The Eid Conflict


Ml Mohammad Taha Karaan

Muslims in the Western Cape are divided into two parties regarding the celebration of the two Eids. Some celebrate according to local sighting while others follow Saudi Arabian sighting. While this issue has been examined from various angles none have resolved the differences. What is the way forward for concerned Muslims?

– Taken from an article written by M.T.Karaan for inclusion in a work on The Eid Conflict by Sh Amien Fakier.

Centralised decision making in public matters
the root of the problem

While much has been said, and probably will still be said, concerning the various fiqh arguments that support the celebration of Eid al-Adha in accordance with a regional sighting of the moon or in conjunction with Makkah, the real root of the problem does not lie in the comparative values of those particular arguments of fiqh.

By the above I do not mean that the issue is not fiqh related. On the contrary, I would insist that this is most certainly a matter of fiqh. However, the jurisprudential fulcrum of the issue does not lie in whether the plural form of the imperative in the hadith of Ibn Umar sanctions universal application, or whether the hadith of Kurayb is absolutely unambiguous in localising moonsighting. Beyond semantics, it is unrelated to the validity of calculations, and transcends even the avant-garde association of our local Eid with Makkah. It is to another area of fiqh that we have to look in order to discover the root of our problem. That area has in recent decades acquired a name of its own: fiqh al-aqalliyyat, the fiqh of minorities.

Classical fiqh almost always presupposes that the Muslim community to which it addresses itself lives in an Islam-dominated land where everyone, both government and citizen, is subject to the Shari’ah. The first major loss of political power came when Islam was driven out of Spain, and the few pockets of Muslims who remained in Ferdinand and Isabella’s Catholic Spain, who managed in some way or the other to escape forcible conversion, were probably the first to experience what it is like to become a Muslim minority. Colonisation brought several Muslim minorities into existence (our own community at the Cape being one of those); but the major factor behind the existence of Muslim minorities has to be the migration of Muslims from their own countries to especially the West.

To the individuals forming these minorities the observance of their religious duties has always been a matter of conscience. Accordingly they created structures and founded institutions within their societies to enable them to carry out their duties as Muslims. Thus they were not much different from their brethren in Muslim countries in respect of their masajid and madaris and the activities that took place therein. As such, there was no need for a specific adaptation of fiqh to regulate their activities in this regard.

The one area in which Muslim minorities found themselves markedly different from Muslim majorities was that of centralised decision making in public matters. I would define public matters here as those matters which entail the observance of public occasions by the Muslim community at large. Obvious examples of such matters would be the observance of Ramadan and the two Eids. Determining how and when to observe these occasions is undoubtedly a matter of Shari’ah, but when differences of opinion arise amongst the fuqaha, the selection of one of the various rulings becomes a matter of state.

In countries with Muslim majorities this has never posed a problem. All the state does is to delegate this authority to an appointed official or a body, such as a state mufti or a ministry of Islamic affairs. Whatever decision this official or body makes is binding on all Muslim individuals in that country. Even a very erudite faqih living in that country who holds an opinion at odds with the one promulgated by the official mufti or the ministry is not at liberty to enforce his view upon the general public.

With Muslim minorities the situation is different. They too, find themselves at that place in the road where two divergent fiqh opinions fork away from one another. But because they do not hold the reins of government in their hands, they are unable to resolve the issue in the straightforward manner that a Muslim country would. This is where alien factors like ethnic divisions, petty politics and devotion to personalities find the space to start playing havoc. Year after year we see the same painful scenes of disunity being replayed, and the fact that these scenes are enacted exclusively in countries like England, France, America, Australia and South Africa points unmistakably to the fact that this problem affects only Muslim minorities.

These minorities have two options. They could request their non-Muslim government to use its authority in order to create for them the centralised structure that would decide upon its public matters. This option would expectably be unpalatable to many, smacking as it does of non-Muslim interference in Muslim religious matters. The other option is for initiatives to create such decision making structures to arise from within the Muslim minority communities themselves. This was the path favoured by most, if not all Muslim minorities. In the case of the Cape this step was taken over half a century ago, with the founding of the Muslim Judicial Council in 1945. Subsequent years saw the founding of similar bodies in other provinces of the country, and in the late 1980s an agreement was reached between the various ulama bodies in terms of which not only South Africa, but the whole of southern Africa would celebrate Ramadan and the Eid in unison. The federalisation of the South African ulama bodies into the United Ulama Council of South Africa was another positive step towards centralising the decision making process for public matters.

The 1963 fatwa of al-Azhar included in this volume [i.e. the original work by Sh. Amien Fakier] affords not only a ratification of this process as the proper Shar’i way for minorities to conduct their affairs, but serves also to underscore in the clearest possible terms the authority of the Muslim Judicial Council to make decisions on public matters. This authority was upheld and probably even invoked by all those who had at some stage been members and office bearers of the Council. The great test would come upon the departure from the ranks of the Council of personalities who had once been its chief executives: Would the authority of the Council be afforded the same esteem it enjoyed before their departure? Or would their departure signal the end of their acknowledgement of the Shar’i authority vested in the Council? The answer is known to all and sundry. The process of creating decision making structures within minority situations suffers from one major weakness: Abiding by its decisions cannot be enforced. If anyone wishes to go against its rulings there would be no one to compel him to abide. If any particular mosque or imam decides to pursue its own agenda there are no structures in place to ensure that the unity of the community at large is not destroyed.

It is here where Muslim communities such as our own are called upon to display greater maturity and sensibility than the average Muslim community in Muslim countries. Unity in the celebration of Eid is to them a matter of forced compliance; for us it is a matter of choice. For us, unlike them, the ball is in our court. Having suffered the pain and turmoil of a split Eid for so many years, no one would know better than our community just how desirable a unified Eid is. But few of us seem to know just how close within our reach it really lies.

The pursuit of politically motivated agendas has seen many a novel development, the latest of which is an absurdly baseless and jurisprudentially unjustifiable absolutisation of the relative position that Eid ought to be celebrated in conjunction with Makkah. The process of bridging the yawning chasm that separates us will never be served by such excrescences. The first step in the journey that will take us back to the harmony that we knew before 1989 would be to reaffirm ourselves to the rule of Shar’i law. The particular law referred to here has nothing to do with whether celebrating Eid with Makkah is an obligation or not. It has no relation to generalising or localising moonsighting. It does not at all impinge upon the validity of using astronomical calculations. Rather, it is the simple requirement that for their public observances, Muslims in a minority situation can have only one decision making body. Abiding by the decision of that body, while by no means enforceable, is a sure sign of a mature, sensible and responsible community.