This is a phenomenon that has confused me ever since I first encountered it in Indonesia. Visiting the family of my friend for Idul Fitri last year in Purwokerto, which happens to be a Muhammadiyah stronghold in Central Java, I followed him to the solat Idul Fitri, the early morning prayers at the end of Rhamadan, to watch the event. The next morning, he again roused me at that very early hour, saying “OK, let’s go to solat Idul Fitri… again!”
As I learned over and over again, the line between politics, religion and culture in Indonesia is by no means a clear one. Read on, from the Jakarta Post:
Idul Fitri in Indonesia: How can it be on different days?
Mahmudi Asyari, Tangerang
A few days into the Ramadhan fasting month, Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s second largest Muslim organization announced that Shawal 1, 1428 Hijriah would fall on Friday, Oct. 12, 2007 on the international calendar.
That means Muhammadiyah will celebrate Idul Fitri this Friday.
The government will only decide the date for Idul Fitri on Thursday evening, having tentatively set the Islamic holiday for Oct. 13. Normally the date would be changed.
Muhammadiyah’s announcement has opened the possibility for Indonesian Muslims to celebrate Idul Fitri on two different days, as has occurred in the past. This goes to show how difficult it can be, to agree unanimously on a date for the holiday.
Muhammadiyah had held a symposium on Sept. 3 on the need for common criteria shared by the Indonesian Muslim community to celebrate Idul Fitri on the same day. Vice President Jusuf Kalla attended the event, and emphasized the importance of avoiding differences among Muslims when it came to Idul Fitri. Such hopes were also expressed by the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) in its recommendation in 2003.
Muslim scholars here attribute the difference to the authority given to the Religious Affairs Ministry, to hold isbat sessions to decide the dates of Islamic holidays. The sessions, they say, are usually dominated by traditional ulema who are not aware of the latest scientific methods.
The scholars insist on using hilal (moon observations) to determine the date of the new moon, even though the conjunction (of the sun and moon as seen from earth) can be accurately calculated scientifically.
They ignore, however, the consensus reached among ulema in the rest of the world (minus Libya) that the presence of the crescent may be predicted, long before it appears at ghurub (between sunset and moonrise). In other words, in Indonesia the conjunction is not confirmed until it is verified by observation of a new moon crescent, in accordance with the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.
By consensus, the conjunction may occur before ghurub but if the sun sets and a crescent cannot be sighted or disappears before the sun, a new month by the Islamic calendar can not begin.
As far as I know, the opinion of the scholars is not new. It was introduced by Rasuna Said during the era of President Sukarno.
The discrepancies occur because ulema are applying several methods to observe calendar dates.
The first method used is when a conjunction occurs before sunset, the following day is declared to be the beginning of a new month. By this method, irrespective whether a new moon crescent is sighted or not, what decides the new month is a conjunction. This method is practiced in Libya and Saudi Arabia in certain cases.
The second method, wujudulhilal (the presence of a new moon crescent), requires two conditions. Using hisab (calculation), a conjunction must occur before ghurub and a new moon crescent must appear after sunset.
Both of these methods do not require observation, but rely on precise computations.
The third method is imkanurrukyah which using astronomical calculation predicts when the new moon is at least two degrees above the horizon. Indonesia has mixed this method with rukya (manual observations). In Indonesia rukya are still used as the main way to determine the beginning of the month, whereas Malaysia interprets imkanurrukyah differently. If a crescent has reached 2 degrees, observation no longer needed because this is considered to represent a rukya based on previous practices. If the crescent is less than 2 degrees, the rukya is used under careful examination. In Indonesia, PERSIS is the only organization that (since 2002) have practiced this method. The government of Indonesia, represented by the Religious Affairs Ministry, interprets imkanurrukyah to mean places where the crescent can be seen, and accepted.
The fourth method is rukya (the sighting of the crescent). Saudi Arabia had practiced this method up until last year. In Indonesia, the largest Muslim group, Nahdlatul Ulama, practices this method but in many cases, especially after the fall of the New Order government in 1998, it has had a tendency to confuse the administration (in Saudi Arabia also). NU has become embroiled in debates when a crescent cannot be sighted.
The fifth method is called the global concept. This method is practiced by Muslim organizations which uphold the (political) concept of khilafa. This group suggests Muslims throughout the world follow Saudi Arabia in deciding the beginning of the month regardless the differences of local sighting-zones and the position of the crescent, given the fact that Mecca is located in that country. This is, of course, absurd because the sun in Indonesia sets four hours earlier than it does in Saudi Arabia. All Muslims, except in Indonesia, have followed this decision.
Saudi Arabia reached this decision with some degree of difficulty. A Saudi Arabian astronomer once faced punishment for criticizing the rukya-based decision which was not scientifically verified.
The Idul Fitri date decision in Indonesia is quite unique. Two dominant Islamic organizations, Muhammadiyah and NU, have a tendency to celebrate Idul Fitri on two different days.
To decide whether Idul Fitri falls on Oct. 12 or Oct. 13 this year all parties involved are required to know the position of crescent at sunset on Oct. 11. The almanac mentions that the conjunction occurs at 05:01 GMT, or 12:01 West Indonesia Time. The crescent at the time the sun sets on Oct. 11 is located at 0.9 degrees as observed in Pelabuhan Ratu crescent observatory. In the Central Indonesia Time Zone (except for Kendari and Makassar) and the Eastern Indonesia Time Zone, the crescent falls below the horizon.
If the first method (a conjunction before sunset) or the second method (wujudulhilal) are applied this year, the following day (Oct. 12) should be considered the beginning of the month. Consequently, it is only the area where the crescent is above the horizon which celebrates Idul Fitri.
On the other hand, if the rukya method is used, it will be difficult to decide if Oct. 12 is the beginning of the month because based on previous practices rukya does not apply when the crescent is less than 2 degrees above the horizon.
Most probably, the government and PERSIS organization, which upholds the imkanurrukyah method, will decide that Shawal 1, 1428 (the first day of the new month) will fall on Oct. 13.
There are different ways of deciding the date of Idul Fitri upheld by various Muslim organizations. It is unwise to claim that only one organization is correct. It is better for Muslims in Indonesia to exercise tolerance and to learn to reach an agreement in the best possible way.
The writer is a member of the International Crescent Observation Project (ICOP), and an Islamic teacher living in Tangerang.