Prayer times

November 24, 2009 at 8:51 pm (Islam, Ramadan, religious practices, science)

The calculation of prayer and fasting times based on the movement of the sun does not work universally. Even where I am in the UK, based on using an angle of depression of 15 degrees, Fajr and Isha disappear in the middle of summer. I don’t know how they calculate the times in those periods. It’s a mystery. I have tried to discover how it’s done and I have failed.

Right now, the prayer times are so close together that it’s quite difficult to get them all done on time, especially if you have appointments in the afternoon.

The prayer times are not made explicit in the Quran but they are alluded to in terms of the sun’s position. And of course it’s expressed in those terms. It could not have said “pray at 6 o’clock in the morning” because there was no such thing. There weren’t clocks! There was the sun.

That method works in that region. In extending the practice to other regions, there are two intuitive ways to go. You can keep the method the same, or you can keep the clock times calculated using the method the same (with a simple translation based on longitude). The former doesn’t work universally. I think the latter is a better way to go. It results in using the same prayer times, fasting durations etc. that the prophet and his followers used. Tried, tested and approved.

But who am I, right? I mean, I could choose to use Saudi Arabia’s times for prayer and fasting all year round, but I’d be considered a heretic. And Muslim unity would certainly be compromised if everyone just followed what they thought was best. It’s a shame though. Fasting doesn’t even feel like fasting at this time of year. And I go weak at the knees at the thought of Ramadan falling in the summer.

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Ramadan reflections on day 3

August 24, 2009 at 7:47 pm (God, Islam, personal, Ramadan)

Day 3, around 2 hours until iftar (breaking the fast).

I think the novelty has worn off and I realise that I don’t feel very good. Maybe part of it is that I’m sleeping very late in the morning, and that I’m not really going out much or “stretching my legs”. I planned to take this week off work, but now I’m wondering if going out to work might help distract me from the fasting and make me feel a bit better physically. The tendency to sleep is overwhelming – I feel like I can’t get up in the morning; I get sleepy in the late afternoon, and then again after eating! Then again, maybe I’m just making up for the sleep I lost last week due to (i) my work pace picking up, which made it hard for me to “switch off” and (ii) my nervousness/excitement about the coming of Ramadan.

Maybe I should go out to work. I was worried that the exertion of walking would cause my blood sugar level to drop, as this unfortunately happens quite often in normal life (reactive hypoglycaemia)… but refraining from high-G.I. foods lately has consistently stopped this from happening, and so far, I haven’t had a “hypo” while fasting either. Getting up earlier and going to work may make the fasting more difficult, but since tomorrow is day 4, it should be getting easier anyway.

After congratulating myself for getting through two consecutive days, which is more than I’ve ever done and was by no means a foregone conclusion to me, I guess it’s now starting to dawn on me that there’s a bigger challenge here than merely getting through an individual day or two: getting through a whole month. That challenge has only just begun. Being in it for the long haul is always difficult for me. I guess I’m just weak like that.

Today I’m hungrier than ever. I can see myself getting very tired of feeling this way, and also, of waking at 3am to pack more food and water into my bloated belly. Actually it’s strange to experience these two extremes of satiety, each night and day. It is like summer and winter, each one impossible to imagine while in the midst of the other; yet experiencing them both within each 24 hour period.

At least I know that soon I will have what I ache for, at any given time, whether it’s the comfort of food, a slick of thirst-quenching water, or relief from an over-full stomach. And so maybe the trick is to take each day at a time, looking forward only to the next phase of this daily cycle between extremes. Maybe this is the key to the “long haul” approach I need to develop towards so many challenges in life. Perhaps fasting Ramadan will teach me this and more.

My Ramadan aims, modest in comparison to many bloggers I’ve seen, are (i) to fast and (ii) to read my way through the monstrously big and heavy Muhammad Asad translation of the Quran (which is difficult even to sit and hold when weak with fasting!) I am on target with this so far, but again, looking at its size overwhelms me to the task. I find myself wanting to run ahead of schedule with it, to get to a point where it doesn’t daunt me so much, but realistically there’s a limit to how much I can read and understand in a day.

I am taking notes, including noting down things that challenge me; such as the idea that we are tested by God for patience in adversity, and the radical non-materialism demanded of us. Overall I am finding these long heavy surahs in the beginning quite hard because they are not like one continuous story. Also confusing is that it seems to end passages with things like “Verily, God is [X], [Y]” which don’t seem obviously connected to the passage. Maybe it is too deep for a superficial read. The other thing that is repeated a lot is the notion of rewards for belief and good deeds, and of punishment for lack thereof. All religions seem to require belief in God in order to obtain God’s favour, and this is something I’ve always had difficulty understanding. If God wants us to believe in Him, has He given all of us the means to believe? The Quran talks of clear proof and evidence through the ages, through prophets and scriptures and miracles, so I suppose its answer is “yes”. I still don’t know how one can read a scripture and know it’s from God just based on the content. Maybe time will tell.

