 A.H. but no one has specified that day as a day of mourning to be observed by Muslims. Furthermore, the Messenger of Allah witnessed the slaying of many of his family members who were very dear to him such as his uncle Ḥamza, his adopted son Zayd ibn Ḥārithah, and his cousin Jaʿfar [ʿAlī’s brother], yet he never appointed a day of mourning for them. Therefore, although it may be beneficial to reflect on the martyrdom of Ḥusayn and the historical lessons that can be derived from such an incident, there is no basis for singling out his death as a day of mourning.

[1] Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 3:43, #2004

[2] Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 3:43, #2002

[3] Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 3:43, #2006

[4] Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2:818, #1162; Muslim scholars have explained that this refers to minor sins only.

[5] Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal, Musnad, 4:52, #2154; Ibn Ḥajar and other scholars deemed this narration to be weak because the narrator Ibn Abī Laylā did not have a very strong memory but Aḥmad Shākir declared it to be sufficient [ḥasan] because there are several reports from other narrators to this effect which give it some strength.

[6] Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī, Fatḥ al-Bārī Sharḥ Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, 4:245


Reflections on Police Brutality and Racist Culture in America

Ferguson Fallout: Normality and Tamir Rice

By Imam Zaid Shakir

The recent killing of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio, casts a more brilliant light on many of the issues relevant in the case of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. I mention this because those who argue that if African American males just act normal and mind our business these sort of killings would not happen. Along these lines, my post on Ferguson, a few days ago, generated an informative and balanced discussion, however, something was missed by all of the commentators at that time. Namely, virtually every victim of the police shootings I mentioned was acting normal at the time of his slaying.

Oscar Grant was lying face-down on the train platform when he was shot in the back. Like anyone in that position, he did not constitute a threat to the police officer who shot him, he was totally immobilized, which is normal for someone in his situation. Normal did not save his life. Amadou Diallo was reaching in his pocket to pull out his keys to unlock the door to enter his apartment building, with his back to the police. That sounds pretty normal to me, however, normal did not save his life. Kenneth Chamberlain, who had accidentally set off his life alert device, called the police dispatcher to say he did not need police assistance and when the police arrived he repeatedly told them he did not need their help. Seems like a normal scenario. Normal did not save his life. Papo Post was hanging out with a group of white friends on the outskirts of town. There is nothing abnormal in anything he was doing. Again, normal did not save his life. Miguel Arroyo was running from the policeman when he was shot in the back. Maybe he alone amongst those mentioned was up to no good, but his reaction to the police, knowing what every inner-city youth knows about what might happen when the police roll up on you, did what was normal, he ran. Did that justify him being fatally shot in the back? John Crawford’s reaction to Walmart’s advertising and display positioning was normal in every way. He pulled a non-lethal pellet gun from the shelf, a reaction Walmart encouraged, and was walking in the store with it. Is there anything abnormal about his response? Of course not. Normal, once again, did not save his life.

Tamir Rice, who I also mentioned in that post, was also doing something pretty normal for a twelve-year-old child. Playing with a toy gun in the park. Perhaps he was being irresponsible in pointing the toy at people, but how much responsibility should we expect from a normal twelve-year-old? Shouldn’t his killers, trained law enforcement officers, have been a little more responsible in seeking to preserve Tamir’s life, or do their actions illustrate what is all too normal in such encounters?

Tamir’s killing illustrates some things that are dangerously too normal when police kill African American youth. By way of example:

1) Apparent lies by the police. The officer who shot Tamir says he ordered him three times to drop the gun and put his hands up. However, the video of the shooting shows that Tamir was shot as soon as the police arrived at the scene. It would have been impossible to issue that order even one time in the time that elapsed between the police arriving on the scene and the shooting.

2) Media defamation of the deceased. The day after the release of the video showing the police shooting Tamir immediately upon their arrival at the scene, the newspaper headline did not highlight the inconsistencies between what actually happened and the initial police report. It did not highlight the tragedy of a boy losing his life under such tragic circumstances. It did not highlight the restraint of the community and the calls for a civil dialogue with the police. What did the headline read? “Tamir Rice’s Father Has a History of Domestic Abuse.” Since Tamir is too young to have a history of thuggish behavior, we are reminded that the boy is the son of a thug.

3) Media advocacy on behalf of the transgressing police. In this case, in the immediate aftermath of the slaying, the media attention focused on the claim that the information mentioned by the 9/11 caller, whose actions set in motion the series of events culminating in Tamir’s death, that he was a “juvenile” and the gun was probably “fake” was not communicated to the police. If these observations could be made by an apparently elderly citizen, why couldn’t they be made by police officers who have been trained to enforce the law and protect the citizenry? They could not see that Tamir was a child, nor consider that the gun might be fake?

