Every year, many questions about numerous topics arise with the start of the blessed month of Ramadan. The most important of these questions are related to the crescent moon and the time of imsak (when believers must stop eating and drinking) versus the time of fajr (dawn) prayer.
Many of the believers ask, “In Muslim countries, people grow accustomed to the time of imsak being the same time as fajr prayer. This means that the time to stop eating and drinking is when one hears the call for prayer (adhan) (i.e., the time of fajr prayer). On the other hand, why do the month of Ramadan prayer schedules in North America and many other places have two times, one for imsak and a separate time for fajr prayer (e.g., ten to twenty minutes later)?
“Moreover, is it necessary for a person to abide by the listed imsak time, such that it would invalidate their fast if they were to eat after it up until the time of fajr prayer?”
In answering these questions, we must consider the following points:
- The time of fajr prayer – the true fajr (al-fajr al-sadiq) as described by the jurists
The Holy Quran states the following about the moment when the fast must start, “Eat and drink until the white streak of dawn becomes distinguishable from darkness.” Based on this, the jurist clarifies and explains that this is called al-fajr al-sadiq or true fajr (i.e., the actual time of fajr), which is a whiteness that appears [and spreads] upon the horizons and increases in clarity and brightness. It is preceded by al-fajr al-kadhib or the false fajr, which is a column of brightness arising vertically from the horizons upward to the sky that decreases both in size and brightness until it disappears.
Those who live in rural areas can usually observe these characteristics easily and clearly, because there are no city lights in the horizon [to obscure them]. However, these celestial characteristics are difficult to distinguish for people living in urban areas such as cities and regions that have a lot of artificial light at night. Therefore, in such cases, people must refer to astronomical sources to determine the time when these events (i.e., al-fajr al-sadiq) occur and establish the actual time of fajr prayer based on that.
- Differences in prayer times
When we refer to various astronomical sources to determine prayer times, we notice a clear difference in the times of fajr prayer, which can vary from between ten to twenty minutes of each other. Thus, which schedule is correct so that we know what time to pray fajr? For example, some people may depend on the Um al-Qura method to determine the times, because of which they might pray fajr at 5:35 a.m. On the other hand, others may use the Leva Institute method, which might yield a time of 5:50 a.m. A third person may depend on another source of astronomical data that gives 5:40 a.m. to be the time of fajr, and so forth. So, which person prayed at the correct time? God only knows.
Let us consider the following hypothetical situation with four astronomical sources and four different times. Organization A lists fajr prayer at 5:38 a.m., while B cites it to be 5:35 a.m., C at 5:40 a.m., and D at 5:50 a.m. Thus, the largest difference between any two of these time points is fifteen minutes (i.e., between B and D). With such a variation in the listed times it becomes difficult to determine which is correct.
- Our Religious Duty
Our religious duty is to exercise precaution in reaching certainty that our prayer occurred at the proper time. Additionally, precaution must be employed in the month of Ramadan for the time of imsak so that we are certain that we stopped eating before fajr occurred. For the purposes of establishing prayer, precaution dictates that the person should use the latest time, which is the one listed by organization D (from the example above). This is because it guarantees that all the other listed times for the prayer (A, B, and C) have already passed. Since a person’s religious duty is to pray after the time of fajr occurs, then the time listed by organization D provides certainty that the prayer will be performed after night has ended and fajr time has occurred.
On the other hand, attaining certainty in imsak [through precaution] would require the person to depend on the time listed by organization B because it is the earliest time [among those available] and verified to be part of the night. Since a person’s religious duty is to refrain from eating (imsak) before fajr occurs, then time B would give them certainty that they did so when it was still night and before fajr. In summary, precaution in determining the time of fajr (for the purpose of prayer) entails taking the latest time, while it means taking the earliest time listed for imsak. Doing so will allow the person to achieve the required certainty by exercising precaution so that they become content that their prayer and fast are valid.
