Believing or involving the belief that it is important to work hard and control yourself, and that pleasure is wrong or unnecessary. (Cambridge English Dictionary)
It’s that time of the year again – Muslims are preparing themselves to partake in fasting for Ramadan, which this year consists of rather long hours due to the extended day length in the British summer. To add to the difficulty, we have a variety of opinions, rulings and ideas being expressed regarding what time the fasts actually begin.
According to the Hanafi School (followed by practically all Muslims from the subcontinent, from whom most British Muslims originate), the strongest opinion (‘Mu’tamad’) is the position of Imam Abu Hanifa himself – which is that the time of the ‘Isha’ prayer begins when the whiteness in the sky disappears, which is also known as Astronomical Twilight (‘Al-Shafaq al-Abyadh’). There is a weaker position in the Hanafi School held by the Sahabayn (Imam Muhammad and Imam Abu Yusuf, who were students of Abu Hanifa), which is also the position held by Imam Shafi, Imam Malik and Imam Ahmad, namely that the time of Isha begins when the redness (as opposed to the whiteness) in the sky disappears which is also known as Nautical Twilight (‘Al-Shafaq al-Ahmar’).
Now in the UK, as well as Canada, Norway and any country above 48.5 degrees latitude, the whiteness never actually disappears at some times of the year. Also, for any place above 54.5 degrees latitude, which includes my birth town of Middlesbrough, the redness in the sky also does not disappear. This happens from around May 18th until July 25th (depending on where you are located.
Why Can’t We Just Follow Weak Opinions?
So, since we seem to have the ‘problem’ of one of the five compulsory Islamic prayers not in fact occurring due to its start time not being present, can’t those living below 54.5 degrees just follow the weaker opinion within the school, so as to make sure the prayer gets done? Take the following narration by Ibn Qutlubgha:
“I saw observed some Hanafi scholars that would pick and choose the opinions within our own Hanafi School.” And one of the Judges said; “What’s wrong with it?” I said; “Indeed it is wrong! Following the ego is forbidden (haraam)! The weak opinion in comparison to the strong is (worth) nothing! And picking an opinion without any principles is not permissible.”
Ibn Qutlubgha then goes onto narrate the opinions of other scholars within the Hanafi School. Ya’muri said;
“Anyone who doesn’t have knowledge of the strongest opinion, he doesn’t have the right to pick and choose whatever he desires!”
Abu ‘Amr said;
“Anyone who will pick and choose an opinion that he desires, without looking into the strongest opinion, he is an ignorant and is going against Ijma”
Ibn Abideen narrates:
“If a person wants to act upon a particular opinion or wants to teach someone, then its compulsory upon him to follow the opinion that is chosen and supported by the scholars of his School. It is not permissible to follow and give rulings (‘fatwa’) based on weak opinion, except in some issues. The scholars reported consensus (‘Ijma’) about this issue.”
Ibn Abideen then also goes on to narrate the opinions of other scholars within the Hanafi School. Ibn Hajar Makki narrated from ”Zawaid al Rawda,” that:
‘It is not permissible for either a Mufti or a layperson to pick and choose any of the opinions that he desires without checking them. And this issue is agreed by consensus (‘Ijma’)!
Before him Ibn Salah and Ba’ji (Maliki scholars) also narrated that it was agreed by consensus (‘Ijma’). Qarafiy also confirmed that it is forbidden for both the Mujtahid (senior scholars) and Muqallid (more junior scholars) to follow the weak opinion, because that is in fact following the ego, which is forbidden by consensus (‘Ijma’)”.
It may seem that we are ‘name dropping’ scholars, but sadly, since this is the method adopted by most Muslims today (i.e. argument from authority), it is necessary to name these persons above, who are senior and undeniable authorities within the Hanafi (and Maliki) school, and yet their opinion is conveniently disregarded by those same UK scholars who argue from authority when they find it opposing their own sect or more often, their puritanical as opposed to academic tendencies. After all, if something is more difficult, then it must be the correct opinion, right? Let’s see if this is true.
