As readers of this blog are no doubt aware, I am rather sympathetic to the religious institutions of Najaf at times, and do consider them a positive force for the most part in Iraq’s developing legal and political architecture. That sympathy is not without its qualifications or limitations, of course, no thinking person’s support should ever be so unqualified, but in general, I have found their interventions into state affairs limited, salutary and non-divisive.
I thought I should reaffirm that before describing what I might describe as a less appealing side of Shi’i religious theory for one committed to the life of the mind, an aspect that is perhaps shared by religious orthodoxies everywhere, but is reinforced with some strength by core Shi’i theological tenets. Basically, I think Najaf suffers, and the high scholars of Najaf especially suffer, and the most learned of the Shi’i high scholars of Najaf above all suffers, from a general absence of true critical thought that prevails in the city. Essentially, they don’t much engage with people who think they are wrong. If you are a good believer, Shi’ism in its modern manifestation demands of you that you follow the rules your high scholar lays out without question–to even ask the question respecting the wisdom of a rule is to risk appearing somehow less than sound in faith–to suggest you don’t know you are speaking to the Imam’s viceregent in the Imam’s absence, and to not know that to die without knowing the Imam of the age is to die in a state of ignorance. So follow, don’t argue.
Then on the flip side everyone else who rejects the whole Najaf religio-institutional structure is usually ignored, no real reason seen to engage them. And as for those who really seek out the high scholars to explain why they think what they do in contrast to what the high scholars say, who have considerable affinity to Shi’ism but also some heterodox views and reform minded ideas. They’re usually shunned, Fadlallah was given the cold shoulder by the Najaf jurists, even more heterodox people like Abdul Aziz Sachedina are told not to spread their deviant views on Islam.
And the result when you never get to deal with people who think you are wrong, when you never get properly questioned and hammered on where your idea comes from, is that your thinking grows flaccid, weak, filled with logical errors, nonsequiturs, and unsustainable propositions. I’ve pointed out cloudy expressions in juristic rules in this blog before. But with the recent flap over the new moon sighting to declare an end to the Holy Month of Ramadan, the sloppy reasoning grew to such heights something really has to be said.
For those unaware, even within the Shi’i community, there was a split over the proper day that the new lunar month began a few days ago to signal Ramadan’s end. Sistani said Monday, but others held to a moonsighting interpretation that rendered it Sunday. Let’s leave aside the latter for now, and focus on Sistani’s Monday, because really, upon the slightest level of introspection, the logic of his position falls completely apart.
As Sistani would have it, there is no such thing as ‘unity of the horizons’ when you are trying to see the moon to declare a new month, what in Arabic would be referred to as وحدة الآفاق What this means is that just because some guy somewhere else saw the moon and will therefore declare a new month doesn’t mean you do too in your place. For the late Ayatollah Khu’i, Najaf’s last senior cleric, that’s exactly what it means, but for Sistani, no unity of the horizons, the place where the moon was seen must be in the same “horizon” or it doesn’t count. So the new month starts in different places at different times. You saw a new moon, Brazilians? Good for you, but in Najaf we didn’t, you are not “in our horizon” and so therefore it might be the end of Ramadan for you, but not for us. So far, so good.
Except it raises a question to anyone who thinks about it for two seconds. Now Najaf’s folks aren’t dumb by any means, quite the opposite. They’re just unchallenged on critical points, and so they can think this far easily–to the obvious question this analysis begs and pretend to answer it at least. The question of course being “unity of horizons, what does that mean?” and here’s where it gets funny. X and Y share a horizon, Sistani tells us, if the moon appeared in place X, and there is a reasonable conclusion that could be drawn that it should have been seen in place Y but didn’t perhaps because conditions weren’t ideal. What that has to do with a “horizon” I really don’t understand, but okay. Except it’s not really workable.
The problem? Go to moonsighting.com, and it’s perfectly obvious that when and where a moon can be seen is going to differ each and every month. This past month, to mark the month following Ramadan, it would have been visible in ideal conditions in Miami, but not Tallahassee. So are those two not “in the same horizon”? If you scroll around that website you’ll find that the new moon appears by sight in Tallahassee and Miami at the same time almost all of the time, this was an exception. So are they usually “in the same horizon”? Or do we go by the mean of the past five years? Suddenly the definition of the “same horizon” is losing sense, or needs some precision.