Why is it so important that the public know about Tamir’s father in the first place? Could it be for the same reason that it was important for people to know that Michael Brown had robbed a convenience store and roughed up an employee? Could it be for the same reason that it was important for people to know that Trayvon Martin had smoked marijuana? Or that Papo Post had previous scrapes with the law? Or Miguel Arroyo “might” have been intent on breaking into a liquor store? Why is it not sufficient for these types of cases to be adjudicated in courts of law based on the facts involved and not in the court of public opinion before they every make it to trial?

The fact that we need a separate normal if you are African American or Latino [1] in this country indicates a problem. Does that mean every police officer or department is corrupt. Certainly not, however, it does indicate that there is an entrenched double standard contributing to the death of an African American at the hands of law enforcement in this country (one every day and a half according the Malcolm X Grassroots Report), and that race is a significant factor informing that double standard. Not talking about it and the factors contributing to it is not going to make it go away. We need more dialogue and discussion around these issues, not less. Furthermore, talking about such issues is not racially divisive. Racial divides in this country already exist. Ignoring them is not going to make them disappear, it will only allow them to grow wider. It will also make them more difficult to detect, and that being the case, increasingly large numbers of folks will fall into them.

[1] Andy Lopez’s case, he was fatally shot in Santa Rosa, California while carrying a toy gun, is strikingly similar to that of Tamir Rice. Of course, The San Francisco Chronicle went out of its way to mention that the thirteen-year-old Lopez “appeared to be high on marijuana” at the time of his killing. What should the public take away from this? The Chronicle does not leave this to the reader’s imagination: “The marijuana, the report suggests, may have affected Andy’s judgment when he was approached from behind on the street by Gelhaus and a colleague.” In other words, it was Andy’s fault he was killed, not the actions of an apparently rogue policeman in a department with a documented history of abuse against Latino residents of the city.


Questioning Visibility Curves for the Sighting of the Moon

UPDATE 7-16-14: An additional section has been added near the end covering the Islamic Crescents’ Observation Project visibility map.

As the reported sighting came in from Yemen on Friday June 27, 2014, one of my friends remarked, “that Yemeni must have been high.” I laughed, not only because Yemenis are known to chew a semi-intoxicating substance called ‘khat’, but because I had seen four different [amateur] astronomers produce visibility calculation maps, such as the two below, and all of them were clear that it was impossible to sight the moon in that part of the world.



Several hours later, I managed to tap in to a live-feed of a long and heated discussion taking place among the Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America [AMJA]. They were deciding whether or not to reject the Yemeni sightings based on astronomical visibility calculations claiming it impossible to sight the moon there. As the discussion drew to a close, news came in that the crescent was sighted in Houston by three people and another one in Alabama. Initially I wondered if they were chewing some of that Yemeni ‘khat’ as well. To my surprise, within a matter of minutes, AMJA made the call to confirm both the Yemeni and American sightings.

I immediately phoned Dr. Ahmad Salama, a consultant for NASA/JPL and professor of astronomy. I made him put his dinner on hold and we began to calculate. “How far is the red zone [where the moon could be sighted by optical aid only] from Houston? How many degrees away? When was sunset? When was moonset in Houston?” After a series of questions from him, I put my own question on the table, “What level of inaccuracy is there in these calculation maps? Give me a percentage Dr. Ahmad: 1%, 5%, 10%, 20%, or zero?” He responded, “Anywhere not too far from the red area on the map is a huge gray area, scientifically speaking. Under perfect conditions, it is unlikely, but not impossible, to see.”

Nonetheless, many prominent scholars rejected these reports outright based on the colorful visibility maps they had seen, even those living in the Houston area. I didn’t know what to think and chose to defer to the senior scholars. “Let them take the burden on themselves”, I said internally.

Later that night, two more reports came in, one from Tucson and another from San Diego. They were also rejected by the same scholars for the same reasons: those locations are not within the visibility zones on the maps. I know for a fact that people do make mistakes in seeing the crescent [even if they aren’t high], but what if one of these sightings happened to be in the gray area that Dr. Ahmad was alluding to and the calculations used to make these maps were off? I decided to investigate.

