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Controversy Regarding Fajr timing

Updated on July 24, 2012

Redefining Imsak (Sahure) in Terms of Twilight

Muslims throughout the world had been.praying Fajr in accordance with the long established sound principals of Shariah. Both Sahriah and prophetic hadiths are in favor of fasting from fajr to sunset, however, recently some mosques have adopted a new prayer timetable which has been compiled by scholars with the help of those who are considered experts in astronomical observations. They have calculated times of fajr based on the position of sun below the horizon in degrees, minutes and seconds and this new timetable indicates “Imsak (sahure) to be around ~ 2:30am (Winnipeg, MB) in July 2012 which seems to be early compared to subha-sadiq, causing controversy.

Obviously the main criteria in determining the fajr time should have been clear distinction of dawn (spread of uniform white light along horizon before sunrise). People had been following this method for centuries with no need to go into the nitty-gritty with respect to the position of sun below horizon. Hair-splitting discussions about latitude and degrees etc. are unnecessary and redundant as this may be the cause of polarization and division among us for a simple and practical approach in determining fajr.

Main question is how to determine fajr and not be misguided. Fajr (true dawn) basically means white light of morning that spread uniformly along the horizon, horizontally. Some time people may get confused with the morning light (false dawn-which appears like dawn but does not dissipate darkness & shoots vertically in the sky, not extending laterally. Hence it is necessary for us to understand what are false & true (al-fajr al-sadiq) downs.

During early Islamic era and till recently, the true fajr was determined with respect to the sunrise or observing the uniform spread of white light along the horizon, horizontally. Both scientific and astronomical knowledge can help us to predict about al-fajr, al-sadiq (true dawn) based on sun’s position below horizon relevant to latitude & that finding should synchronize with the basic definition. This can be established in differentiating various Twilights (fajr) periods.

Twilight is simply the time between dawn and sunrise or between sunset and dusk during which ambient sunlight scattering in the upper atmosphere illuminates the lower atmosphere and the surface of the earth in a way that it is neither completely lit nor completely dark. It is also defined in terms of solar elevation angle which is the position of the geometric center of the sun relative to the horizon. There are four kind of established twilights period during sun rise and sun set,

1. Solar Twilight

2. Civil twilight (brightest),

3. Nautical twilight

4. Astronomical twilight (darkest).

Both solar and civic twilight periods are from -6 to 0 degree of sun below horizon. Objects are clearly distinguishable without artificial light and hence can be disregarded as these two categories do not apply in our case of determining the true dawn.

Both Nautical and Astronomical twilight, are the periods that are application of us for determining the true fajr.

Nautical twilight

Nautical twilight is the time when the center of the sun is between -6° and -12° below the horizon. During nautical twilight, some stars are still visible and sailors can take reliable star sightings of well-known stars, using a visible horizon for reference. However, outlines of ground objects may be distinguishable but detailed outdoor operation are not possible and the horizon is indistinct.

For practical purposes, if the horizon is not distinct, then may be the distinct horizon could be possible at -12 to -15 degree period, falling in astronomical twilight region

Astronomical twilight

Astronomical twilight is the time when the center of the sun is between 12° and 18° below the horizon. From the beginning of astronomical twilight in the morning, the sky is dark enough for all astronomical observations.

Most casual observers would consider the entire sky fully dark even when astronomical twilight is just ending in the morning, and astronomers can easily make observations of point sources such as stars, but faint diffused items such as nebulae and galaxies can be properly observed only beyond the limit of astronomical twilight.

At this time the sky is no longer 100% dark, but considerably dark as less than -18 degree is regarded as ‘night’, and is not consider part of twilights.

Members of the Muslim World League’s fiqh council and committee of astronomers have come up to say that -18 degrees correspond to fajr and Muslims have adopted this to declare al-fajr at -18 degree. This puts imsak at around 2:58 am in Winnipeg (July 2012). That is the time when Muslims should stop eating in order to start fasting but it contradicts the basic definition of observing spread of while light across the horizon.

