When Does Fajr Begin?

Muslims here in the UK are facing an issue that seems to have no apparent solution. Every year during Ramadan people are dumbfounded and confused by the discrepancies between multiple timetables published by the mosques and organisations in the UK. One community is enjoying their Suhoor while a nearby second has already prayed their Fajr Salah which had started as early as 01:15am. What are our Imams doing?

There are multiple factors here that have contributed to the vast time differences for Fajr between mosques in the UK. This article will intend to shed some light upon why we are facing an issue that should have been set in stone as it concerns one of the five fundamental pillars of Islam.

But why not just follow the local Mosque?

There are many amongst the community that will brush this issue aside, saying ‘this is not our problem, we just follow the Masjid’. The reality is that this approach is wrong, as Allah Almighty has given us the ability to think and has made each and every individual responsible.

Seeking the [obligatory] religious knowledge is an obligation upon every Muslim.

The explanation given to this Hadith is that if Salah or Saum (fasting) are obligatory upon you, then the Masaa’il relating to Salah and Saum are also obligatory. Amongst these Masaa’il is also the knowledge of the timings of Salah and Saum. If this principle is accepted, then it should be understood that research into the timings is also a responsibility of each and every individual on whom these modes of worship are obligatory.

The famous 18th century scholar Allamah Ibn Abideen Ash-Shaami writes in his Radd Al-Muhtar, which is considered to be the central reference text in the Hanafi Madh’hab:

It is Fardh for every person to understand the injunctions that apply to his everyday life to avoid falling into Haram.

It is with this purpose in mind, that this article has been written, and the literary proofs and arguments are summarised here to enable a comprehensive view as it can get very detailed. All of the issues represented here have been dealt with by the Ulama of old as well as by contemporary scholars.

The Persisting Twilight

The second factor that has been the largest contributor to the time discrepancies, is the time of the prayers during periods of Persisting Twilight. During this time, the prayer times of both Isha and Fajr are estimated.

Wait, what? Estimated-?

Yes, estimated.

Any single timetable computed during the summer solstice only, is actually estimated; Why?

The answer is a lot more complicated than it would be expected to be, and to understand and appreciate the complexity of the matter, one needs to first have a brief understanding of how prayer times are normally calculated. Only then, can the issue of the summer solstice be understood. So let us first see how the Fajr prayer is calculated during normal periods.

Prayer times in Islam

Allah Ta’ala says,

Surely, Salah is an obligation on the believers that is tied up with time. [4:103]

The start times of all prayers are directly related, or rather dependent on solar movements which the Qur’an says is a fixed phenomenon and has been attested to by astronomers throughout the ages.

The Sun and Moon follow courses (exactly) computed (by Allah). [55:5]

Allah Ta’ala further says in the Qur’an,

Perform Salah from mid-day till the darkness of the night (i.e. the Zuhr, Asr, Maghrib, and Isha’ prayers), and recite the Qur’an in the early dawn (i.e. in the morning Fajr prayer). Verily, the recitation of the Qur’an in the early dawn is ever witnessed. [17:78]

The Imams of our Ummah have interpreted this and other verses of the Qur’an that deal with prayer times, to a fixed visible phenomenon. The four prominent schools of the Ahlus Sunna Wal Jama’ah hold only two differing opinions amongst themselves on what exactly is ‘Isha’ or “darkness of the night”, but are unanimous upon the exact definition of “early dawn”.

The great Imam Abu Hanifa postulates that the “darkness of night” refers to the disappearance of Shafaq Al Abyadh. What is this Shafaq?

The Islamic Twilight, is called Shafaq in Arabic, and correlates to two visible phenomena. The first is the red glow in the horizon immediately after sunset. This is known as Shafaq Al-Ahmar – literally ‘The Red Twilight’. The second is Shafaq Al-Abyadh – or ‘The White Twilight’. The latter will follow the former, and is known in astronomy as the Astronomical Twilight.

All Hanafis must pray Isha only after the disappearance of the white twilight, which takes place shortly after the disappearance of the red one.

