Nigeria: Moonsighting Controversies in Nigeria - Way Forward

opinion

Abuja — On the 29th day of Ramadan 1441 AH (22/05/2020), many Muslim faithful found themselves in a quandary in respect of moonsighting in Nigeria.

On the one hand, his Eminence, the Sultan of Sokoto, declared that the Shawwal crescent had not been sighted, therefore, Muslim faithful would complete their fast to 30. On the other hand, two prominent scholars in Nigeria, Sheikh Dahiru Usman Bauchi and Sheikh Musa Ayyuba Lukuwa, announced the end of Ramadan and called on their followers to observe the Eid el-Fitr on Saturday, 23/05/2020, as 1st of Shawwal 1441 AH.

Eid el-Fitr was observed on Saturday by some Muslims; but majority abided by the Sultan's announcement, thereby observing their Eid el-Fitr on Sunday, 24/ 05/2020.

There were reactions from many Muslim quarters condemning the unilateral actions of Sheikhs Bauchi and Lukuwa as something done without authority. That it was unbecoming of them to disrespect the Sultan, the paramount leader of Muslims in Nigeria. What exacerbated my worries was the fact that for the first time, Shiekh Dahiru Bauchi, in an emotion-laden announcement, waded into the controversy and decided to go contrary to the position of constituted authority.

For Lukuwa, many would not have taken him serious as he has been notorious for observing Eid or starting the Ramadan against the date announced by the Sultan. The announcement by Sheikhs Bauchi and Lukuwa suggest that the Sultanate ignored the claims by some people that they sighted the crescent.

For instance, Sheikh Lukuwa claimed that the Sarkin Gobir of Gwadabawa had called the Sultan's palace that the crescent had been sighted in his domain, but that he was not informed whether or not the report was accepted.

On the other hand, Sheikh Bauchi claimed that he received the information late, so he could not contact the Sultan, but that some people had reached out to the Sultan, but the Sultan said he had already taken decision and would not change it. This perhaps, infuriated the Sheikh to announce to the public his resolve to observe the Eid el-Fitr on Saturday, 23/05/2020.

Many scholars have contributed in the ensuing debate. However, majority harped on Muslim unity by urging Muslim faithful to defer to the Sultan of Sokoto, being the only person with the authority to make such announcements. They appear to find comfort in the hadith of the Prophet Muhammad SAAS that makes any leader blameworthy if he deliberately misleads his followers.

Of all the scholars that contributed to the discussion, none but one Sheikh Abdullahi Awaisu Kano saw the need to have a dialogue with the Sultan on the best approach to end these controversies.

I really pity the Sultan on this onerous task as I find the above hadith very weighty and not comforting for persons entrusted with leadership. I also fear that by attributing the blame to the Sultan, Nigerian Muslims are likely not to make any effort at finding a solution to the problem. This will necessarily mean that the controversy will remain a recurring decimal.

In fairness to the Sultan, Muhammad Saad Abubakar, when he ascended the throne on November 2, 2006, he met a system of moonsighting that was never scientific. Indeed, people were bitterly complaining that for several decades, the months of Shaaban and Ramadan always terminated on the 29th, as if Nigeria was on a different planet. Far-reaching measures were introduced from 2009 following the controversies in 2008 when three different Eid days were observed in Nigeria.

In August, 2011, many groups, including the Izala, led by Sheikh Sani Yahaya Jingir, commenced the Ramadan a day earlier in protest to the use of technology and deployment of science of astronomy in moonsighting.

Late Prof. Abubakar Aliyu Gwandu had to resign his position as the then Chairman, Advisory Committee on Religious Affairs, Sultanate Council, at the peak of the controversy and died in September of the same year.

At any rate, this year also, astronomical information was called in aid. For instance, the report of the National Space Research and Development Agency (Ref.No: NASRDA/ADM/19) dated May 20, 2020, was sought, which predicted that the conjunction of the moon would occur at about 06.38pm on Friday, 22/05/2020, and the first astronomical lunar crescent would appear in Nigeria at 07.08pm on Saturday, 23/05/2020. The public, and particularly, the Islamic clerics, are not aware how such information is being used, hence adding another dimension to the controversies.