I don’t intend to oppose this decision of considering al-fajr at -18 degrees (or in some cases adopted -14 degree)but want to mention that at -18 or -14 degrees we still have darkness and there is no appreciable spread of white light across the horizon.

The current prayers timetable based on those principles indicate early “imsak” and “fajr”, say ~at 2:39 am (for Winnipeg). If one compares that with the definition of dawn and sunrise, it may be concluded that this time for Imsak is too early compared to real dawn which could be around 1 hr before sunrise. Those who have compiled the table and taken astronomical data may have over looked this issue and this is causing lots of unrest among some Muslims. Obvious reasons could be

1. Imsak time relevant to -18 degree represents a time that is too early and falls at the boarder of night and twilight. At that time there is no white light across the horizon and earth is dark which is quite contrary to observing white light across the horizon by naked eyes as advised by God and the prophet.

2. People are not accustomed to this early imsak & fajr.

3. There is no need to do hair splitting on this issue & insist for compliance at -18 degree position of sun below the horizon as it is too dark and does not agree with the basic criteria our elders have followed.

4. Some mosques and Muslims have resentment in accepting astronomical approach in determining the fajr at -18 or -15 degrees position of the sun. It does not look fajr but the time of Tahajud and prolong fasting time considerably.

5. The scholars and astronomical experts seem to have made pre-mature judgment in establishing Imsak at -18 degree compared to subha-sadiq which is totally different in concept and appearance.

What I fail to understand is the scientific prediction about determining Ramadan and Eid moon sighting and our opposition in adopting that. We Muslim have not yet adopted a scientific approach in establishing moon sighting and we are still divided on that issue. We often use information’s either from Saudia or other Islamic Countries to decide these events compared to the birth of moon as predicted scientifically in announcing dates well in advance to avoid confusions but contrary to that we have adopted astronomical twilight as the time for fajr when this does not tally with the basic observational requirements. It does not synchronize with the true dawn due to lack of white uniform light spreading across the horizon. It also adds hours of extra time in fasting- exerting extra hardship. Allah has said in Al-Baqarah 2:185, that he does not want to impose hardship on Muslims and make their life difficult.

Criterion for determining true dawn is the certainty of its arrival beyond reasonable doubt and proper way to ascertain this time is to see that the flow of down has wide spread in the sky in such a way that the whiteness and light has spread across the horizon.

It is obvious from the above discussions that, according to theSunnah, and understanding of the pious elders, fajris not determined by minutes, seconds, and degrees, but by sufficient position of sun under the horizon that justify ease, and flexibility. Hence, there is no need to argue and use astronomical or the nautical definition of dawn in fixing the time of fajr. Those who want to follow this method may use their prerogatives while those who want to use simple definition of fajr in terms to spread of white light may continue to follow that. If the Ramadan of our forefathers in Islam, would be accepted by God, then those following old definition of fajr, may also be on the safe side in complying with the commandment’s.

I personally think, the fajr (subha sadiq) should be when Sun is below -12 to -18 degree (before Nautical Twilight), say around -14 to -15 degrees, preferably at -14 degree, below horizon and not at -18 degree as being advocated by some circles. Since -19 degree is regarded as night, One can ask why we have picked up the demarcation line of -18 degree as fajr rather than giving reasonable time for Sun to move towards the horizon, spreading, white uniform light across the horizon. If all the Muslims agree to this -18 degree philosophy, then why there is a difference of close to I hr between the grand mosque and central mosque here in Winnipeg? It is an indicative of a clear cut division among us on this issue. Muslims should not be compelled to follow what few think is the right time of Imsak, rather than having a unanimous consensus of the general public, what they had been used to and what implication it would exert on public in terms of hardship.

I suggest that all parent Muslim Organizations should revisit this issue and re-decide rather than being confused and follow something that is irrational and out of phase with the God’s commandment and prophetic hadith.

Mohammad Ashraf

Winnipeg, MB

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