Most prayer timetables will use the later time, although the difference between the two phenomena is usually a mere ten to fifteen minutes. However, during the summer months it can extend from ninety to a hundred and twenty minutes.

With regards to the Fajr prayer however, the entire Ummah is unanimous upon the view that it starts with the second Fajr – Al-Fajr Al-Sadiq.

The start time of Fajr, or Subha Sadiq – True Dawn, is the time eating and drinking must stop in order for a Muslim’s fast to be accepted. As Allah Ta’ala says,

And eat and drink until the white thread (light) of dawn appears to you distinct from the black thread (darkness of night), then complete your Saum (fast) till the nightfall. [2:187]

The two Shafaqs mentioned correlate equally but in an inverse manner with the dawn phenomenon. The white lateral glow that disappears post sunset will eventually show itself when the Sun is near the horizon again in time for sunrise. This white lateral glow is known as al-Fajr al-Sadiq – the True Dawn – or Subha Sadiq as it is more commonly known, and just as the white glow at dusk was preceded by the disappearance of the red glow, so too will the white glow at dawn be preceded by another glow albeit a second white glow rather than a red one, but which will be vertical in its direction. This first glow is called Al-Fajr Al-Kazhib meaning the false dawn, as it is not the actual dawn that obligates the Fajr prayer.

This has been clarified by the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) himself:

The vertical light al-Fajr al-Mustateel (al-Fajr al-Kazhib) should not prevent you from eating (Suhur). You can eat and drink until the light appears to spread in al-Fajr al-Mustateer (al-Fajr al-Sadiq).

How had Salah times been measured traditionally?

In the past, the Mu’azzin of the Islamic state would observe the visible phenomena and would call out the Aazan accordingly. Clocks were yet to be invented, so they did not have timetables.

For Fajr, the lateral white glow would be observed. Fajr would last until sunrise.

For Zuhr, it would be after the sun crosses the meridian and begins to decline.

For ‘Asr, the shadow of an object plus its original shadow at zenith would be observed, or two times its shadow plus its original shadow at zenith for the second opinion. It is preferred to be delayed, but is disliked when the Sun becomes weak – or from about 45 minutes before sunset.

Maghrib would be prayed immediately after sunset, although it lasts right until the end of Shafaq Ahmar – the disappearance of the red glow in the horizon, and not for “25 minutes” as is popularly believed. This means during the summer months, Maghrib may last up to one and half hours after sunset.

‘Isha time will commence upon the disappearance of Shafaq Ahmar according to the first opinion, or the disappearance of Shafaq Abyadh for the second. Isha will last until Fajr, although it is to be prayed before the Islamic midnight takes place.

Contrary to popular belief, the Islamic midnight or Nisf al-Layl, has no correlation with midnight, i.e. 12am. Nisf al-Layl means “half of the night”, just like midnight is intended to have been, and is worked out by halving the time between sunset and sunrise, and adding this time upon sunset.

Today we are fascinated by the technological accuracy of our times, and will consider the visual time-seeking task a stark backward contrast, yet it was the Islamic civilisation of the 8th century that is credited with advancing the accuracy of clocks with their elaborate engineering.

Medieval history is rife with the accomplishments of Muslim polymaths in every sphere of life, be it the discovery of alcohol or the invention of Algebra. See my upcoming article – Islamic contributions to the west – to learn more about it.

Putting an angle to the phenomenon

1100 years ago the pioneering Muslim scientists of the early Islamic era had already figured out what precise solar depression, or the angle of the rising sun as it rises towards the horizon, would give the distinct Shafaq Al-Abyadh. They meticulously calculated this phenomenon for ease of calculation, and found it to occur at a given solar depression that can be calculated given the geographical coordinates of any place on earth.

This was done as early as the 9th century, during which the astronomer Muhammad bin Jabir Al-Battani or Albategnius wrote,

If you wish to calculate the angle of Tuloo’-ul-Fajr (dawn) and the disappearance of Ash-Shafaq then place the angle at a depression of 18 Degrees.

