A matter of principle
Islam agrees with the natural phenomena of the world. We expect its legal findings to be agreeing with laws of nature. In principle, all the nations are addressed in view of the affairs of their own geographical position. When it is commanded to offer prayer after sun-set it means the sun-set of that Area. If someone in Munich [Germany] communicates the report of sun-set to his friend in Glasgow [UK] where the sun has not yet set the Muslims of Glasgow would not be allowed to offer their Maghrib prayer if the sun is shining there. The people of every zone shall have to adjust their prayers with the sun-rise and sun-set of their own zones. The saying of the Prophet (ﷺ) that "do keep fast when you sight the moon and end this fasting (month) when you sight the moon" should also be interpreted in the light of this principle that every nation is addressed in view of the affairs of their own zones and the difference in rising-times should be taken into account when determining the first of Ramadan. It is not right to decide for the people of the West by sighting the moon in the East.
We accept that the areas of the same or near latitude may communicate the fact of their sighting and decision to one another. The zones whose rising-times are not so much different from those of one another can help one another in this respect but it is hard to decide for New York [USA] when the moon has been sighted in Calcutta [India]; because every nation is addressed in view of the affairs of its own conditions.
The jurists state in Hajj discussion that the days of animal sacrifices for those people who are not on Hajj are 10th, 11th and 12th of Dhu al-Hajj of their own zones. When it is the 13th of Dhu al-Hajj in Mecca and it is not the day of animal sacrifice there it is the day of sacrifice for all those for whom it is the 12th of Dhu al-Hajj. In Islamic instructions, there is no evidence that Eid al-Adha in all the world should necessarily be celebrated on the next of the 9th Dhu al-Hajj at Arafat [Mecca]. It is true that at Arafat the 10th of Dhu al-Hajj is necessarily the next day of Hajj but it is not necessary that the 10th of Dhu al-Hajj at Arafat should everywhere be accepted as the 10th of Dhu al-Hajj everywhere else as well. Eid al-Adha in far countries shall be celebrated on the 10th of Dhu al-Hajj of their respective areas.
We further admit that there is some provision in all the four schools of jurisprudence that different rising-times may not be taken into account in fixing the first of Ramadan and the day of Eid but as regards the founder Imams of these four schools most of them take these differences in rising times into account and do not impose the decision of one country on the other. Abu Hanifah [d.150 A.H.], the Imam, does not take these different rising-times into account and allows one country to decide in accordance with the visibility and decision of the other; and this is the most authentic finding of the Hanafi school. But we should like to restrict this verdict of the Hanafi school to the distance which could be covered in the conditions and means of communication in those days. The eminent Hanafi jurists like al-Kasani (the author of Al-Bada’i wa al-sana’i) and al-Zayla’i (the commentator of Kanz al-Daqa’iq) do not regard that opinion of Abu Hanifah as general as to apply to East and West but restrict that opinion of Abu Hanifah only to the countries which are not far apart. This is really the longest possible distance, which could be covered in those days by available means of communication, to enable one area to take the decision in accordance with that of the other.
In these days travel facilities, telephone, radio and television have united East and West and a message from far East can easily be communicated to the West in a matter of seconds. Is it admissible to adjust that opinion of Abu Hanifah (which was given in the second century of Hijrah) to the current means of communication available in this century? Would it be right not to take into account differences in the rising-times of the different parts of the world and decide for New York by the visibility of the moon in Calcutta? Did Abu Hanifah mean by that opinion of his to cover such long distances?
It should be noted here that the jurists who take the view of non-considering the difference in rising-times so general as to unite East and West is their own explanation of Abu Hanifah's statement; otherwise, Abu Hanifah is not so explicit in his non-consideration of different rising-times.
The basic difference between the verdict of the Prophet (ﷺ) and the decisions of the jurists
The decisions of the jurists which are mostly based on analogy should be explained in the light of the conditions prevailing at that time. They had taken those decisions in the currents of that time with that background. The geographical application of the general sense of their verdicts had its limitations because of comparatively poor travel facilities in those times. They were not endowed with Divine light which could enable them to foresee the 'impossible' of their times changing into 'possible' a few centuries later. But the Prophets (AS) speak not from their experience and conditions of their own time but by virtue of Divine light which is connected with Allah’s guidance and protection.
The extension of the general sense of the instructions of the Prophet (ﷺ) and the application of analogy on the basis of their guide-lines are the streams of Religious knowledge. But the same status cannot be given to the conclusions of the later jurists if they argue by the general sense of the early theorists who had given their opinions in the light of their experience and humanly acquired knowledge. Their decisions were necessarily governed by the conditions of their own times.
Abu Hanifah has not taken the different rising-times into account but this outlook is explainable if we consider the conditions at that time. This is the reason why most of the late Hanafi scholars like Shah Wali Allah, Anwar Shah the ex-Principal of Deoband School and Allamah Uthmani, Shaykh al-Islam of Pakistan do not agree on the principle of the universal application of the general sense of Abu Hanifah's verdict to both East and West. In India and Pakistan, the scholars of Hanafi school of thought do take into account the different rising-times between places separated by long distances.
We do not intend here to favour or oppose any side of the issue but want to give an introduction to these two opinions of the jurists so that the Muslims in Britain may understand for themselves, what principles are followed in deciding commencement of Ramadan and celebration of Eid on different dates. It is a fact that both the opinions have some evidence in their favour and it is also a fact that both opinions are based on analogy and jurisprudence. There is no clear-cut verdict in the Qur'an and the Sunnah of the Prophet (ﷺ) on this issue. There are jurists on both sides. If one side of the issue has been taken as accepted in one age it does not mean that it was explicit, certain and definite in its implication in Muslim Law; especially when streams of law have different flows in different times and different places. The accepted opinion (in its time of acceptance) is an opinion which has been given preference and not a definite verdict of law.