Is it a mystery how one comes to believe in God, and is not determined through logic? And what are the consequences, anyway? Is it only really possible to be righteous through believing in God? Are our actions always done for the pleasure of someone else, whether it’s another person or God? This is something I got from one part that I read today. If it’s true, then perhaps the fact that God sees everything we do and every thought and intention we have is what prompts us to be truly righteous… maybe that’s what it means? Maybe it reflects a cynical view of human nature whereby we need to turn ourselves towards a merciful God in order to become good.

Some things for me to think about! (I’m not addressing all these questions to readers, by the way, although feel free to share your view if you like!)

Less than an hour till iftar now 😀

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August 5, 2009 at 1:18 pm (Christianity, Islam, personal, Ramadan, religious practices)

I am going to try and fast Ramadan this year. I’ll take a bit of time off work to make it a little easier and allow me to get more reading done.

I am looking forward to the challenge, but also knowing that there is a high chance I will fail at some point. I have fasted whole days in the past, but never more than one day in a row. I think I have to be realistic about the fact that my willpower might give out, and resolve to not get downhearted if it happens, but pick myself up and try again the next day.

When I joined the pentecostal church at 19, and I got to hear about fasting, it was so new and radical to me. I remember being in a conversation about fasting, and being brave enough to ask the “why” question – at which point an uncomfortable silence fell as their faces clocked the realisation that there was an impostor in the ranks! It had just never been a part of my prior Church of Scotland experience. Traditional church gives people a really easy ride.

I enjoyed fasting with the church. I experienced it as stepping out of my comfort zone to reach out to God. I learnt to fast off my own bat when I felt the need, too. Unfortunately my fast was always part of a supplication for something specific. I had learnt that fasting was a tool in badgering God for what I wanted, which sowed seeds of disappointment. Is fasting for the hope of a reward in the afterlife any better? I suppose it is better, but the best motivation would be just to please God and grow more conscious of God, I think.

So now, I simply intend on breaking my enslavement to satiety; experiencing in a renewed way my fragility and utter dependence on sustenance; rediscovering gratitude for the simple fulfilment of a simple need. God knows I take so much for granted.

I want to choose the path of hope and enlightenment. I don’t want to be told I can’t do it by anyone, not even the voice in my head.

I want to choose the path of hope and enlightenment. I tried, I had setbacks, I get bogged down with worries over the details of religion… but I’m still trying.

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Prayer times and latitude

June 18, 2009 at 7:09 pm (Islam, Ramadan, religious practices, science)

I’ve been doing a little research to try and understand how the Islamic prayer times are defined. It’s been surprisingly hard to find this information, but I think I’ve basically got it now. Here is what I’ve understood.

The five prayers are, in order, Fajr, Dhuhr, Asr, Maghrib and Isha. Dhuhr (just after noon has passed) and maghrib (just after the sun has set) are straightforward to calculate astronomically – by which I mean, using mathematical equations. Asr is between these two, and seems to be also straightforward, except that its time depends on the school of thought; the two I’ve come across are that it occurs when an object’s shadow is equal to one or two times the object’s length plus the length of its shadow at noon. Fajr and Isha occur before and after sunrise and sunset, respectively, and their starting is determined by the time of appearance or disappearance of refracted sunlight (twilight). These are the two that are not straightforward.

The reason they are not straightforward seems to be that there is no universal algorithm that predicts the appearance or disappearance of twilight based on astronomical conditions such as the depression of the sun beneath the horizon. It seems that the timing of this occurrence varies with geographical location in a non-trivial way. There are methods in place that use a depression angle, and methods that add or subtract a fixed time period after/before sunset/sunrise. These methods are each restricted to particular geographical zones, and have presumably been verified against observations for at least some locations within their respective zones.

As we all know, some latitudes do not ever get really dark during summer, and in some places the sun doesn’t even set. Even where darkness does occur, there can be an extremely short interval between isha and the next fajr. Clearly this poses a juristic challenge, because the early Muslims did not travel to such latitudes and so there is no traditional guidance. This also has implications for fasting during Ramadan, which is performed between fajr and maghrib. Should there be an upper limit to the length of a fasting day, and if so, how should it be defined?

My own feeling, not based on any scholarly opinion, is that when prayer times are too widely or closely spaced, they do not punctuate the day the way I understand they should. If the point of having prayer times is to remember God throughout the day, having enormous intervals between some of the prayers (which is the case during both winter and summer far from the equator) would not seem to achieve this.

I read somewhere that one ruling had suggested that prayer times for latitudes above 45 degrees should be the same as those calculated for a location directly south at 45 degrees latitude – they should follow that timetable all year round, as I understood it. This makes some sense to me because the prayers are then not too widely spaced during summer and not too close during winter. Also, admittedly, it makes the prospect of Ramadan less completely terrifying! Around the time of the longest day, where I am, fajr is around 2:30-3:30am depending on the calculation method, and maghrib after 10pm!

But this rule seems not to be in widespread use judging by prayer timetables I’ve seen. Understandably no-one wants to introduce or endorse a new rule unless they have to; hence, the norm is to calculate the times in the standard way where possible, and the prayers that disappear using this method at high latitude are added in using additional rules, rather than changing all the timings for that location. I can understand it, but I don’t really like it.

Any thoughts? or information? 😛

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