How did people determine the time of imsak in the past? I heard from old people that they determined the time of imsak when it became bright enough to distinguish black thread from white thread. However, it is very dark at the time of imsak.

The Answer

Dear Brother / Sister,

The following is stated in the Quran:

"And eat and drink, until the white thread of dawn appears to you distinct from its black thread; then complete your fast till the night appears." (al-Baqara, 2/187).

What is meant by the appearance of the white and black thread is the brightness of the day and the darkness of the night being separated from each other.  

According to a narration, when the verse was sent down, the phrase "minal-fajri (of dawn)" did not exist. Some people who intended to fast tied a black thread to one foot and a white thread to the other and would continue eating and drinking at suhoor until they became visible. Then, God Almighty sent down the phrase “of dawn” in order to inform that what was meant by the example of thread was “night and day”.(1)

The Prophet (pbuh) explained that what was meant by the example of thread was night and day. The following is reported from Adiyy b. Hatim (d. after 60/680):

"When the verse above was revealed, I took two strings, one black and the other white, and put them under my pillow. I looked at them at suhoor and when it was bright enough to distinguish them, I stopped eating and drinking. In the morning, I went to the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) and told him what I had done. He said,

What a large pillow you have! What is meant in the verse is the darkness of the night and the whiteness of the dawn. How can you place them under your pillow?" (Bukhari, Sawm, 16)

Imsak, which is the beginning time for fasting, is also the beginning time for the morning prayer. That is, when the time for fasting starts, the time for the morning prayer starts too. The evidence about the time of imsak is the following hadiths:  Abdullah b. Umar (d. 74/693) states the following: "The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) said,

"Bilal calls adhan at night. Eat and drink until Abdullah ibn Umm Maktum calls adhan." The person who reported the hadith said, “Ibn Umm Maktum was blind. He would not call adhan until he was told, ’It is morning time’."(2)

Bilal's adhan aimed to warn those who were eating suhoor and Ibn Maktum's adhan informed people about imsak and hence time for the morning prayer. The first adhan was called at fajr kadhib and the second one at fajr sadiq. According to the preferred view of Hanafi madhhab, it is not permissible to call adhan before the time for the morning prayer starts as well as the other prayers.

Bilal’s calling adhan before the time for the morning prayer does not aim to call people to prayer but to awaken those who are asleep, to remind those who want to fast to eat at once and those who are performing tahajjud prayer to stop it and start to perform witr prayer. (az-Zabidi, Tecrîdi Sarih, trnsl. Ahmed Naim, Ankara 1983, II, 581). The following hadith reported from Abdullah b. Mas'ud makes the beginning time for imsak clearer:

The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) said,

"Bilal's adhan should not prevent you from eating suhoor because he calls adhan when it is still night. Its aim is to inform those who are performing tahajjud prayer that morning is approaching and to awaken those who are asleep."

Fajr, which is the time of imsak is something else and, is as follows: "Then, the Prophet pointed with his fingers and raised them up (towards the sky) and then lowered them (towards the earth). Then, he put his index finger and middle finger on each other and then stretched them to the right and left."(3)

The first gesture the Prophet (pbuh) made with his fingers aimed to describe fajr kadhib. Because the brightness that appears in the horizon in the east toward the morning thins as it goes up. After a while, that brightness disappears; that is why, it is called fajr kadhib (false dawn). It is also called fajr awwal (first dawn) and vertical brightness. The second gesture describes fajr sadiq (true dawn), which spreads to the whole horizon in the east. It is also called fajr thani (second dawn) and horizontal brightness. (see az-Zabidi, ibid, II, 586)

Those who ask for forgiveness at the time of suhoor are praised in the Quran (Aal-i Imran, 3/17); the Prophet (pbuh) encouraged people to wake up for suhoor. The following is stated in hadiths:  

"Eat suhoor. There is definitely blessing in suhoor."(4).

"He who wants to fast should eat or drink something at suhoor." (Ahmad b. Hanbal, III, 367).

On the other hand, we are advised to delay suhoor and hurry for iftar. (Nasai, Siyam, 23, Ahmad b. Hanbal, V, 147).

It is mustahab to wake up for suhoor for a person who wants to perform fasting; it is also regarded as intention (niyyah) for fasting. However, it is regarded mandub to say the intention with the tongue. It is permissible to make the intention for fasting from the beginning of the night to the mid-morning but if something that invalidates fasting occurs after the time of imsak, the intention is no longer valid.

Click for additional information:

(1) see Bukhari, Sawm, 16, Tafsiru Sura 2/28; Muslim, Siyam, 35; Ibn Kathir, Mukhtasaru Tafsiri Ibn Kathir, Tahqiq wa ikhtisar, Muhammad Ali as-Sabuni, Beirut 1402/1981, I/165.
(2) see Bukhari, Adhan, II, 13, Shahadat, II, Sawm, 17; Muslim, Siyam, 36-39; Tirmidhi, Salah, 35; Nasai, Adhan, 9, 10, Siyam, 30; Ahmad b. Hanbal, II/9, 57, 123, VI/44, 54, 185, 186, 433.
(3) see Bukhari, Adhan, 13, Ahad, 1, Talaq, 24; Nasai, Adhan, 11; Ibn Majah, Siyam, 23; Ahmad b. Hanbal, l/386, 392, 435.
(4) see Nasai, Siyam, 18, 19; Ibn Madjah, Siyam, 22; Darimi, Sawm, 9; Ahmad b. Hanbal, II/377, 477, III/32, 99, 215, 229, 243, 258, 28 1).

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