Good things can happen when religious authorities work with science and technology

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2005/04/27 01:20 -04:00, original URI:

The Hijri calendar is not really subject to an easy alogorithm. As Dr. International pointed out back in August of 2000:

Perhaps Dr. International should provide some background to help explain why SQL Server refers to this as an Arabic style date that uses the Kuwaiti algorithm. The Hijri calendar is a very old and complex calendar, which has an issue when it comes to automating conversion between Gregorian and Hijri: there are specific days that the conversion can potentially be off by a day or two in either direction. The exact reason for this has to do with the proclamation of the new moon by religious authorities based on visibility of lunar crescent. Therefore, the natural temptation of programmers to want to automate everything must be resisted in this case. The Hijri calendar is very important to Saudi Arabia and other countries such as Kuwait, and thus this seemingly unsolveable problem must be solved.

In an effort to solve this challenging problem, several years ago some of the top developers in Microsoft's Middle East Products Divison (MEPD) did extensive research into it. They had the longest timeline of information on the Hijri calendar as is used in Kuwait, and they took this information and did statistical analysis on it, finally arriving at the most accurate algorithm they could devise. This algorithm is used in many Microsoft products, including all operating systems that support Arabic locales, Microsoft Office, COM, Visual Basic, VBA, and SQL Server 2000. Whether you refer to this as the Hijri date, the Arabic style, or the Kuwaiti algorithm, you should understand that it is technically none of these things; it is simply the most accurate algorithm that Microsoft was able to derive using a large number of known Hijri dates. The actual determination of the new moon by religious authorities does not bow to a computer algorithm (nor should it, obviously!).

Now, I am not even going to imply that what I am about to say were due to direct help from Microsoft, and I have no knowledge that suggests otherwise.

But earlier today, colleague Shawn Steele pointed me (and others) at an article entitled Satellite will help set Islamic dates which describes a fairly cool development, in my opinion:

The Organization of the Islamic Conference, the world's largest Muslim body, said Sunday it plans to launch an $8 million satellite within two years to take pictures of the moon to find lunar calendar dates.

The 57-nation group said religious scholars would have access to accurate pictures of the shape of the moon instead of having to rely on naked-eye sightings, which have in the past created discrepancies between Muslim countries or led to mistakes.

"Hopefully the satellite will stop the problems associated with lunar sightings," spokesman Ahmed Imigene said.

It is ironic that the sort of problem that I would struggle with for the technical reason of wanting a purely algorithmic solution is one that bothers some religious authorities as well (many of whom are for obvious reasons not wanting to see even unintentional, innocent mistakes made). I think it is amazingly cool that that there are people whoare interested in leveraging technology to better aid the intent of the rules used by the religion.

There are understandably some who are unhappy with the plan, as the article goes on to state:

It was not immediately clear how many countries will use the technology to determine religious dates. There is already some criticism from religious officials in Saudi Arabia, which uses the lunar calendar.

"The shape of the moon has to be seen from the ground," said Osama al-Bar, dean of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Institute for Haj Research in Saudi Arabia.

Now I realize that this hope has all of the problems that the issue of instant replay versus umpire/referee calls in sports has had, with the additional burden of being a LOT more meaningful, if you know what I mean. Knowing how bitter the battles got about the instant replay issue, I can only imagine how many problems this may cause for people who truly believe there is something wrong with the plan.

The real problem (in my opinion) is that the original intent is not completely known. Even if the motivation for rules was known and the rules were made since they were the best at the time, then at this point there is still no way to know if those who made the rules would accept such an innovation or not. Thus it could be easily considered either pious or heretical, depending on how you look at it. And one would be hard pressed to argue the point either way, since it is a legitmate religious question.

My hope for this development, to help break the stalemate, is that eventually a careful combination of the techniques is used, to help assist the religious authorities. Every effort would be made to try and spot the shape of the moon, but the appropriate authorities would ideally have access to the data from the sattelite as an additional data point to assist them.

The issue actually reminds me of an issue in Judaism, interestingly enough. It has to do with the laws about Kashrut (כשרות). Kashrut (means "keeping kosher") are the Jewish dietary laws. Food that is allowed to be eaten is kosher (כשר), and food that is not is treif (טרפה). The rules I am referring to are the ones related to the method by which animals must be slaughtered for them to be able to be considered kosher. Described in this article:

Kosher Slaughter and Preparation

Jewish law states that kosher mammals and birds must be slaughtered according to a strict set of guidelines, the slaughter (shechita) (שחיטה) being designed to minimize the pain inflicted. This necessarily eliminates the practice of hunting wild game for food, unless it can be captured alive and ritually slaughtered.

A professional slaughterer, or shochet (שוחט), using a large razor-sharp knife with absolutely no irregularities, nicks or dents, makes a single cut across the throat to a precise depth, severing both carotid arteries, both jugular veins, both Vagus nerves, the trachea and the esophagus, no higher than the epiglottis and no lower than where cilia begin inside the trachea, causing instantaneous loss of blood flow to the brain and death in a few seconds. Any variation from this exact procedure could cause unnecessary suffering; therefore, if the knife catches even for a split second or is found afterward to have developed any irregularities, or the depth of cut is too deep or shallow, the carcass is not kosher (nevelah) and is sold as regular meat to the general public. The shochet must be not only rigorously trained in this procedure, but also a pious Jew of good character who observes the Sabbath, and who remains cognizant that these are God's creatures who are sacrificing their lives for the good of himself and his community and should not be allowed to suffer. In smaller communities, the shochet is often the town rabbi or the rabbi of one of the local synagogues; large factories which produce Kosher meat have professional full time shochets on staff.

Once killed, the animal is opened to determine whether there are any of seventy different irregularities or growths on its internal organs, which would render the animal non-kosher. The term "Glatt" kosher, although it is often used colloquially to mean "strictly kosher", properly refers to meat where the glatt (גלת) (lungs) are carefully examined for adhesions (i.e. scars from previous inflammation).

Large blood vessels must be removed, and all blood must be removed from the meat, as Jewish law prohibits the consumption of the blood of any animal. This is most commonly done by soaking and salting, but also can be done by broiling. An interesting fact, little-known outside of Jewish communities, is that the hindquarters of a mammal are not kosher unless the sciatic nerve and the fat surrounding it are removed (Genesis 32:33). This is a very time-consuming process demanding a great deal of special training, and is rarely done outside Israel, where there is a greater demand for kosher meat, since all meat sold in Jewish towns is required to be kosher by law. When it is not done, the hindquarters of the animal are sold for non-kosher meat.

Now I will be the first to admit that at the time these rules were codified, they were state of the art in the most humane method of slaughter that was really possible. However, I sincerely doubt that it is the most humane possible method today, given all of the technologies that exist. But there is no way to know if the original rules were only to do with picking humane methods (the first time I read about this explanation was a book by Samuel Dresner, a rabbi who freely admitted that he was speculating -- though he did have an awful lot of evidence in his speculation). So the real question is whether technological changes in the shochet's techniques should be allowed?

I am sure that if such a change were made, that some orthodox jews would refuse to accept them. The whole system of kashruth would changed as some would not accept the "Kosher" marks that others would (a minor issue today that would become much more significant).

So how to decide when technology should be used to help further tradition, and when it should just butt out? The intents of both sides of these kinds of debates are mostly just trying to help. And often they are all very pious people trying to do the best thing. But how can one know when one is doing the best thing?


This post brought to you by "؍" and "✡" (U+060d a.k.a. ARABIC DATE SEPARATOR, and U+2721 a.k.a. STAR OF DAVID)

# Jonathan on 27 Apr 2005 1:33 AM:

First, glat is spelled גלאט, not גלת (at least nowadays).

There are many more such examples in Jewish religion. For example, religion states that every 7th year is shnat shmita (שנת שמיטה), and no jewish person is allowed to grow anything during the year. This was clearly instated to prevent ground depletion by overfarming, and was indeed state-of-the-art at the time. Today we have technological means for this, but the law stands, and in Israel we do a bunch of shenanigans around it (like selling the land to some gentile, and buying it back afterwards).

And don't get me started on state laws about keeping kosher...

# Michael S. Kaplan on 27 Apr 2005 2:31 AM:

Hi Jonathan -- you noticed that I was quoting there, right? :-)

Yes, there are countless examples. I was just making sure to point out that

(a) I was not picking on anyone, and that

(b) there are legitimate reasons for it not to be a "no-brainer" to change the way things work just because there is a new gadget or whatever, and that

(c) I personally do not consider either side oef the debate to be wrong when it is between people who have the beliefs (people who do not have the beliefs often bring a bias with them which can cause them to be wrong, but thats another story!).

# Alsheron on 27 Apr 2005 5:19 AM:

The original blog entry is interesting and very well written. The most recent entry (before this one) is problematic. The term "some gentile" smacks of arrogance, contempt, and ridicule, and I advise against using such loosely worded terminology.

# Michael S. Kaplan on 27 Apr 2005 6:13 AM:

Alsheron -- that was not me, that was Jonathan!

Tanveer Badar on 20 Dec 2007 11:02 AM:

Michael, one shouldn't be talking about things one must not meddle into.

The statement, <i>"The shape of the moon has to be seen from the ground," said Osama al-Bar, dean of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Institute for Haj Research in Saudi Arabia.</i> <strong>is the Islamic law</strong>, no matter what others say or how much technological advances human race makes.

I wonder why I am explaining it to you but moon must be sighted from ground/earth, not even an air-craft let alone a satellite. Failure to follow the law can result in moon being sighted on 28th day of the month which is totally absurd.

Michael S. Kaplan on 20 Dec 2007 11:44 AM:

I am quoting religious men here, in both cases. Not sure what the problem is with having an opinion?

Tanveer Badar on 28 Dec 2007 6:45 PM:

One can have free opinion, but there are idiots out there who will seek information to best fit their needs even if it contradicts others' opinions.

referenced by

2010/10/22 I Triple Adar you!

2006/09/18 More on changes to the Hijri calendar?

2006/04/14 Long term planning is not always done

2006/01/13 Some date conversions are evil in other ways

2005/09/28 Using Hijri dates in SQL Server

2005/09/08 Where was I this last weekend?

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