Now what you’ll be told to this is ‘dummy, we don’t believe in following the astronomical charts, we have to SEE the moon, so forget what is and isn’t visible to the naked eye as an astronomical matter.’ This isn’t a Luddite rejection of astronomy to be clear, the high scholar is not rejecting astronomy, he is merely indifferent to the declaration of a new moon astronomically. In other words, he’s just saying by Islamic standards it isn’t called a new moon even if it meets some scientific definition he isn’t interested in. He wants to say the same thing for “in the same horizon”.
The problem is, he can’t do that logically and sensibly, it HAS to be the astronomical charts, it HAS to be science that gives you the answer of where one may assume a moon might be seen. Because if the question is whether or not it is possible to see the moon in place X if seen in place Y, or whether it is reasonable so to conclude, you are necessarily asking an empirical question, and it can only be answered scientifically, by an astronomy chart. There is no other way to answer it. You can answer “is there a new moon” one way by astronomical standards and one way by religious standards depending on what you mean by new moon. (i.e visible with telescope? By naked eye? By naked eye if you located it first on telescope? Etc.) But “visible in place X if it should have been visible in place Y” is purely empirical, you just need to measure, and those who do will tell you it depends month to month.
Unless you want to use an astronomical chart, you aren’t asking an answerable question when you are asking if two places ‘share a horizon’. And we know they don’t want to use the astronomical chart, the results are preposterous. “This year, Tallahassee and Miami celebrate different Eids.” Can you imagine? So what happens?
So far as I can tell, they just sort of make it up. Najaf and Bahrain are in the same horizon, Sistani declares. So are Teheran and Mashad. It really doesn’t mean anything other than “kinda close together”. And because you couldn’t have a conversation with a religious office in Shi’ism on this, it never gets properly fleshed out beyond this. To do that, you’d have to push the questions, and you can’t. (“Hold on, Sayyid, why are these two in the same horizon? They are 1000 km apart. Three of the last fiv
e times it was scientifically impossible to see the moon in Bahrain if in Najaf. What’s the standard? Then let’s apply it to Mashhad and see if you’re being consistent. Etc. Etc.) No jurist in the world will tolerate that type of perfectly legitimate intellectual argument, so they can get lazy in their thinking. And I’m sorry, but “same horizon” is lazy thinking, if it’s not please defend it substantively, and prove ME wrong. Not through creative insult, but through superior analysis. I will devour the leek with relish if you manage it.
One last wrinkle, since we in the US cannot be in the same horizon as Najaf whatever it means, does this mean when they can see the moon and we cannot, that Sistani breaks his fast but we don’t? Heaven forfend! Of course not! But why not, if he won’t break it if Brazil sees the moon, then why on earth should Brazil break it if he does, if the point is some horizon sharing theory? Ah, because Brazil is to the West. For more, here’s a quote
“If the new moon is sighted in the east, it also applies to the west, as
long as the latitude of the two locations are not greatly apart. If the new moon is sighted in the west, it does not
apply to the east, unless it is demonstrated . . . .”
Forget the “demonstrated” part for our purposes, I cut the sentence off unnaturally because I wasn’t focused on it. But the point is, East rules over West. Maybe because the sun rises earlier the further east you go is the idea?
Now this is absolutely, positively unsustainable. Or perhaps better stated you need an international date line to have it make sense so you’re more or less admitting you aren’t purely interpreting religious text. To develop this rule, you have to use modern colonial era notions of west and east just as much as you do sacred text or it’s entirely meaningless. Why? Because in the time of the Prophet and the Imams until the Occultation, to ask which city was east of which one on a global scale would have been absurd even if they didn’t see it as such. Every city is west, and east, of every other one. The earth is round, whether they knew it or not. Head west from DC and you’ll hit my town of Pittsburgh in about four hours. Or head east, cross the Atlantic, go across Europe and Asia, then the Pacific, then most of the continental US, and you’ll get to Pittsburgh as well. Take you longer, but you get there.
