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in category Fiqh (Jurisprudence)

Are local sightings permitted to determine the start of Ramadan?

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In a Nutshell:
Local sightings are based on the interpretation of something instructed by the Prophet (saw). The explicit ahadith that have reached us state it is sufficient to begin Ramadan and Eid on the testimony of one upright Muslim - some scholars have historically extended this to two.
The notion of local sightings is based on this narration - which is not a narration of the prophet, but an interpretation of what he had instructed:

Kuraib said, "Um Fadl sent me to Muawiyah in AI Sham. I accomplished the objective of my travel. Ramadan began whilst I was there and the moon was seen on Friday night.

At the end of the month I returned to Medinah where Abbas asked me "when did you see the moon?"

I answered, "Friday night."

Ibn Abbas asked further, "Did you see it with your eyes?"

I replied, "Yes and also the people saw it. Thus the people and Muawiyah fasted."

Ibn Abbas said, "But we saw it on Saturday night and will keep fasting until we finish the 30 days or see the moon."

I asked Ibn Abbas, "Don't we follow Muawiyah's sighting and fast?"

Ibn Abbas replied, "No, this is how Rasul Allah commanded us." (Muslim)
Imam Shawkani (RA) said, in reference to Ibn Abbas's statement:

"You should know that the acceptable evidence is in what Ibn Abbas reported explicitly from the Messenger (saw). It is not in his Ijtihad which people try to interpret" and to which he pointed by saying, "This is how Allah's messenger commanded us."
Many scholars discussed this statement of Ibn Abbas and concluded Muslims are asked to follow what the Prophet (saws) has said and not an understanding of what the Prophet (saws) said.

Abu Umayr Ibn Anas reported on the authority of some of his paternal uncles who were companions of the Prophet (saw) that some men came riding to the Prophet (saw) and testified that they had sighted the new moon on the previous day. He, therefore, commanded the people to break the fast and to their place of prayer in the morning. (Abu Dawud, 1153)

Abdullah ibn Abbas narrates a Bedouin came to the Prophet (saw) and said, "I have sighted the moon." (Al-Hasan added in his version: "that of Ramadan.") He asked, "Do you testify that there is no good but Allah?" He replied, "Yes." He again asked, "Do you testify that Muhammad is the Apostle of Allah?" He replied, "Yes." And he testified that he sighted the moon. He said, "Bilal, announce to the people that they must fast tomorrow." (Abu Dawud, 2333)

Ibn Abbas reported that the Muslims did not begin fasting since they did not see the moon. Then a man came from outside of Medinah and told the Prophet that he saw the moon. The Prophet asked him if he was a Muslim to which the man answered in the affirmative. The Prophet then said, "Allahu Akbar, one is enough for all Muslims." The Prophet fasted and asked the people to stop eating and start fasting (Al-Mabsut 3-52).
Despite this, some fatwas insist on different sightings without any justification and contradicting ahadith the Prophet (saws) enacted.

The council of the Saudi Arabia Ullema for instance issued the following ambivalent fatwa:

"Because of many considerations the council observed, and because of the differences in this issue, which has no significance in uniting all Muslims based on one sighting, the members of the council leave everything as is without reopening the subject again and leave to every Islamic State the right to choose what the state sees through its Ullema."

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