This year's controversy is just another circle. A press release addressed to the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), Sokoto State chapter with reference no: SCS/058/VOL.XIX/XX dated May 22, 2020, and signed by Prof. Sambo Wali Junaidu, the Wazirin Sokoto, who doubles as the Chairman, Advisory Committee on Religious Affairs, Sultanate Council, Sokoto, states that: "The Sultanate Council Advisory Committee on Religious Affairs in conjunction with the National Moonsighting Committee did not receive any report from the various Moonsighting Committees across the Country confirming the sighting of the New Moon of Shawwal 1441 AH, on Friday, 22/05/2020 which was the 29th day of Ramadan 1441AH." This suggests that all the reports available that many emirs had contacted the Sultanate Council were untrue, because the press release showed that no report was received from the moonsighting committees across the country.

On the other hand, Prof. Salisu Shehu, the Deputy Secretary General, Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, in a statement released the same day, i.e. 22/05/2020 on the authority of his Eminence the Sultan, ran thus: "I have been authorised by His Eminence, the Sultan of Sokoto, to inform the general public that because no information that has been proven beyond reasonable doubt has been received about the sighting of the new moon of Shawwal, Ramadan fast will continue tomorrow Saturday (23 May) and will be counted as 30th of Ramadan." This statement suggests that reports were actually received and some form of behind-the- scene evaluation was done by the committee but none of the information in the reports was found to be credible.

It is my belief that information on the evaluation alluded to in Prof. Shehu's statement is what is missing in the public domain. Information revealed during the nationwide broadcast by the Sultan is usually sketchy, leaving out many points out of public knowledge. Perhaps, the public only obeys out of respect for the Sultan; not out of conviction that what they are being fed is the true position of the committee's evaluation.

On 24/05/2020, I stumbled on a write-up by Simwal Usman Jibril titled: "Shawwal Moonsighting", and it gives a vivid account of how claims of sighting the crescent are scrutinised by experts before the Sultan takes decision.

In respect of this year, the author claimed he was called by the Sultan at 07.00pm and said he received a report from an emir at 06.58pm who claimed to have received positive moonsighting claim from his emirate, but the Sultan rejected the claim because sunset in that emirate that evening was at 06.57pm. By implication, the sighting claim was before the sunset, which is not in accordance with Sharia. Sighting of a new crescent is possible 10 minutes after sunset because of the sun's glare. The author stated that after the announcement from the Sultanate Council, many claims were heard from places like Gashua, Yobe State, Jalingo, Taraba State, Unguwar Jeji, Kebbi State, Kafin Madaki, Bauchi State, Unguwar Iya, Zaria, Kaduna State an Gummi, Zamfara State.

When he personally contacted the claimants, they gave different accounts. Some said the crescent was facing up (Unguwar Jeji), facing down (Jalingo and Zaria), facing South (Gummi, Gashua), facing North (Kafin Madaki), etc.

Obviously, the moon is one and the crescent can only be in one direction and facing same direction. Interestingly, different accounts were extracted from the claimants. Unfortunately, all these behind-the-scene processes were done long after the Sultanate Council had already issued a press release. It is clear that if the general public was aware of these accounts the controversy would have been averted.

However, the practice has been for the Sultan to say either that the crescent has been sighted in so so and so places without more, or it has not been sighted without letting the public know what transpired between the Moonsighting Committee members and the claimants.

I think given the importance of moonsighting in the overall religious practices of Muslims, it is worth the while of the Sultan to go beyond the present practice. If elaborate explanation will help in stopping or reducing the controversies, why not adopt it.

I have to state at this juncture that as against what is widely believed that the Sultan always adopts the position of Saudi Arabia, Prof. El-Nafaty has debunked that erroneous belief by referring to the fatwa of Saudi scholars that each country should rely on its own sighting.

In line with the above, I wish to recommend:

The Sultan in his broadcast or press release should let the public be aware of and informed of criteria used in evaluating the claims.

It is appropriate to delay the release of any statement till late, say 10 or 11:00pm. This is to clear all doubts and to allow room for detailed analysis of the reports received. It will not be out of place to have a sponsored live TV and radio programmes where the public will be exposed to the inner workings of the moonsighting committees. People will hear for themselves how the scrutiny is done and why the committees reject claim few hours before the final announcement by the Sultan.

A leader should have listening ears, appreciate the flexibility in the religion and be ready to retract or vary his decision where there is convincing evidence.

I may only conclude by assuming that the error might have been because of limited information available in the public domain.

Prof Musa Usman Abubakar wrote from Abuja 

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