Hilal Committee Locations in Saudi Arabia - A first-hand report by Qamar Uddin, York (UK)
There is a widespread misconception that Saudi Arabia never does any moon sighting and simply follow their pre-calculated civil calendar (Ummul Qura) for all months, including the “months of Ibadah”, too.
So, when the Saudi Supreme Court announced on Tuesday 10th August 2021 that the start of Muharram 1443 will be from that day (10th) and not from the day before (9th) as in their Ummul Qura Calendar (UQC), it became a surprise to many people and a source of confusion!
I have been closely following their moon sighting procedure for the past 22 years (since I joined ICOP in 1998) and I know for a fact that they started a monthly moon sighting research project from 2009 on the 29th of the UQC, which is accompanied by both KACST astronomers and their local court Judges. I have personally accompanied many of the Hilal Committees for moon sightings when I was living in Saudi Arabia (2013 - 2015).
The Saudi Hilal Committee Locations are shown in the attached map (2021), which has 10 sighting locations (i.e. Dammam, Hail, Madinah, Makkah, Qasim, Riyadh, Shaqra, Sudair, Tabuk, Tumair). These locations are also used by the KACST astronomers on the next day of the 29th UQC date for data collections (without the court Judges, as they only attend on 29th UQC dates). The analysis of their past sighting reports has been published in The Observatory journal (Alrefay, 2018), which could form the basis of a revised UQC criteria, inshaAllah.
Unfortunately, none of the Hilal Committee astronomers have ever sighted the moon on the 29th UQC dates, but the news usually comes from a few places near Riyadh (Shaqra, Sudair, Tumair) from a few early-sighters, who are biased by their UQC to claim a sighting (Kordi, 2003).
Therefore, it is totally WRONG to say that Saudi Arabia does not do any moon sighting and simply follow their UQC for Ibadah, but it is CORRECT to say that the decisions/announcements made in the four “months of Ibadah” (i.e. Ramadan, Shawwal, Dhul Hijjah and Muharram) are based on moon sighting "claims” on the 29th of UQC, usually from Riyadh areas (or by invoking “30-days complete” rule).
The question arises, is it possible to predict the moon sighting dates for the “month of Ibadah” in Saudi Arabia? The answer is, "not really" as they do not follow any consistent method based on the BIRTH or the VISIBILITY of the moon, so it’s all as unpredictable as the British weather!
For example, last Dhul Hijjah 1442, they were looking for the moon on 9 July 2021 (1-day before it was born) and then invoked the “30-days complete” rule to start the month from 11 July 2021, even when the moon was not possible to be sighted in Riyadh on 10 July 2021 (HMNAO Code F).
However, when they were looking for the Muharram 1443 moon on 8 August 2021 (HMNAO Code F), they didn’t see it and the reason was attributed to a sand-storm (dusty) and heavy clouds in the Riyadh area (according to various media reports) and so they invoked the “30-days complete” rule to start the month from 10 August 2021, which by coincidence also matched with the actual moon sighting date on 9 August 2021, as seen in the UK and many other countries of the world (including Morocco). This is great news to start the Islamic New Year 1443 AH altogether in the UK (on 11 August 2021), Alhamdulillah!
In conclusion, Saudi Arabia does moon sightings in all 12 months of the year, but on the 29th UQC dates (which are mostly invisible) and only makes a decision for the four “months of Ibadah”. All other months are according to the UQC dates. All the official dates are also based on the UQC regardless of which month it is (Ibadah or not), so that may confuse the general public as they will not be aware of the “announced dates” unless they specifically look for the Supreme Court decision posts on their Saudi Press Agency website (www.spa.gov.sa)!
Finally, I should mention that we have developed a very good moon sighting volunteers' group in the UK and by looking for the moon on 2-days a month (29th and the next day) over the past few years, we have proven that it is possible to establish a Hijri Calendar purely based on LOCAL moon sighting, which is the ORIGINAL position of the Quran/Sunnah. All we need now is for wider community support to make it robust/reliable, InshaAllah. Many thanks to all the Scholars for encouraging local moon sightings (Kuraib Hadith), JazakAllahu Khaira!