Reflections on the Heavens and the Earth

Sacred Astronomy

By Hamza Yusuf | Zaytuna Institute

According to Imam al-Kattani, in his original work of scholarship Taratib al-idariyyah, the Prophet appointed a timekeeper in Medina to maintain sacred time for the community. Scholars understood from this that sacred timekeeping was an obligation binding upon some among the community (fard kifayah) in order to maintain correct prayer times as well as to determine days and months according the lunar calendar. Both fasting in Ramadan and performing hajj are individual obligations that the community of Muslims is required to maintain until the end of time, and both are solely determined by the lunar calendar.

Developed by early Muslim scientists

Historically, the muezzin was the appointed timekeeper of the city and often had completed advanced studies in astronomy, mathematics, and the use of instruments (particularly the sundial) needed to measure shadows. With the introduction of modern technical means of keeping time and the advancement of astronomical knowledge, the timekeeper's job fell into disarray, and the position died out in many Muslim countries. Only Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, and a handful of other places have kept alive the sacred science of horology (ilm at-tawqit) alive.

Scholars of Islamic horology learn to determine the lunar calendar, the prayer times, and the direction of Mecca from any place in the world based upon simple, time-tested methods that the companions of the Prophet understood and practiced. All three topics are covered in the voluminous literature of horology that exists largely in manuscripts throughout the Muslim libraries. This portion of the Zaytuna website is dedicated to reviving the beautiful science of Islam named ilm at-tawqit.

Current Moon Phase & Calendar

Every community should have a group of people that commits to sighting the new moon each month. High-quality astronomy magazines and websites indicate the most probable day for its sighting. However, astronomical new moons and juristic new moons are not the same: the birth of a new moon astronomically is not its birth according to the jurists of Islam. This fact creates much confusion every year and could be easily resolved if Muslims return to the sunna of the Prophet , as he said in a sound hadith related by Imam al-Hakim, "The best of Allah's servants are those who observe the new moons and shadows as a way of remembering Allah." Although the hadith generally refers to the muezzin who traditionally fulfilled that function, it does not exclude others who partake in the practice of tawqit.

Audio: Moon Sighting, by Hamza Yusuf
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Fasting the Bright Days

The moon is one of the great signs of Allah in creation. Its phases and its association with both the tides as well as menstrual cycles of females are well-known. While sound Islamic doctrine does not accept belief in any celestial influence whatsoever, including the so-called lunar influence on tides, it does recognize the mysterious connection between such phenomena as part of the divine patterns in creation (sunan ilahiyyah).

Observing the new moons, full moons, and waning moons is a way of remembering Allah during one's life. The cycles of the moon are discernable signs for those who reflect. Traditional peoples everywhere are profoundly connected to the cycles of the moon and are able to use the phenomenal signs to determine the month and day at given time due to this connection. Modern people, on the other hand, have become disconnected from such marvels of creation, and this disconnection with Allah's signs causes suffering.

One way in which the Muslim community stays connected to such cycles is through the practice of fasting during the Bright Days, which are the three days in the middle of the lunar month: the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth days. In a sound hadith related by Imam Muslim, Abu Darda said, "My beloved counseled me to not abandon three things as long as I live: to fast on three days out of every month, to pray the morning (duha) prayer, and not to sleep until I had prayed the witr prayer." According to another hadith related by Imam Muslim, when asked on which three days the Prophet would fast, Aishah replied that he did not mind which three days of the month he fasted on. However, there are several sound narrations indicating that the Prophet preferred fasting on the Bright Days. On the authority of Ibn Abbas, an-Nasai relates the hadith: "The Messenger of Allah never used to break his [practice of] fasting on the Bright Days, whether at home or on a journey." In another hadith related by Abu Dawud, the Bright Days are described as being on the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth of each month. Qatadah bin Milhan stated, "The Messenger of Allah used to command us to fast on the Bright Days: the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth [of each lunar month]."

Due to his fear of people taking normative practices as an obligation, Imam Malik disliked people selecting for fasting the Bright Days specifically. Discussing the recommended days to fast, Sidi Khalìl, whose abridgment of the Mudawwanah is relied upon throughout the Maliki world, states, "[It is recommended] to fast three days out of every month but discouraged if the Bright Days are specified. [It is also discouraged to fast] the six days of Shawwal, if [one fasts] them consecutively [immediately after the Eid]."Imam Malik was noted to fast on the first, eleventh, and twenty-first of every month, which are the days the Arabs call "the first days" (ayyam al-ghirr). The basis for this practice is as follows: Each deed is rewarded ten times its actual worth, as the Quran states, "Whoever comes with an act of good finds ten times its like" (6:160). Since fasting one day results in being rewarded for fasting ten days, fasting the beginning of every ten days throughout the year would result in what the Prophet called "perpetual fasting" (siyam ad-dahr); according to the hadith in both al-Bukhari and Muslim, the Prophet is reported to have said, "Fasting three days out of every month is, in effect, fasting perpetually." While Imam Malik chose to fast the beginning of every ten days in order to achieve "perpetual fasting," Ibn Askar preferred fasting the first three days of every month, based upon the idea of hastening a good deed.

The moon is one of the great signs of Allah in creation

In his commentary on his own abridgement of Sidi Khalil, Imam ad-Dardir states, "There is no discouragement (karahiyyah) if a person fasts them [the three days of each month] separately or delays [fasting] them [the first six days of Shawwal],[1] or if he privately fasts [on the three Bright Days or on the first six days of Shawwal, if he is someone whom others look to as an example], as the reason for the discouragement, which is fearing that [common people] would deem them obligatory, is removed" (Dardir 1:692-93). The Shafi'i school considers the Bright Days as especially encouraged for fasting over any other three days of the month and deems one who fasts during them as fulfilling two prophetic sunnas: the sunna of fasting on three days of the month as well as the sunna of fasting on the Bright Days. Without a doubt, the Bright Days are blessed days - as long as one does not consider them an obligation — they are days in which fasting is highly recommended by the sunna of the Prophet according to several sound and good hadiths.


The Night of the Fifteenth of Sha’baan (Nisf Sha’baan)

[1] That is, instead of fasting the six days of Shawwal consecutively on the first six days of the month, one fasts any six days of the month.

Abu Dharr al-Ghifari, may Allah be pleased with him, reported:
The Messenger of Allah said "O Abu Dharr! if you fast three days of every month, then fast the 13th, the 14th and the 15th."


Last updated: Wednesday, December 29, 2010