Chapter Two: The Cow (Al Baqara)
They ask you about crescent moons. Say, ‘They show the times appointed for people, and for the pilgrimage.’ Righteousness does not consist of entering houses from the back; the truly righteous is the one who is mindful of God. So enter your houses by their main doors and be mindful of God so that you may prosper. (Chapter 2: Verse 189)
Islam came to take people out of their entrenched corrupt habits and move them towards righteousness. Some of the widespread social injustices were hard to break because there were groups that greatly benefited and got rich from these practices. Injustice never lives long unless people continue to benefit from it.
Islam came to rescue people from corruption. However, God did not cast all actions of pagan Meccans as evil; rather there were practices which Islam kept and approved of. Allah, the all merciful, did not bring change for the sake of change, rather He changed those matters that were harmful and unjust, while keeping the practices that were just and beneficial. Take, for example, the norm in Arabia before Islam of paying a hundred camels as blood money to the family of a murder victim. Islam approved of this practice and kept it.
As Muslims saw the immense benefits of God’s teachings, they strived to build their lives on pure and Islamic teachings. Thus, they questioned each and every practice that was common at the time. They wanted to move from ignorance and entrenched social habits into deeds that were fair and that brought them closer to Allah. More importantly, they fell in love with God’s teachings and understood that God would not obligate them to anything unless it benefited them and the society as a whole. So, whenever you read the phrase “they ask you” in the Quran, you should know that the companions were questioning the prophet about social habits to ensure that they were in line with God’s teachings. Here are a few examples from the Quran. God says:
They ask you about intoxicants and gambling: say, ‘There is great sin in both, and some benefit for people: the sin is greater than the benefit.’ They ask you what they should give: say, ‘Give what you can spare.’ In this way, God makes His messages clear to you, so that you may re?ect (02:219)
And in another verse:
They ask you about menstruation. Say, ‘It is an impurity, so keep apart from women during menstruation and do not approach them until they have purified themselves. But once they have purified themselves, then be intimate with them in the way that Allah has enjoined on you.’ Allah loves those who turn back from wrongdoing, and He loves those who purify themselves. (02:222)
in verse 220, God says:
They ask you about orphans: say, ‘It is good to set things right for them. If you combine their affairs with yours, remember they are your brothers and sisters: God knows those who spoil things and those who improve them.
In another verse
They ask you what they should give. Say, ‘Whatever you give should be for parents, close relatives, orphans, the needy, and travellers. God is well aware of whatever good you do. (02:215)
And in another chapter:
They ask you about the spoils of war. Say: 'The spoils belong to God and the Messenger; so fear God, and set things right between you, and obey you God and His Messenger, if you are believers.' (08:01)
Take note that the questions asked by the companions were meant to build their lives on Islamic principles. This brings us back to the verse under study. The question the companions asked was about the waning moon. It is evident that they started to view the universe and the creation surrounding them from a religious view. The sun rises every day but does not change, while the moon appears to change every night. God says: They ask you about crescent moons. Say, ‘They show the times appointed for people, and for the pilgrimage.’
In the Arabic language, the crescent moon is called ‘Hilal’ which is derived from the root ‘Hal.’ It refers to the moment of happiness when you see a loved one coming from afar. Similarly, people rejoice and glorify God when they see the crescent moon of Ramadan and that of Eid alfitr signalling the end of fasting.
Here, God gives an answer that highlights the benefits of the moon. The ancient Arabs did not know much about the moon as a celestial object, but they used its changing shape to keep dates and months. Often, we enjoy all the benefits of God’s signs without having much knowledge about them. Humanity did not have proper knowledge of the moon as a satellite orbiting the earth until many centuries after the Quran was revealed. We did not explore the moon until the mid-twentieth century. Yet, despite this wealth of new knowledge and wonderful scientific discoveries, our benefit from the moon is still as it was for ancient humans. God Almighty wants to divert your attention towards an important principle. He teaches you not only to observe His creation, but also to benefit from it. Our benefit from the creation of the waning and waxing moon is to utilize it as a tool for measuring dates and time. The phrase that the crescents ‘show the times appointed for people’ summarizes that benefit.
The Arabs of the 14th century did not have any background knowledge about the workings of celestial objects. God’s answer to their question was in accordance to their understanding at the time and for the benefit of religious legislation. As for the rest of the answer, God left it to time and to the advancement of our scientific curiosity.
Through science and discovery, we now know how the lunar cycle works. Besides the sun, the moon is the most prominent object in the sky. It is bright and silvery with tantalizing features on its face. It has been the target of imagination and poetry. The moon is basically a giant dark ball of rock hanging in space. It looks bright to us as it reflects the sun’s light down to earth. Because it's a sphere orbiting the Earth, the illuminated shape we see changes with time. The important thing to remember is that through all of its phases, half of the moon is always illuminated by the Sun. The phase of the moon refers to what shape the moon appears to us and how much of its lit surface we can see from earth. If you're facing the Moon with the Sun behind you, you see the entire half of the moon that is fully illuminated and it looks like a full moon. If you're off to the side, you see half of the lit side and half of the dark side and we say the moon is half full. If the Sun is on the other side of the Moon, you're looking at the unlit half and it looks completely dark now. The only thing that is changing is your point of view. A new moon happens when the Sun, the Moon and the Earth are all more or less in a line. The moon is between the Earth and the Sun so from our perspective we only see the dark half. Because the moon is orbiting the Earth, after a couple of days it has moved a bit to the east. Now we look at it from a slight angle, and we can see a little bit of the illuminated half of the moon. The lit-unlit line appears curved around the moon so what we see is a thin bright crescent and so on.
The moon orbits the earth roughly once per month; in fact, that's where the word ‘month’ comes from. Month and Moon are cognate words that have similar entomological history, and in most languages, including English, the two terms are very similar.