Just Because It Is More Difficult Doesn’t Make it Right
Apart from the obvious problem with taking the profoundly unacademic stance that something more ‘strict’ in life or religion (synonyms for Muslims anyway) must be true as opposed to the use of reason to weigh evidence in an academic manner, this issue has been discussed at length within the Hanafi School. In the sixth Islamic century, Muhammad ibn Abi Qasim al-Baqali al-Khawarizmi issued the following ruling (‘fatwa’) “The time of Isha does not occur and therefore there is no Isha prayer”, Shams al-Aimmah al-Hilwani al-Bukhari disagreed and said that “there is Isha prayer because there is compulsion of prayer within the religion and this (compulsion) is not lifted due to the time (not occurring).” Imam Baqali responded by giving the following pertinent example: “When a person has his hand cut off, does he need to do ablution [ritual washing] on it? When a person has no hand, compulsion to wash that limb is removed and therefore when there is no time, compulsion to prayer Isha is also removed”. Imam Shamsul al-Aimmah, who was a famous and highly respected scholar throughout the Muslim world, to the extent that he was given the title of the ‘Sun of all Imams’, took back his own ruling (‘fatwa’) and issued a new ruling which supported the position of Imam Baqali. Fortunately, we had some genuine scholars at that time, something we are seriously lacking today, where people see correcting themselves as a sign of weakness and fight for their entrenched positions regardless of their absurdity or harm caused to the Muslim laity. This became the relied upon opinion (‘Mu’tamad’) within the Hanafi School which is narrated by huge number of Hanafi Scholars and can be found in the famous and authoritative books of that school, such as ‘Nur al Idah’, ‘Fatwa Shaamia’, ‘Fatwa Hindiyyah’ etc.
Of course, people will keep insisting on their own entrenched views and confusing the lay Muslims by trying to make it look as if the opposite is the true opinion of the Hanafis. Towards this end they often quote that the foregoing opinion was not accepted by Imam Kamal al Deen Muhammad bin Humam who is Sahibul Ikhtiyaar (which means he is, due to his seniority, allowed to leave the relied upon opinion or ‘Mu’tamad’ of the School – but others are forbidden from following this opinion as that of the School in any case). His point was that prayer is known by consensus (‘Ijma’) and therefore its compulsion should not be removed. This is a weak position because washing your hands as a part of ablution is also Ijma but its compulsion can be removed as explained earlier. This opinion was incorrectly accepted and taken by some of the contemporary Hanafi scholars.
Kamal ibn Humam was a Hanafi scholar from the 15th century and was the first person to apply a numerical value to the ‘whiteness’ of the post sunset sky (aside from modern astronomers of course), which he ascertained as ‘18 degrees’. In this matter he doesn’t really leave the position of the Hanafi school as he is still following the position of the whiteness disappearing, he merely applies a numerical value to the situation. However, it is illustrative to note that there is the famous position of Imam Abu Hanifa that one does not apply a numerical value to something which has not been mentioned in the Quran or Sunnah. An example of this is the matter of what exactly is considered as a ‘large body of water’ (mentioned in the Islamic sources), whereas Imam Muhammad applies a numerical value to his position of how much this amount is, Imam Abu Hanifa does not. Therefore ‘18 degrees’ is a numerical estimation of the disappearing of whiteness, and the actual position of the Hanafi school is that Isha begins when the whiteness disappears. Fajr prayer begins when there is a thin white Horizontal line in the sky. As the whiteness never disappears this light is always present and this thin line does not appear after the darkness. Therefore the normal time of Fajr prayer also does not begin.