As it relates to precaution, the following should be understood. In general, a believer should know that if their marja or the jurist who they emulate has ruled that a given action should be carried out based on obligatory precaution, then they can either follow his edict on the precautionary action or follow the ruling or fatwa of the second most knowledgeable jurist (i.e., al-alam fal-alam). However, if the person’s marja does not provide any opinion on that action, then the person can either chose to follow the ruling of another marja regarding that action or act according to specific jurisprudential practical rules (al-usul al-amaliyyah) that apply to the individual in such circumstances. In the matter of ascertaining the time of fajr, and hence, when to stop eating and drinking, the jurisprudential practical rule that applies to the individual is istishab. This principle states that the person should act on their previous certainty and ignore the present doubt, because doubt cannot override certainty. So, this means that if they doubt whether fajr has occurred, then they can act on their prior certainty that it is still night (i.e., fajr has not occurred). Therefore, the person does imsak at the time that they are content fajr has occurred, which is 5:50 a.m. in this example, because this is the latest time [for fajr] of those provided by the astronomical sources.
Based on this information, one has the option of either exercising precaution, which is the best means of attaining certainty because it is reported in the traditions to be a path to salvation, or assume personal responsibility and depend on istishab and consider the time of fajr to be the same as the time of imsak, which is allowed from a religious point of view.
- Why is this not necessarily an issue in Islamic countries?
In Muslim countries, all the various religious organizations usually depend on one schedule, giving them one time for each of the prayers. In that case, the adhan signifies both the time of fajr and imsak [in the month of Ramadan]. Even then, we find that in some Muslim countries, a given city may have differences in the times of the adhan of fajr. This is evident from hearing several adhans, one occurring first, then another ten minutes later, and then another fifteen minutes later, for instance. This happens because different mosques use different sources of astronomical data. However, in North America and Europe, each Islamic center depends on the source that it trusts the most, and based on that they distribute their respective prayer schedules. As a result, some of them do not exercise precaution based on a given source of astronomical data, while others use precaution so that they fully discharge their obligation to God and the believers (so those following the schedule can be certain they performed the necessary act at the appropriate time).
In conclusion, given these conditions, a believer should follow the fatwa of their marja if he has explicitly stated one on this matter (i.e., when to stop eating and drinking). However, if the believer’s marja has stipulated that observing an earlier time of imsak (e.g., ten to fifteen minutes before fajr) should be adhered to based on obligatory precaution, then the believer has the choice of either following his ruling or the fatwa of the next most knowledgeable marja. Lastly, if a person’s marja has not provided any ruling on the matter, then the believer can either follow the ruling of another marja or act according to the jurisprudential practical rule described above (i.e., istishab), which would mean they refrain from eating and drinking at the time of fajr.
We ask Almighty God to make us successful in being obedient to Him in this blessed month, that He accepts our deeds and repentance, that He forgives our sins, and unifies us through love and piety. As always, our final sentiment is that all gratitude is to God, the Lord of the worlds.
- The Holy Quran 2:187, Muhammad Sarwar translation.
2. Ayatullah Abul Qasim al-Khoei, Islamic Laws, p. 106, no. 749.
3. Each method uses unique calculation parameters (i.e., angles) to determine fajr, maghrib (post sunset) and isha (evening) prayers.
4. The jurisprudential principle of istishab or continuity is used when someone has a previous certainty about something followed by a present doubt about that same thing.
 وَكُلُوا وَاشْرَبُوا حَتَّىٰ يَتَبَيَّنَ لَكُمُ الْخَيْطُ الْأَبْيَضُ مِنَ الْخَيْطِ الْأَسْوَدِ مِنَ الْفَجْرِ
 Ayatullah Abul Qasim al-Khoei, Islamic Laws, p. 106, no. 749.
 Each method uses unique calculation parameters (i.e., angles) to determine fajr, maghrib (post sunset) and isha (evening) prayers.
 The jurisprudential principle of istishab or continuity is used when someone has a previous certainty about something followed by a present doubt about that same thing.