This opinion is also shared with other early scholars, polymaths and astronomers such as Shaikh Abul-Hasan As-Soofi (died 986), Ibn Zarqalah (died 1100), Abul-Hasan Ali Al-Aslami (died 1048), Qadhi Zaadah (died 1437), Abu Zaid Abdul Rahmaan As-Soosi (died 1595), and Allamah Mahmood Al-Aloosi Al-Baghdadi (died 1854) who writes in his famous 30 volume commentary of the Qur’an, Ruh al-Ma’ani fi Tafseer al-Quran al-‘Azim Wa Sab’a al-Mathani,

Indeed dawn and its light occur due to the proximity of the Sun to the Eastern horizon at a certain amount and that (amount) is famously (known) to be 18 degrees. And it is clear that the breaking of dawn mentioned in the verse is pointing towards the (second) Al-Fajr As-Sadiq. The brightness of this (dawn) is horizontally spread across the horizon in opposition to the (first) Al-Fajr Al-Kazhib.

Perhaps the famous Muslim Persian astronomer, physicist, mathematician, linguist, and historian Abu al-Rayhan al-Biruni (died 1048), sums it up succinctly;

When the depression of the Sun below the eastern horizon is at 18 degrees it is the time of Tuloo’-ul-Fajr (i.e. Dawn) and when the sun is at a depression of 18 degrees in the west, then this is the time of the disappearance of the Shafaq (i.e. Isha).

This view is also endorsed by Allamah Shaami whom we mentioned earlier, and does not stand as purely an astronomical viewpoint. Rather, it has been tested throughout the ages by various Mushaahada (collective sightings) and has been verified to concur with the Shariah phenomenon of Subha Sadiq.

It is for this reason that this angle has been unanimously adopted across the world and has been supported by numerous scholars from the last three centuries including;

Sheikh ul Hind Mufti Mahmud Al-Hasan, Maulana Khalil Ahmad Saharanpuri, Mufti Aziz Ar-Rahman, Mufti Saeed Ahmed Palanpuri, Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanwi, Mufti Shafi’i, Mufti Wali Hassan Tonqi, Mufti Raza Ul Haq, Maulana Yusuf Binnori, Moulana Zafar Ahmad Usmani, Mufti Muhammad Taqi Uthmani, Moulana Saleem Dhorat, Mufti Ismail Kacholvi, Mufti Yusuf Sacha, Moulana Ayyub Surti Bande Elahi, Mufti Ibrahim Desai, and Maulana Muhammad Ibn Adam.

The following table shows the angles used by the Islamic timekeeping organisations:

Convention Fajr Angle Isha Angle
Muslim World League, 30+ countries 18 17
Islamic Society of North America
17.5 15
Egyptian General Authority of Survey 19.5 17.5
Umm al-Qura University, Makkah 18.5 Fixed time*
University of Islamic Sciences, Karachi 18 18

As can be seen from this chart, every major organisation in the world is either using an 18 degree angle for Fajr, or even higher, which would equate to an even earlier Fajr time.

Thus, the 18 degree angle is not a fancy new way to pray your Fajr. It has been the very angle used since the commandment of the Fajr prayer.

The Islamic year consisting of 355 days is ten days short of its Gregorian counterpart, hence a full cycle of Ramadan through the Gregorian year takes 36 years.

So what happened 36 years go? Confusion knew no bounds and it was a lot worse than it is now. But they were blessed with the presence of Shaykhul Hind Mufti Mahmood al-Hasan Gangohi who visited the UK and invited all the scholars of the region to a meeting on the 29th of May 1983 at the Bradford Jamia Mosque.

The outcome was a unanimous decision made by the 70+ scholars who attended the meeting and the angle they chose was none other than 18 degrees. A picture of the handwritten document signed by the great Shaykhul Hind and countersigned by witnesses can be found below:

1983 Agreement in Urdu with Translation

So why do we find varying timetables across the entire year, and not just the summer months?

Here in the UK, we are seeing timetables with Fajr times based on 18 degrees, 15 degrees, and even some based on 12 degrees, albeit to a lesser extent.

A fourth group called Hizbul Ulama have timetables in mosques across the entire British Isles whose timings do not fit any angle at all, rather it fluctuates from 12 to 15. They claim to have established their times using “Mushaahadah” – or collective viewing of the dawn phenomena – but their timings are rife with mathematical and astronomical errors and consist of around 67 viewings for entire year with just over 30 for the Subha Sadiq alone

To create an accurate timetable, four observations are required for every day; Subha Sadiq, Subh Kazhib, Shafaq al-Ahmar and Shafaq al-Abyadh. This would equate to 1460 observations and not 67.

A Twilight Saga

The normal Twilight

In a perfectly normal 24 hour cycle, from an earthly observer’s perspective, the sun will set at dusk, level with the western horizon. The angle of the sun with the horizon will reach a total zero when the sun is midway across the horizon from the observer’s point of view.

Horizon

Angle = 0

The Sun will then start to recede further down reaching three levels of twilight that are recognised by the scientific community.

Civil Twilight – This will occur when the angle from the position of the Sun to the observer’s horizon is at 6 degrees.

Nautical Twilight – This takes place when the angle is at 12 degrees.

Astronomical Twilight – This takes place when the sun recedes further down, and total darkness is observed. The angle here, is 18 degrees. This is also the Hanafi Isha time. The other schools’ Isha time will have occurred 3 degrees earlier at 15 degrees.

From here on, Isha time will remain as the Sun makes its course even further down until early in the morning when the Sun will start to rise again, this time towards the eastern horizon.

The Sun will climb towards the new horizon and when the angle from its position to the eastern horizon is no more than 18 degrees, a lateral light will spread across the entire horizon – this is Fajr al-Sadiq – this is Fajr al-Al-Mustateer – and this, is Subha Sadiq, the end of suhoor and the start of the dawn prayer.

Three degrees later, all the people who follow 15 degrees Fajr, will start their fasts.

Three further degrees later, the people who follow 12 degrees will commence their fast.

The Persisting Twilight

For countries above 48 degrees latitude (around Paris), the twilight persists from late May to late July. Further north, it extends for half a year.

The UK sits on a latitude of 51 degrees and over. Its Persisting Twilight period runs from the 21st of May to the 26th of July.

So what happens during the Persisting Twilight period?

The Sun will set in the evening, at zero degrees relative to the horizon, and will continue to recede below the horizon to about 12 degrees or Nautical Twilight. Its journey time to the eastern horizon will be shorter than normal as the nights are the shortest during summer. Hence, shortly after dipping 12 degrees below the horizon, it will start to rise!

Which means there will be no 15 degrees. It will go from 12 to 13 or 14, then back up to 12, 11, and all the way up to 0 degrees as it rises on the eastern horizon.

So for the Hanafi seeking the Shafaq al-Abyadh of ‘Isha at 18 degrees, what will happen? Or even the non-Hanafi seeking the Shafaq al-Ahmar at 15 degrees?

The night before, after Maghrib, when the horizon will glow with the distinct red glow of Shafaq al-Ahmar, he will not see it disappear. As its disappearance requires the Sun to recede to at least 15 degrees. What will happen instead, is that this red glow will persist all night until the white glow of Subha Sadiq will overtake it. Which means in the Islamic technical sense, night does not occur. It is for this reason that this period is called the Persisting Twilight.

When does Maghrib time end? When Shafaq al-Ahmar disappears! (At 15 degrees). When does Isha time begin again? When Shafaq al-Abyadh disappears! (At 18 degrees).

So technically, Maghrib time lasts until the start of Fajr! While ‘Isha time does NOT really begin at all as the red glow will merge with the white light of Fajr.

How then, can you pray ‘Isha if it’s Sabab does not occur? In Islamic jurisprudence, Sabab is the legal cause that makes a rule binding to follow. For example, Zuhr is not obligatory in the morning. But soon as the time of Zuhr sets in, it is obligatory upon all Muslims to pray Zuhr.

So is ‘Isha not obligatory during the Persisting Twilight? Indeed, a few souls have said so, but the unanimous Ijma’ of the Ummah is that one has to still pray ‘Isha using estimation, or Taqdeer.