Now even though we know that the time of the Isha prayer does not in fact occur in certain climes, yet there are some weak opinions about how one should calculate when to read Isha prayer irrespective of this reality. Aqrabul Ayyam (‘nearest day’), this is when you look use the time of the last day when the whiteness did actually disappear and one reads Isha prayer based on this time. Aqrabul Bilaad (‘nearest city’), which is to find the nearest city below 48.5 degrees, where the whiteness does disappear and use that time to establish the time of Isha prayer in your own city. Nisful Layl (‘half of the night’). This is when the night divided into two parts. In the first part one prayer Maghrib and Isha and this is also divided into two parts. There is also the opinion of Imam Shafi where he divides the night into seven parts. People are free to follow these but they are not licit within the Hanafi school (at least), and to mandate them upon people is an interesting example of a peculiar modern notion of ‘non-sectarianism’ or ‘non-partisanship’, where respect for other opinions and ‘unity’ in fact leads to the enforcement of just one opinion, often incongruent with Hanfism, upon its followers. If however the followers of a Madhab (school of thought such as Hanafi, Shafi etc) try to pick and choose between the madhabs by themselves, they are accused to ‘taking the easy way out’. So in reality, we see people who advocate a traditional point of view are accused of reviving rivalries between Madhabs and sectarianism, but this is just a means to unite everyone under the puritan or Salafi opinion, which itself is sectarian, as dissent from it is paradoxically labelled ‘sectarianism’ and ‘dividing the Ummah’ (community of believers).
We have seen the position of the Hanafi School based on the opinion of the Scholars but what about from the perspective of Usul (epistemic principles of the school)? Do the opinions in fact match the Usul? The first principle is that each ruling has a ‘condition of compulsion’ (‘Sabab’), if this disappears then the ruling also disappears. Now, prayer is attached to time. It is not permissible for a person to prayer tomorrows’ Maghrib prayer today, or even just a minute or two earlier than its prescribed time. (In fact, if anyone even suggested that one could pray any of the five daily prayers a few minutes or even seconds earlier or later than the right time, accusations of heresy would be rained down on them by the very same scholars insisting that Isha is prayed at what amounts to an arbitrary time). Neither can a person pray yesterday’s prayer today (this is only by Qada). Therefore when the ‘condition of compulsion’ (‘Sabab’) of the prayer disappears, then the ruling and compulsion of prayer likewise also disappears. As such, when there is no time, there is no prayer.
What about the method of estimation and splitting the night that we explained earlier? We have another principle in the Hanafi School, which is that we do not apply a replacement for an act unless that replacement has been established by the Quran or Sunnah. An example is ablution. When one cannot perform ablution, then one can perform the replacement that has been established by the Quran or Sunnah which is ‘Tayyamum’ (symbolic ablution with dust or earth). If however one is unable to do perform even Tayyamum, then they are unable to pray as there is no ‘replacement for the replacement’ that has been established by the Quran or Sunnah.
As there is no time for the beginning of Isha prayer or the beginning of Fajr (before dawn) prayer at certain latitudes and times of the year, the only thing we have in these cases to go by is the end of Fajr, which is sunrise, and the beginning of Maghrib prayer, which is sunset. So what one can do is read Maghrib, Isha and Fajr at any time between this period. As soon as someone reads Fajr their fast begins, which at the moment is around 4.30am (assuming they choose to pray near to sunrise – if they were to pray it close to Maghrib/sunset time, which they could well do since the time between Maghrib and sunrise has become a continuum with no ‘beginning’ time for Fajr, only an end time, then their fast would start much earlier. Essentially, you cannot eat after you have prayed Fajr, and you can pray Fajr at any time after sunset in those latitudes where it does not get completely dark, at least according to the Hanafis).
This makes the fast easier for those who struggle with the really long hours and it is in fact the reliable position within the Hanafi School.
Isha can be omitted completely since the pre-condition for its compulsion (namely, ‘darkness’ or more scientifically, Astronomical Twilight) does not in fact occur.
For people who want to follow their own local mosque then that’s fine too because as soon as they pray their Fajr prayer their fast will begin, which will be in line with the Hanafi position we have spoken about.
