The reader should note that this article concerns an issue over which there is legitimate difference of opinion. For example, a counter-opinion can be found in Muhammad Taqi ud-Din al-Hilali's Distinguishing the True Dawn from the False Dawn.
If you are in doubt about any of these issues, you are encouraged to speak with those of knowledge who you trust.
All praise is due to Allah and may His peace and blessings be upon the Prophet Muhammad.
The beginning of summer engenders great confusion amongst many Muslims living in the UK, North America, Canada and some other European countries concerning the correct time for the commencement of the isha', maghrib and fajr prayers. Muslims frequently enquire about the best time to pray isha' since it starts very late. In this fatwa (ruling) I will explain the different opinions that scholars have adopted in dealing with this problem. Thereafter, I will discuss these opinions, their evidences and any respective criticisms made against them. Finally, I will explain the best practical opinion taking into consideration the diversity of Muslims residing in these countries, as well as the abnormality of the situation they face.
Firstly, it is essential to state that isha' begins once twilight disappears. This is based on many prophetic traditions, such as the statement narrated in Sahih Muslim by 'Abdullah ibn 'Amr, of the Prophet, upon whom be peace, who said:
"[A]nd the time for maghrib continues until twilight disappears."
Secondly, both Muslim and non-Muslim astronomers disagree on the time twilight disappears in areas of extreme latitude such as Canada and many European countries. Some believe that twilight never completely disappears during a certain period of the summer, whilst others believe it does disappear, but extremely late. This disagreement is a result of different opinions concerning two main factors:
- The linguistic interpretation of the disappearance of twilight.
- The astronomical interpretation of the disappearance of twilight.
Linguistically, whilst the vast majority of scholars believe that it is the disappearance of the redness of twilight that truly signifies its disappearance, hanafi scholars believe that it is the disappearance of the whiteness.
Concerning the second issue, Muslim scholars differ on which astronomical interpretation should be adopted to determine the disappearance of twilight. The resolution of the 9th Muslim World League Conference held in 1406H (March 1996) holds that 17 degrees is the correct interpretation for the disappearance of twilight. If we adopt this opinion, which is the opinion of the majority of Muslim scholars as well as astronomers, then all countries located above 49 degrees latitude (for example, the UK which has a latitude of between 50 to 60 degrees) may well observe the phenomenon of persistent twilight until the break of dawn.
If we adopt the other linguistic meaning and the second astronomical interpretation for the disappearance of twilight, we will end up allocating 15 degrees as the start of isha' time. According to this degree, twilight does disappear yet very late in places located roughly at 49 or 50 degrees, and never disappears in countries which are located at a 60+ degrees latitude.
Hence, according to the opinion of the vast majority of scholars and astronomers, twilight does not disappear for a period of time during summer in many European countries.
The above discussion is far from sufficient in uniting the word of the scholars since the difference discussed above is deeply rooted in the four acceptable official schools of thought as well as astronomical interpretation. Moreover the wide diversity of Muslims residing in the UK and Europe, their juristic schools of thought, and the absence of any Muslim leadership for Muslims to follow, makes it almost impossible to agree on specific criteria for the timings of prayer. In any case, it is almost universally accepted that twilight either does not disappear or persists until very late into the night before disappearing in many European countries.
In other words, there are two aspects to this period of confusion or hardship: the first aspect is when the legislated indications of the commencement of isha' are to be observed. The second concerns that period when the legislated indications for the commencement of isha' disappear completely. Hence, irrespective of the disagreement amongst scholars and astronomers, there will be places which observe only one aspect while there will be definitely some other countries that observe both aspects mentioned above. This issue is further confounded when on the one hand, some schools of thought believe that they are observing the first aspect only, while on the other hand, other schools of thought, in the very same locality, may believe that they are facing both situations. Now, regardless of whether we follow 17, 19, or 15 degrees as being the start of isha', a comprehensive explanation and solution should be presented taking in consideration the diversity of understanding found amongst the Muslims.
The problem of the absence of the legislated signs indicating the start of isha', or its very late start, leads to difficulty in understanding the correct position concerning three related issues:
- The end of maghrib
- The start of isha'
- The start of fajr
Let us first discuss the start of isha' since it is the main matter of concern here.
Start of Isha' Time
From the previous discussion, we can conclude that the aspects relevant to this discussion comprise two parts:
- When is the sign for its start visible?
- When does the sign disappear altogether?
Both cases are treated in a very similar way since the late start makes it extremely difficult to pray isha' on time. An example of this is the start of isha' time on 20th May in London just after midnight and a similar time is found on 25th July. The following options result when examining this situation in its totality, taking into consideration all of its various facets:
- Muslims pray isha' at its stated time even if it starts very late or even if it starts after midnight, which according to many scholars signifies the end of isha', based upon many prophetic traditions. Let us call this option praying at the astronomical time or praying on time.
- Because of the difficulty involved, Muslims estimate the time for the isha' prayer at odds to its actual astronomical time. Let us call this option estimation.
- Because of the difficulty involved, Muslims combine isha' with maghrib at the time of maghrib. Let us call this option combination.
Discussion of the First Opinion: Praying on Time
Scholars who hold the first option, i.e. praying on time, base their opinion on numerous evidences that clearly indicate that praying on time is the most important condition for performing prayer. Among such proofs is the verse of the Qur'an where Allah says:
"Verily, the prayer is enjoined on the believers at fixed hours." [Al-Qur'an 4:103]
We also find that the Prophet, peace be upon him, explained the significance of prayer at the appointed time in various ways. For example he said:
"The most beloved of actions to Allah is the prayer at its time."
However, this opinion faces problems when twilight persists. In that period, the legal sign for the start of isha' disappears, so what then should be the starting time of isha'? These scholars, in this circumstance, adopt the option of estimation yet their opinions vary as to the best way of estimating. Some scholars believe that the last time on which the legal sign appeared should be the reference time. This time should be adopted throughout the period of persistent twilight. In London, for example, the last day when the legal sign is detectable is the 25th May at 12:38am. According to this opinion, isha' should be prayed at 12:38 until the legal sign starts to be visible again on the 18th July.
A second group of these scholars hold that the reference point should be the nearest city where the legal sign is visible.
A third group of these scholars hold that we should divide the night into 3 parts and isha' should start by the end of the first third of the night. This means that Muslims living in London, for example, should pray isha' at around 10:45pm.
A fourth group of scholars hold that Makkah should be our reference point for matters related to acts of worship as it is our qiblah and we perform Hajj there. According to this opinion isha' commences one and a half hours after maghrib.
Discussion of the Second Opinion: Estimation
The second group of scholars believe that estimation is the best solution. We have seen in the previous argument the justification for such an opinion. These scholars do not accept the option of combination due to the following reasons:
- The Shari'ah intended to distribute the prayers over the day and night. This is why the Shari'ah considered time a vital condition for prayer. They supported their argument by the fact that the Shari'ah discourages people from combining unless there is a pressing need let alone the fact that many scholars prohibited the continuous practice of combining prayers over a long period of time in a manner that gives rise to a habitual action.
- The estimation of isha' time is a valid approach since many scholars agree that isha' time starts after the end of the first seventh of the night according to an interpretation of some shafi'i scholars.
- The principle of estimation in essence is valid since it is mentioned in the famous hadith pertaining to the Dajjal during the last days, when Allah extends the length of the days of his presence so that one day will be as long as one complete year, another day will be equal to a month in length, and the third day as long as a week, while others are normal days in length. The Companions asked the Prophet, peace be upon him, about praying in these extended days. The reply of the Prophet, peace be upon him, was to command them to estimate the times of prayer. This hadith is reported in Sahih Muslim.
Discussion of the Third Opinion: Combination
Those who believe that we should combine prayers during the whole period, i.e. both scenarios, base their opinion on various justifications:
- The disappearance of the legal sign leaves no option but to combine the two prayers together.
- The late start of isha' makes it extremely difficult for the vast majority of people in these countries to pray on time when the sign is visible, or at similar time when the sign can no longer be observed. This difficulty brings to attention the principle established by Islamic law to remove any hardship. There is no doubt that praying isha' after midnight, or close to midnight, in such countries is a hardship that the Shari'ah seeks to remove. Based on this they believe that, whether the legal sign is visible or invisible, the end ruling is the same, i.e. the period of late visibility should be treated the same as the period of absence.
There are numerous prophetic traditions where the Prophet, upon whom be peace, combined maghrib with isha'. Most of the scholars believe that the legal reasoning behind this combination is to remove hardship. For example, the prophet carried out this practice several times while he was on a journey from one city to another .