No no you academic nitwit, you say. One is closer, you go by that, that’s all he means, everyone describes Pittsburgh as west of DC. Yes but they aren’t thinking globally, if they did, that analysis would in certain places be impossible, and wrong. Hawaii, closer to Japan going west or east? Answer is east of course. Four hour flight east from Tokyo gets you to Hawaii, go west and you cross Russia, then Europe, then the Atlantic, then the US, etc. So the “closer” theory, means Japan, being west of Hawaii, follows Hawaii, if Hawaii sees the moon, it’s the new month the same day in Japan. Know what time they’ll see the new moon on Hawaii? 7 pm on, let’s invent a date, August 17. Know what time that is in Japan. 2 pm on August 18. Anyone want to tell me how the Japanese are supposed to do that? You see the new moon, it’s the religious holiday, so you can’t fast, but these folks have been fasting half the day, and they’ve missed the prayer time, it does not work.
No no, the only way to make east and west make sense over a round place is to declare a starting point, the World’s Starting Point, and say that at high noon at this World’s Starting Point on Day Zero the clock and time zones are defined. You go east from there, you advance the clock all the way to midnight on the opposite side of the globe. You go west, from there, you reverse the clock all the way to midnight on that same opposite side of the globe. That makes the opposite side of the globe from the World’s Starting Point the date line, the place where one day jumps to another to make it all work out. And that date line, across from the World’s Starting Point is where East and West have to start, you can’t cross the date line and claim to be going west, (that’s why Japan is not west of Hawaii for time purposes and sighting purposes, it’s ahead in time, because on the other side of the date line. Same for Alaska and New Zealand, or even Alaska and Siberia which are so close you can see Russia from Sarah Palin’s doorstep. In each case, you cannot regard the one as “east” of the other for purposes of this rule because of the date line).
And there’s only one World’s Starting Point baby–Greenwich England. So that’s what Sistani is saying. If you are east of the international date line running opposite Greenwich, you lead. Everyone else follow. Because the Prophet said? No, because the bloody ENGLISH said. That’s the only way to make sense of the rule. The only way to make the definitions of East and West work.
Now wait, you might say, why can’t Sistani mean that the starting point is Mecca, or Najaf, or whatever, rather than the date line? Then he wouldn’t be following the English. Simple answer–because it won’t work. If you start in Najaf and say “this is the starting point for what is east, so everyone follows us, and those to the West, look to those to the East and follow them”, more or less declare Greenwich replaced by some Islamic place, then the Hawaii-Japan problem happens again, because you don’t cross the date line at that point anymore, and you have to cross the date line at that point, or there is no sensible way to make the rule work so long as the world isn’t following your watch but the international standard set by the English, as we’ve seen above.
One final riposte might come in. No, no, no, it is argued, you took a quote from Sistani about a Code of Practice for Muslims Living in the West. He’s merely saying America follows Najaf, he’s not saying each point west follows each point east. First, that’s not true if you see the rest of the quote, but more importantly, assuming it is, it STILL assumes the date line precisely where it is, or the rule does NOT work. Had the English thrown the date line in the middle of the Atlantic, then the dawn of any given day wouldn’t break in New Zealand first, followed by Australia and Japan, and so forth. No, the dawn of any given day would break in NEW YORK first (really Quebec, but anyway), and Najaf wouldn’t be 7-8 hours ahead of us, it would be 16-17 hours BEHIND us. And again, we could not, possibly, in that case, follow Najaf. They’d say they saw the moon Monday at 7 pm and for us it would already be Tuesday at 11 am, too late to pray, having already started fasting. It’s based on the dateline, the rule is developed from the English, not the Prophet, or at least has to claim both as sources for its delineation.
But of course you cannot have an intelligent conversation about postcolonial influences on Sayyid Sistani either. It’s very difficult to have any sort of thoroughly reasoned conversations about these topics at all. You’re supposed to just obey. Not a surprise so much shoddy reasoning comes out from such smart people when anti-intellectual notions like that prevail.