I am continually surprised by the reaction of both ordinary Muslims and scholars when I present this justified and antique opinion of the Hanafi School. Their reaction ranges from mild surprise to outright hostility. How, after all, can I be saying that one can omit the reading of Isha prayer completely, or pray it and even Fajr at the same time as Maghrib? For the scholars, their reaction is usually due to their sectarianism, and sadly, ignorance of competing views to their own within traditional scholarship. For ordinary Muslims, the problems is somewhat different: praying three prayers together at sunset, including the famously difficult-to-rise-for before dawn prayer, Fajr, just seems, well…too easy. This is an indication of the extent to which the puritanical mentality, as exemplified by Wahhabism and other similar groups, has pervaded the ordinary Muslim mind. I am not of course suggesting that most lay Muslims are puritans – they obviously are not. Rather, the idea that something which is ‘easy’ or lenient, cannot be at the same time genuinely Islamic, is very widespread amongst practising Muslims. This extends to matters far beyond just prayer, to issues such as dress code, gender segregation, listening to music, keeping the beard and interacting with non-Muslims or voting in elections. In each case, those presenting a ‘lenient’ view, albeit from the Salaf (early generations of Muslims) and classical Islam, are presented as ‘sell-outs’, modernists or simply licentious liberals. Nothing could be further from the truth. But the ease with which these accusations stick is an indication of the extent to which the modern Muslim mind has been conditioned to believe that the hardest way is the most ‘Islamic’ – and that is a very good definition of puritanism, which at its heart is nothing more than the suspicion of ease, a mind-set shared by many Muslims today.
In the UK, no-one is indignant when we have, in the short winter days, all of the five prayers in rather close proximity, creating some difficulty. We put up with this as a ‘test’ and the consequence of the greater variation in day-length the further we are from the equator, (where it does not vary at all through the year). And rightly so. But a concomitant effect of this is that there is some ease in the summer months when it becomes very straight forward to get Maghrib, Isha and Fajr done all together or to even omit Isha. The difficulty is taken in Muslims stride, and this is good and to be celebrated. But the ease is seen with suspicion, despite the providence of the view of the Hanafi scholars.
The danger of this is that when a Wahhabi-Salafist wants to win the argument on Niqaab (face veil) being compulsory or music being Haram (forbidden) in Islam, he has an easy task as he merely has to portray that his opponent’s position is too lenient or easy (or worse, similar to the hated ‘kufaar’) to be true. He has no need to deploy academic proofs as the predisposed treated mind of the Muslim laity is altogether vulnerable to his line of argumentation. Unfortunately what the populous fails to realise is that the current thought is heavily backed politically motivated funds. This predominant Islam is therefore not based on academia but rather it is politically driven.
In the Quran we have many verses explaining how God does not burden us more than we can bear, and that our religion has been made easy for us, especially in comparison to the regions that came before Islam.
“Allah intends for you ease, and He does not want to make things difficult for you.” (2:185)
“Allah does not want to place you in difficulty” (5:06)
“God does not burden a person beyond his scope. He gets reward for that which he has earned, and he is punished for that which he has earned. “Our Lord! Punish us not if we forget or fall into error, our Lord! Lay not on us a burden like that which You did lay on those before us. (2:286)”
The Prophet Muhammad (SAW) is reported to have said that the Jews and Christians would be in envy of the ease of Islam. If we are honest, how many Muslims and Jews today are jealous of how ‘easy’ our religion is?
As the issue of Fasting times shows, religion is not just about self-righteousness and hardship: others have taken that route (for example, the Catholic Church, Wahhabism and some forms of Hinduism) and are reaping its bitter fruits. The way of God must be followed whether it is easy or difficult. Otherwise, we are following our ego, which can lean not only towards hedonism but hardship and puritanism as well.
Those seeking an expanded discussion of the issues in this article can consult my book length treatment on Traditional or Classical Islam, entitled ‘Hanafi Principles of Testing Hadith’, available here: