Understanding the natural phenomenon

The moon is the easiest celestial object to find in the night sky when it’s there. Earth’s only natural satellite hovers above us bright and round until it seemingly disappears for a few nights. When the Moon is in between the Earth and the Sun, the side of the Moon facing away from the Earth is fully illuminated, and the side we can see is shrouded in darkness.  At this point, the angle between the Moon and Sun is zero degrees. As the Moon orbits the Earth, the angle between the Moon and the Sun gradually increases over the next two weeks. This is what astronomers call a waxing moon. After the first week, the angle between the Moon and the Sun is 90-degrees and continues to increase to 180-degrees when the Sun and Moon are on opposite sides of the Earth. Then the Moon starts to decrease its angle again, going from 180-degrees back down to zero-degrees, and the astronomers call it a waning moon. The Moon ‘waxes’ during the phase from New Moon to Full Moon i.e the illuminated area increases in size every day. Similarly, the Moon ‘wanes’ during the phase between the Full Moon and the next New Moon and every night the illuminated area becomes smaller. The moon’s phases always look the same, so although the moon itself may appear in different locations and orientations in the sky, we are always able to identify what phase it is in.

As an aid to memory, if one can draw a ‘P’ with an imaginary stroke and the luminous crescent, the Moon is waxing, (P as premier in the meaning of increasing). When one can draw a ‘d’ then the Moon is waning, (d as decreasing). This is true for those living in the northern hemisphere of earth. In the southern hemisphere, it works the other way round as the image is reversed. When the Moon is waxing you can draw a ‘d’ and when it is waning, one can draw a ‘p’. People who live close to the equator see the moon lying on its side.

The rhythm of the moon’s phases has guided humanity for millennia for instance, calendar months are roughly equal to the time it takes to go from one full moon to the next. In ancient times, the phases of the moon were an easy means of measuring the passage of time. The first calendars were therefore lunar calendars. Ancient civilizations such as the Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians and the Chinese used the lunar calendar. Consequently, the Semitic culture also adopted this calendar which includes Judaism and Islam, with the exception of Christianity using the solar calendar due to pagan Hellenistic influences from the Greco-Roman culture.  Although the crescent is indeed a very widespread motif in Islamic iconography, it is not Islamic in origin or exclusive to this religion. The emblem has been used in Christian art for many centuries in depictions of the Virgin Mary. It is in fact one of the oldest icons in human history, having been known in graphic depictions since at least as early as the Babylonian period in Mesopotamia. The stele of Ur Namu, for example, dating from 2100 BC, includes the crescent moon, along with a star representing Shams, the sun.

The creation of a calendar is for the purpose of keeping time in perspective. Time is measured in relative terms, from sunrise to sunset; from the time the sun casts the shortest shadow to the same time the next day or from one harvest time to another. Similarly, the purpose of the crescent moon in Islam is to keep track of dates and months as Islam adopts and utilizes the lunar calendar. In light of this fact, Islam, therefore, uses the crescent symbol to represent the religion graphically. There is no logical reason to associate the lunar calendar of Islam with moon worship. The Quran also emphasizes that the moon is a sign of God and not itself a god.

The crescent moon, known as hilal defines the start and end of Islamic months as it did for the Babylonian calendar.  Moreover, the need to determine the precise time of the appearance of the hilal was one of the inducements for Muslim scholars to study astronomy.  The Hijra calendar isn’t just a sentimental system of time reckoning for Muslims; rather, it has a deep scientific significance besides religious and historical. Moon has many scientific influences on our daily lives in the areas of psychology, physiology, and the environment. Some scientists suggest that the effects of the lunar cycle are evident in numerous life forms. Sea creatures show a high lunar sensitivity. For example, shellfish renew their shells, and undergo regeneration and sexual activity in accordance with the lunar tidal cycle. Guppy-fish have color sensitivity on their back that is most responsive during the full moon. The golden hamster displays lunar rhythms in activity, and urinary volume and acidity. Oysters open their shells at high tide. Shrimpers flock to a full moon, at which time they predictably rise to the surface to feed. Similarly, the movement of the moon affects the rising and falling of the tides. Although the sun is much bigger than the moon, the moon is much closer to earth. Hence, lunar pull is greater. Crops planted while water is rising during the waxing moon can more easily absorb water than those sown in the waning phase. Therefore, we plant crops that thrive in dry conditions during the waning phase of the moon.

Above all, the moon is a loyal companion. It’s always there, watching and steadfast. Every day it’s a different version of itself. Sometimes weak and waning, sometimes strong and full of light.

Human history too is cyclical in nature, waxing and waning like the moon though its cycle is hidden at times, but always reemerging to full blossom.