Taqdeer means to estimate, to guess, to fix, to conclude analytically, and this is what is to be done when the Sabab of ‘Isha and Fajr are not visible. The fact that it is not visible does not negate its presence, nor do we accept that the cause of the obligation has to be actually present in order for the obligation to stand. This is what Imam Tahtawi refers to when he says in his Tahtawi ala Durr, “The evidence for Taqdeer is clear”.

The Solution

In a lengthy Hadith in Sahih Muslim, Hadhrat Nawwas Ibn Sam’an Radhiyallahu Anhu says,

We said: Oh Allah’s Apostle, how long will he (Dajjal the Anti-Christ) stay on Earth?
He said: For forty days; one day like a year, one day like a month, one day like a week, and the rest of the days will be like your days.
We said: Oh Allah’s Apostle, will one day’s prayer suffice for the prayers of the day equal to one year?
Thereupon he said: No, but you must make an estimate of the time (and then observe prayer).

The Ulama unanimously agree that the time of Isha and Fajr must be estimated. Therefore, no person can say that he is exempt from praying ‘Isha by citing the absence of the signs of its start time.

Consider a man without an arm or a hand. It will not be possible for this man to perform the full Wudhu as an essential part of it is the washing of the arms including the hands, so would the daily prayers be obligatory upon him? Yes it would be.

Today I have perfected your religion for you and completed my favour to you and have chosen for you Al-Islam as your religion (way of life).” [5:3]

Methods of Taqdeer (Estimation)

The scholars of the four schools have researched the above mentioned Hadith and provided solutions for higher latitude countries over a millennia ago. The most widely adopted of the methods of estimation are two, but there is another method that the Shafi’i School have cited.

  1. Aqrab al-Ayyam
  2. Tanseef al-Layl
  3. Aqrab al-Bilaad – Shafi’i Method
  • Aqrab al-Ayyam – Nearest Day

In this method, the times of Isha and Fajr from the last day before the Persisting Twilight will be used until this period ends. This is based upon the principle of presumption of continuity, in that the last known command is followed until there is a reason to change.

This is the method of the Hanafi School and is the most preferred. It is also the safest since the last day of the technical Fajr will always be earlier than all the other methods.

So if Fajr (18 degrees) is at 01:15 (Birmingham) on the 20th of May, then up until the 27th of July, Fajr will be set at 01:15 throughout.

This was also the method of estimation unanimously chosen by the committee of 70 scholars and 100 members during the Bradford Mosque meeting of 1983, as mentioned earlier.

  • Tanseef al-Layl

The time between sunset and sunrise is halved, with Isha used for the first half, and Fajr for the second.

For example, if Sunset is at 21:30 and Sunrise is at 05:00, 2. Tanseef al-Layl would be calculated by taking this duration (7.5 hrs) and halving it, which gives us 3.75 hours. That correlates to 3 hours and 45 minutes. By adding this time onto sunset, we get the true Islamic Nisf al-Layl at 01:30. Using this method, one would treat the first half as the night, and the second half as the day so Subha Sadiq would begin at 01:30.

The majority of the Hanafi Ulama have given preference to this method unless the timings of the previous method are easier, in which case preference have been given to the latter, although the timings of both these methods will work out at close proximity.

  • Aqrab al-Bilad – Nearest Latitude

To use the Salah times of the closest city or latitude below 48 degrees and 33 minutes, where the phenomenon of the Persisting Twilight does not occur. This is the Shafi’i method. Traditionally, Avignon, France has been used, which is at 43 degrees latitude. Some timetables will also use 48 degrees without any reference to any city.

It is worth mentioning that the actual time will not be borrowed. Rather, the time duration from sunset to Astronomical Twilight will be added to local sunset to give an estimated time of the start of Fajr.

One criticism of this method is that, it can be possible for its users to be still partaking in their pre-dawn meal while their neighbours at a higher latitude will be praying Fajr due to astronomical complexities concurring with this estimation method. Hence the first method is preferred.

Although mentioned by the Shafi’i Imam Nawawi, this method can be adopted by Hanafi followers as their Madh’hab allows for one to adopt rulings from another school during mitigating circumstances or when facing hardship. However, this is a limited extension and not a choice, hence preference will be for the Hanafi method.

The issue of ‘Isha

The Persisting Twilight will also affect ‘Isha times for approximately 8 months during the British year, when the sun will refuse to decline to 18 degrees below the horizon. During part of this time, however, the sun will decline to 15 degrees.

Earlier, it was mentioned that the Ulama hold two opinions on the start of ‘Isha. Imam Abu Hanifa holds the opinion that ‘Isha begins with the disappearance of the white twilight at 18 degrees post sunset, while all the other Imams agree that it starts with the disappearance of the red twilight at 15 degrees.

Since the Sahibayn – the two eminent students of Imam Abu Hanifa – are of the latter opinion, the Hanafi School allows practice upon 15 degrees ‘Isha during these abnormal months. However, when ‘Isha time fails to appear even at 15 degrees, then the following methods can be followed.

60 or 90 minutes after sunset – ‘Isha

Isha time will be held after a fixed duration following sunset. Most of the timetables across the UK regardless of their calculation method, will opt for a 60-90 minute method.

Combining the prayers – ‘Isha

This method may sound surprising, but whichever method is chosen, it will inevitably mean that the ‘Isha prayer is prayed during the technical Maghrib time, hence all this method calls for, is an earlier time in the same prayer time. However, preference is upon the first method although this is still a technically valid method.

It would be prudent for one to follow their local mosque times as Salah should be prayed in Jama’ah and this would also promote unity. Albeit a few, most of the mosques in the UK do not combine.

A Word of Caution

Going back to the earlier chronology of events during a normal twilight, 12 degrees Fajr angle will take place 6 degrees after the 18 degrees angle, as the Sun will be zeroing in onto the horizon. Although the differences in the solar depressions are a mere three degrees, consider the time differences between said angles on the 1st of August:

12 degrees: 03:47

15 degrees: 03:11

18 degrees: 02:20

So the people of the third opinion will actually have started their fast 1 hour and 27 minutes before the first group.

Now consider sunrise. Can Fajr be prayed one minute after sunrise? The visible sunrise makes a huge difference within just a minute.

In his Ma’ariful Qur’an, the late Grand Mufti of Pakistan, Mufti Muhammad Shafi’i says,

The commencement of the fast occurs from Subha Sadiq (18 degrees). If a person eats after this time, his fast is not valid. When an individual is certain that Subha Sadiq has been established, it is Haram to eat. Eating after this time causes the fast to break even if a person was to eat for an extra minute.”

Whose Responsibility Is It To Correct The Situation?

People should not rely upon the published Salah timetables in newspapers and TV channels as more often than not, these timings are completely wrong and cause any act of worship to be jeopardised.

The scholars of the Ummah, wherever they reside, have a responsibility for that area. Whether they are an Imam of a Masjid or perform some other form of work, they are scholars and have this responsibility entrusted upon them. It is not the quality of scholars to remain silent when there is a difference of opinion in a matter. The scholars should investigate and approve of the manner which is most in accordance with the Holy Qur’an and Sunnah.

The Management and responsible people of the Masajid should assist in propagating the Truth. The political ideology of uniting upon the wrong path for the sake of name, fame or reputation is incorrect and against Islamic and moral principles, this is a matter of worship of the masses and a compulsory fact of Islam, so we should adopt Islamic etiquettes. When the management committees and Imams of Masjids unite upon the Truth, only then will the community be united and rightly guided.
Abdullah Ibn Abbas related that the beloved Prophet? said:

The rectification of two groups in my Ummah is the rectification of my Ummah; the leaders and the Ulamah (scholars).’ (Kanzul A’maal, vol 6, p30 #14708)

May Allah grant us the ability to act upon the Truth (Haq) and protect us from the evil of ourselves and others.

Ameen!

Ibrahim Ali, 13th Ramadhan 1435