Moreover, the Prophet, peace be upon him, combined his prayers once when he was resident in the city of Madinah neither being sick nor in a state of fear. Ibn 'Abbas explained the reason behind this by saying:
"He intended to remove hardship from his 'Ummah."
The scholars deduce from this that in cases of hardship or necessity it is allowed to combine the dhuhr and 'asr prayer any time between the start of dhuhr and the end of 'asr. Likewise it is allowed to pray maghrib and isha' together in the time of either. According to these scholars, this verdict is conditional on not making this act a habit.
In a similar vein, we find that Imam Ahmad allowed the breast-feeding woman who faces difficulty in cleaning her clothes to combine between these prayers. Sa'id ibn al-Mussayyib instructed a shepherd who sought his advice to combine isha' with maghrib before sleeping if he is afraid of missing isha' prayer due to sleepiness and tiredness.
These scholars disagree with the opinion of estimating prayer times, as they believe that it is baseless, holding that this situation is different from that mentioned in the hadith about the Dajjal. They have explained that this analogy is unacceptable because this hadith is only applied in the case of complete disappearance of all the legal signs. This means that we cannot extend this to cover our case when only one of the legal signs is present but appears very late or is absent altogether.
The Strongest Opinion Concerning the Start of Isha' Time in Such Countries
As we can see, all the opinions mentioned above are justified by many evidences, while at the same time, none of these opinions are free of criticism. Even if we say we must pray on time irrespective of the necessity of hardship involved in praying late at night, we will still not be safe from valid criticism. Isha' might start after midnight, as is the case of cities lying above 49 degrees, and midnight according to many scholars is the end of isha' time. This means that adopting this option results in praying isha' after it has ended!
Having analysed the previous arguments, the following conclusions can be drawn:
- There is no opinion free of criticism
- All opinions are supported by strong direct or indirect proofs and evidences. Moreover all opinions are supported by quotations from the previous scholars. As a result this disagreement becomes a mater of valid ijtihad.
So if someone were to ask: What shall I do and when do I pray isha'? We would give the following answer:
- The male adult should join the congregational prayer in the mosque that he usually prays in whether they combine or chose any criteria for estimation, since:
- Praying in congregation is compulsory upon every able male adult and it is of great significance in Islam. The Prophet, upon whom be peace, desired to punish those who did not attend the congregational prayer and he did not excuse a blind person who hears the call for salah from not attending it. Some scholars mentioned that attending prayer in congregation takes precedence over many other conditions of salah. For example the adult person who is sick and will pray in a sitting posture if he joins the congregation while he could pray in a standing posture if he prays alone, should join the congregation.
- The times assigned for isha' in such countries are not definite as shown by the previous discussion. Actually it is a matter of ijtihad as we have just stated. In such cases courses of action that maintain unity or remove disagreements should take precedence over individual opinions.
- The reason behind this conclusion is the fact that we cannot confirm that isha' during this period starts at a specific time which puts it within the area of ijtihad. So if it is an matter of ijtihad, one should pray in congregation even if it takes place at a time that does not match his ijtihad. This conclusion is supported by the fact that Islam aims to prevent fitnah between Muslims and blocks all roads leading to it.
- If there is no nearby mosque or the person is not an individual who must join the congregation like a sick person, a female or immature child, then he or she should delay isha' prayer as much as he or she can. The reason behind this conclusion is the fact that praying on time puts great hardship on a person yet at the same time this opinion is not free of criticism. On the other hand combining isha' with maghrib should not be a habit especially when there is no pressing need. Estimation, as a last resort, should take into consideration the practical side of the situation despite the fact that there is no solid foundation for any of the estimation criteria mentioned earlier. Moreover estimation is not a very strong option during the time of late visibility since the sign is still visible. So we should pray isha' at the closest time to its legal time which starts very late provided that we do not cross midnight. The basis for this is the principle in Islam established by the verse of the Qur'an, "fear Allah as much as you can." Also, by doing so, we are meeting the Shari'ah aim of distributing the prayers over the day and night.
- A related point to this is a situation where a person has the choice to join either of two congregational prayers: one praying late and the other praying early. In this case this person should join the prayer that is taking place very close to the actual legal start of isha' time, provided that it does not cross midnight, unless there is a harm that arises from doing this. An example of this harm is a split occurring between the Muslims praying in that Mosque.