I phoned the brother who claimed to see the moon in San Diego. Abu Isa Mateen Khan, 39, is well known to the Muslim community in San Diego. He even happens to live next door to Shaykh AbdelJalil Mezgouri, the Imam of the Islamic Center of San Diego. Mateen was a very friendly brother and sounded very sincere and helpful. Here is his story:

“I went with my wife and kids to go sight the crescent, even though we doubted we would see it and didn’t even buy groceries for breakfast the next morning. We headed for the San Diego State University Observatory on Mount Laguna to see if we would be able to spot the moon there. We were two groups, but we both got lost on the way. Time was ticking, so about a few miles after we passed the 4000ft above sea level mark, we decided to pull over at a viewpoint at 8:02PM. My wife was taking notes. We knew which direction to look because we had been told by some people who know what to do. We glanced in the direction near where the sun was setting and saw something. We thought it might be a jet-stream so we initially ignored it, but it kept coming back in view. I used my son’s toy binoculars and we could clearly see that it looked like the crescent. I couldn’t see it that well without the binoculars but my wife and kids saw it clearly. We observed it from 8:03-8:11PM [with a one minute margin for error]. While observing it, it was very clear and kept moving down a few centimeters. It disappeared at about 8:11 or 8:12. I pulled out my phone and checked the GPS location which showed about 290 degrees northwest. If you were looking at a clock, the illuminated parts were from 4 o’clock to 5:30. I took a picture with my phone but it has a poor quality camera so the moon cannot be seen in the picture. As we were about to leave, we noticed a person not far from us with a telescope. He was not a Muslim but we decided to talk to him. We asked if he saw that thing in the sky and he responded, ‘You mean the moon?’ I responded, ‘Was that the moon?’ He answered in the affirmative and told us that he is an enthusiast who comes up the mountain every few days to stargaze and take pictures. According to him he was sure that was the moon and saw it clearly himself, although he noted that it is very rare to be able to see it on this day because the colors of the San Diego sunsets cause some parts of the moon to fade out. This motivated me to report my sighting to some of the scholars in the area.”

Despite Mateen’s detailed story, many still rejected his sighting because San Diego does not fall on the visibility maps that have been produced. I called Dr. Salama again, giving him all of the details of the sighting he asked for: degrees the moon was from the sun, the horizon to the crescent elevation, etc. After a few days he phoned me back telling me that in his expert opinion as an astronomer, this sighting cannot be rejected based on the elevation of the viewer, sunset and moonset timing, etc.

So I decided to put the question straight to him, “What’s the point of these maps if they are not accurate?!” His answer was very enlightening. I will paraphrase the main points here:

These maps are not deterministic in nature but should be used as a guide to know where the moon can ‘usually’ be sighted. The only thing that is deterministic is the position of the moon relative to the sun, the earth, etc. These maps are calculated based on sighting reports from amateur astronomers who reported whether or not they saw the moon on certain days. However, there are three issues. One, those sightings [or lack thereof] were viewed under certain physical conditions which will be different based on the condition of the sky and atmosphere on another future date. Two, the sightings are not taken from observatories or expert astronomers but rather amateur enthusiasts. Three, the number of observations is limited. If the data points were doubled or tripled, it is probable that the visibility curves would change drastically. In conclusion, the early visibility of the moon has always been a problem due to how the Earth’s atmosphere distorts light and due to other environmental factors. Even the U.S. Naval Observatory is on record to admit that there is a large ‘gray area’ when it comes to commenting on the visibility of the moon in any given place at any given time.[2]

Another interesting find was a new map which adds a zone of impossibility. Strangely, there are two wordings: ‘not possible’ and ‘impossible’. The red zone [i.e. ‘impossible’] is defined as being: “impossible to see the crescent from the areas located under the red color because either the moon on this day sets before sunset and/or the topocentric conjunction occurs after sunset”. A quick glance reveals that neither Yemen nor the USA were in the red zone. This type of red zone, I assume, would be labeled a ‘deterministic’ calculation and thus result in some level of actual certainty. However, anything within what may be termed the ‘gray area’ will remain exactly that: a gray area.


Will knowing this unify the Muslim community about the start and end of Ramadan? Absolutely not, because there are many more variables involved. Nonetheless, this is a call for people to stop making inaccurate comments alleging that visibility calculations concerning the moon are ‘certain’ and ‘100% accurate’, as is commonly done. Whether or not Brother Mateen, or anyone else, really saw the moon on June 27, 2014 cannot be confirmed with certainty, but it would be unjust of anyone to say he was deluded or high at the time.


[1] Notice the major differences between the two maps.

[2] See, last accessed July 6, 2014.