Monday, May 24, 2010

The Astronomy of Prayer and Fasting Times

This is a regular guest post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics atAmerican University of Sharjah.

A conference dealing with astronomical solutions to the prayer and fasting times for Muslims will take place in Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates) from May 30 to June 1, 2010. Organized by the Islamic Crescents Observation Project (ICOP) and the Emirates Astronomical Society (EAS), this conference is expected to gather about 200 registered participants from about 20 countries plus dozens more local attendees, not counting the twenty or so “Islamic personalities”, i.e. muftis and religious scholars.

This conference, the second of its kind to be organized in Abu Dhabi over the last few years, aims at addressing issues of relevance to the religious life of Muslims, issues that are directly related to Astronomy. In particular, the longstanding “Ramadan problem”, i.e. the determination of the dates for starting and ending the month of fasting (Ramadan), has yet to find a solution that can satisfy all. (I will come back some other time to explain the problem in more detail and to summarize the solutions that have been proposed to date.) This problem is related to the more general issue of the Islamic calendar.

Recently, another issue has begun to seriously worry millions of Muslims, the question of the prayer times in high-latitude regions of the globe, e.g. Canada, the UK, Scandinavia, etc. What is the problem there? In Islam, prayer times are set with respect to the Sun’s position in the sky, above the horizon (during the day) or below it (for the sunset and evening/night prayer). In particular, the moments of the first and last prayers are defined by when the first rays of the Sun are refracted by the Earth’s atmosphere, which has been generally agreed to occur when the Sun is about 18 degrees below the horizon. The problem is that the Sun does not go so low below the horizon in high-latitude places during certain periods of the year, and so the moment of first prayer, which is also the moment of the start of fasting in Ramadan, is sometimes undefined. Now, since Ramadan is a lunar month, thus it shifts through the seasons (by about 11 days each year), it is about to start occurring in the summer (in the northern hemisphere), so there will be – for Muslims living in the UK, Canada, and most of northern Europe, no clear time for the start of fasting or for the first prayer.

These are a few of the serious issues that have continued to face Muslims and which astronomers have been contending with (including several non-Muslims who have found some of these issues fascinating and worthy of study). And conferences like this upcoming one in Abu Dhabi have been gathering experts who present novel solutions; the question is usually the extent to which such solutions are both applicable without difficulty and acceptable to the religious authorities. Indeed, about a dozen Muslim scholars have agreed to attend the conference and discuss the topics with the astronomers. I have attended several such conferences in the past, and I can attest that they tend to be a complicated exercise of balance, between the necessity of scientific rigor (papers are refereed, etc.) and the requirement to abide by the “religious rules”, which sometimes are rather subjective and vary depending on the school of jurisprudence and on the group’s general Islamic outlook (e.g. salafi vs. reformers)…

I will report back to you after the conference on what promises to be a very interesting meeting of astronomers (including a few non-Muslim ones) and religious scholars…

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