Another major problem occurs during summer time especially when the twilight does not disappear is determining the beginning of fajr prayer. This is due to the fact that the continued presence of the twilight makes it impossible to determine the appearance of the white colour of the fajr or we might even say that there is no start for fajr. In this case what should be done? Again this is a mater of disagreement between the scholars. The previous opinions and justifications mentioned earlier when we discussed the start of isha' time are also apply here which makes it a matter of valid ijtihad.
To conclude we advice people who cannot join the congregational fajr prayer to pray fajr one and half hour before sunrise. Any time around that may be acceptable. Many Muslims ask if they can pray fajr at times such as 1:15am since many Islamic calendars show that fajr time enters at that time in many European countries (The UK is one such example). The answer for this is we should pray at a time that is most likely part of the legal time. We should avoid praying and performing our ibadah at a doubtful time.
The Prophet, peace be upon him, said:
"Leave what is doubtful for that which is not doubtful."
There is no question about the doubtful start of fajr at 1:15am or so. So we should delay fajr to a time where we are most likely sure that the time has definitely started. A good time for that is 1½ or 2 hours before sunrise.
Another reason for that is the aim of the Shari'ah in distributing the prayers over the day and night. Also the Shari'ah seeks to establish prayer during the beginning, middle and end of the day. Allah says in the Qur'an:
"Perform as-salat from midday till the darkness of the night, and recite the Qur'an in the early dawn. Verily, the recitation of the Qur'an in the early dawn is ever witnessed." [Al-Qur'an 17:78]
The manner in which the Shari'ah legalised combining two prayers give us a clear indication that there are five times in normal situations and three times for abnormal situations. These are just after the end of the night and sleep period and just before the start of the day, at midday and the third one is the one performed just after the end of the day and in the beginning of the night.
However, if other factors are involved we should exercise a degree of flexibility since the matter is an issue of valid ijtihad. A critical factor in this regard is unity, what leads to it and to remove any form of fitnah.
Maghrib time starts after the sunset and ends when the twilight disappears according numerous prophetic traditions. This conclusion is what the scholars have agreed upon unanimously. We have mentioned earlier that scholars differ on the end of the visibility of twilight. As a result we can conclude that they differ on the maghrib prayer. According to some scholars and astronomers maghrib time ends just before midnight as twilight disappears at that time. Moreover, can some one say that maghrib time ends before fajr time or even after fajr since twilight ends at that time? The answer is off course no since it is against the meaning of the time allocated for maghrib, it will lead to changing the order of prayers and it will lead to combining maghrib, isha' and fajr which is completely unacceptable. So when shall we pray maghrib in these situations?
The answer is very simple and can be extracted from the hadith narrated by at-Tirmidhi through Ibn 'Abbas that the Angel Jibril led the Prophet, peace be upon him, to teach him the prayer times. On the first day he prayed all the prayers at the beginning of their respective times and on the second day he delayed the prayers until just before the end of their times for all prayers except maghrib where he instead prayed it on both days at the same time. This hadith explains the other hadith that shows that the maghrib time continues until the disappearance of twilight and it is a clear indication that the time of maghrib is very limited. That is why the hanafi school of thought normally prays maghrib immediately after sunset. Moreover, a deep reflection upon verses of the Qur'an and prophetic traditions shows us that the daily prayers are distributed over five different times in normal situations and three times in abnormal situations.
As a result we should pray maghrib just after the sunset and should not delay it for more than an hour after sunset. Other guidelines provided earlier should be applied here as well.
We have explored the main opinions about performing isha', fajr and maghrib prayers in countries located in extreme latitudes. We have seen that all of these opinions are justified by valid proofs and at the same time they are not free from valid criticism. Consequently, this existent difference of opinions which is supported by authentic evidences places this matter into the realm of valid ijtihad. In consideration of this fact, Muslims facing this situation should apply a certain degree of flexibility when dealing with other Muslims who hold different opinions as a result of valid ijtihad in this regard especially when dealing in an inappropriate manner may lead to fitnah, a split, disunity or extreme hardship.
I also advise Muslims to pray on time whenever possible. In situations of extreme hardship or invisibility of the legal signs for the start of any prayer, they should join the congregation in their localities unless they are excused from doing so such as the elderly or sick men, women, young children or very remote individuals. In this case they should strive to perform their prayers in a way very similar to the aim of the Shari'ah in distributing the five prayers thought the day and night.