Ever since the Lawgiver (Shaari'e) prescribed fasting, the method and the process of ascertaining the knowledge about the starting and the ending time of fasting has been to physically sight (Ru'eyah), the new crescent moon (hilal) of Ramadan. Thus, when the birth of the new moon, of the month of Ramadan, is ascertained, the fast begins. The fast ends with the birth of the Hilal of the tenth month, Shawwal. In the event that clouds, smog, or fog block the sky, preventing eye sighting of the hilal, we compute the days of the month. If after, or on the evening of, the twenty-ninth day of Sha'aban, we are unable to sight the hilal of Ramadan, due to cloudiness or obstruction in the sky, we will complete Sha'aban thirty days, and the fast begins the next morning. Similarly, if after the 29th of Ramadan, we are unable to sight the hilal of Shawwal due to cloudiness or obstruction, we complete Ramadan for 30 days. The next day becomes 'Eidul Fitr, the Festival of Fast-Breaking.
Thus, the question of ascertaining the birth of the new Hilal crescent before commencing and ending the fast is born out in this verse, where Allah, the Almighty, says: "Whoever is present during the month should spend it in fasting..." (Al-Qur'an 2:185)
Most translators of Al-Qur'an interpreted the key word in this verse, shahida, to mean 'to be present so as to exclude the traveler, for he does not have to fast. That is very interesting because, if shahada is general, al-'aam, there should be more than one case to exclude; for, we would have to exclude the sick, minors, the insane, as well as the traveler. All these categories will be present, but yet fasting will not be mandatory for some of them.
The word shahida should be translated as "whoever witnesses or gives testimony." This will leave the verse's general meaning intact, then exclude from it whoever deserves to be excluded.
The verse (aayat) is a conditional clause based on the condition of ascertaining the hilal, with fasting as the result. That is to say, if there is no witness, there is no fasting. The word month is shahr. Linguistically it means crescent; so it indicates whoever witnesses any part of the crescent should observe the entire month in fasting.
This is the ruling of the most recognized Muslim scholars of Tafseer, Hadith, and Fiqh. The basis for this ruling is derived from several ahadith, which are overwhelmingly reported (Tawatur).
Ibn Umar (RAA) reported, "During the time of the Prophet (saas), the companions went looking for the new crescent. So I told the Prophet (saas) that I saw it. So he fasted and told the companions to fast." (Abu Dawud / Hakim)
This hadith indicates the process of hilal testimony, the believers should go out and ascertain the new hilal. It indicates also when and how. As for when, that has been explained, but I would like to add the legal sighting time begins on the 29th of the month, because unlike the Gregorian calendar, where the days of the month are fixed, in the lunar calendar (Hijrah) they are not. For instance, Sha'aban this year maybe 29 days; next year it may be 30.
As for the process of testimony (shahidah), it should commence soon before sunset or soon after, while there is still some light in the sky, for the Hilal does not remain on the horizon very long.
How does one ascertain the Hilal? The testimony of hilal can be achieved by (a) direct sighting, where you see it yourself, or (b) indirect sighting, where someone sees it, and you rely on his sighting.
If an individual who is reliable, upright, and trustworthy ('adl) witnesses the hilal, it becomes incumbent upon him to fast. If he informs others about his testimony, according to the majority of the scholars, it becomes incumbent upon them to fast. This is the ruling that enjoys support in hadith.
The hadith poses a Fiqh question. That is: the testimony of how many people would be enough? The minimum, according to the hadith is one person who is 'Adl. The Messenger of Allah (saas) fasted and commanded the believers to do likewise, depending solely on the testimony of one person, Abdullah bin 'Umar. This is the opinion of the majority of the scholars, which is near consensus. However, in the case of sighting the hilal of Shawwal to end Ramadan, some said the minimum is two or more.
This leads to disagreement among the scholars who debate whether the testimony of one individual is valid to break Ramadan. Some said because this is the end of Ramadan, there should be two witnesses instead of one. But the problem with this opinion is that there is no proof to substantiate it and, hence, no base for it. In the absence of proof (dalil), it remains that one person's witness is enough to end the fasting.
Abu Hurairah (RAA) related the Messenger of Allah (saas) said: "Fast by sighting the (new) hilal and break your fast by sighting. If there is a cloud, complete the counting of Sha'aban 30 days." (Bukhari and Muslim)
The hadith of Ibn 'Umar (RAA) is a hadith of action (fi'el), how the Prophet (saas) acted, that is, a physical search of the edges of the horizon to ascertain the testimony. The hadith of Abu Hurairah is the hadith of saying, (qawl). Thus, both commands by action and commands by verbal expression are employed to instruct the believers about the process of sighting hilal. This should have made the case for starting and ending Ramadan. But that is not the case. There is always a dispute among believers.
One age-old controversy is whether we should go by the order of the Lawgiver or should we depend on calculations. The truth of the matter is that there are two opinions, one the majority and the other the minority opinion. The latter has no proof whatsoever to substantiate their opinion except one word in the other version of the hadith. The Prophet (saas) said: faqdiru, meaning if it is cloudy, measure or estimate it. The minority opinion says this is proof that calculations can be used. The majority say the word faqdiru is ambiguous. It has been explained in a hadith narrated by Abu Hurairah, which states, "fa ak milu al-`edah", complete the account. They added, "if the Lawgiver (Shaari'e) wanted us to use calculation, He would have just forgotten about the original ordinance regarding sighting before fasting and sighting before ending. In the Tafseer of Al-Qurtabi, Ibn Nafi'e (ra) reported that Imam Malik bin Anas (ra) said: "If you see an Imam who does not begin and end fasting by way of the sighting, but begins fasting by calculation, he should not be followed in prayer or emulated." The renowned scholar Ibn Al'Arabi said, "Some of our people erred when they reported that Imam Shaf'e relied on calculations." Ibn Al-'Arabi commented, "The report is baseless and falsehood." (Al-Qurtabi)