Archive for September, 2009

Perseid Meteor Shower 2009

September 5, 2009

Bismillah.  I wrote the following short piece about the Perseid meteor shower at the request of the Guardian CIF on Wednesday 12th August 2009, around the time that the Perseids were peaking.  By the grace of Allah, or “thanks to God and then to Google,” the article was No. 1 Most Viewed on the CIF section all day on Thursday 13th August 2009 and No. 3 on the Guardian website overall, with over 115,000 views.  The photo of a meteor that CIF put at the top of the article generated many hits via Google.

Most readers were thus not regular CIFers, which is partly why there weren’t too many comments.  However, as usual, some of the comments were hilarious and well-worth reading.

The last comment is my own, an extract from the Egyptian scholar al-Suyuti (d. 911 AH/ 15th century CE) regarding meteoric events in history.  Here is an extended extract from those pages of History of the Caliphs, covering other events such as Siamese twins, etc.

[Caliph no. 53:] Al-Nasir li Din Allah, Ahmad

Al-Nasir li Din Allah, Ahmad Abu l-‘Abbas b. al-Mustadi’ bi Amr Allah.

He was born on Monday the tenth of Rajab in the year five hundred and fifty-three [553].  His mother was a Turkish umm walad [“mother of a child,” a slavewoman who is free after her master’s death due to her giving birth by him] named Zumurrud.  He was pledged allegiance when his father [Caliph no. 52, al-Mustadi’ bi Amr Allah] died at the beginning of Dhu l-Qa’dah in the year seventy-five [575].  Several scholars gave him permission to transmit from them, including Abu l-Husain ‘Abd al-Haqq al-Yusufi, Abu l-Hasan ‘Ali b. ‘Asakir al-Bata’ihi and Shuhdah.  He himself gave permission to several others to narrate from him.  They used to narrate from him during his lifetime, competing in that for the sake of fame, not of isnad.

One of his interesting anecdotes is that a servant of his named Yumn wrote him a note that included:

Biman yumann Yumn Thaman Yumn thumun

(By whom shall Yumn be favoured?  The price of Yumn is an eighth!)

In the year eighty [580]: the caliph made the tomb of Musa al-Kazim a sanctuary for anyone who took refuge there.  Large numbers of people did so, and many problems resulted.

In the year eighty-one [581]: a boy was born in al-‘Alath – his forehead was a handspan plus four fingers in width, and he had one ear.

In the year eighty-three [583]: it so happened that the first day of the (lunar) year was also the first day of the week, the first day of the solar year and the first day of the Persian year, and the sun and the moon were in the first zodiacal sign.  This was an amazing coincidence.

One of the strange matters [connected to the reconquest of Jerusalem] is that Ibn Burrajan mentioned in tafsir of “Alif Lam Mim: The Romans have been conquered” [Qur’an, 30:1-2] that Jerusalem would remain in the hands of the Crusaders (al-Rum) until the year five hundred and eighty-three [583], when they would be vanquished.  Jerusalem would be conquered and remain a Land of Islam until the end of time.  He derived all this from the arithmetic of the ayah, and it is precisely what happened.

Abu Shamah said: What Ibn Burrajan mentioned is a wondrous coincidence, for he died ages before the event, his death having occurred in the year five hundred and thirty-six [536].

In the year five hundred and ninety-two [592]: a black wind gusted over Mecca, blinding everyone.  Red sand covered the people.  A piece of the Yemeni corner [of the Ka’bah] broke off and fell.

In the year five hundred and ninety-three [593, around 1197 CE], a great celestial object fell to earth with a terrifying sound, shaking dwellings and lands. The people sought divine help and prayed publicly, and thought that this was one of the signs of the Day of Judgment.

In the year ninety-seven [597]: A great earthquake shook Egypt, Sham and Arabia, destroying many places and forts. A village near Busra sank into the ground.

In the year five hundred and ninety-nine [599, around 1202 CE] at the end of Muharram [the first month of the Islamic calendar], the stars were in commotion and swarmed around like locusts. This continued until dawn. The people were distressed and cried out to God the Exalted. The [celestial] phenomenon had only been experienced before at the advent of the Messenger of God, peace be upon him.

In the year six hundred and one [601]: a woman at Qutay’a’ gave birth to a boy with two heads, two arms and four legs.  He did not survive.

In the year six hundred and six [606]: the story of the Tatars began, which will be explained later …

Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti, Tarikh al-Khulafa or History of the Caliphs, Muassasah al-Kutub al-Thaqafiyyah, Beirut, 2nd ed., 1417/1996, pp. 390-6 (my translation)

Moon Clocks – Mediaeval & Modern

September 5, 2009
Bismillah.  For a description of a mediaeval Islamic moon-clock in Toledo, Andalusia, see below.
Firstly, a modern moon-clock project.  From the team at Aluna:
Dear All,

We were thrilled that Aluna was featured on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme and also on the BBC website on September 1st 2009. Thanks to those of you who heard it and have already been in touch.

The radio piece, by BBC Science Correspondent Pallab Ghosh, features contributions from David Rooney, former curator of Timekeeping at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich (now at the Science Museum), Dr. Usama Hasan, Imam and Islamic Astronomer and Aluna’s Laura Williams.

Do take a look at the article on the BBC news website –

You can also listen again to the Today Programme on the BBC iplayer for the next few days –

(The story starts at 44 mins 30 secs but you can skip straight there by dragging the cursor along)
For those of you who are not already aware, we’re very pleased that The Aluna Foundation has received its charitable status – granted on the July 20th, the 40th anniversary of the Moon landings!
Secondly, thanks to Mohammad Baig, an astronomer and writer, for drawing my attention to the following:
Al-Zarqali and his lunar chronograph or moon-clock

Abu Ishaq Ibrahim Ibn Yahya Al-Zarqali (Arzachel in Latin), was a famous Andalusian scholar known also as Al-Zarqalluh and Al-Zarqallah. He was born in 1029 and died in 1087. His life corresponded exactly to that dramatic period when the Muslim realm of Spain completely disintegrated, and nearly collapsed, only to be saved in 1089, when the Almoravids of Morocco crossed into Spain, crushed the Christians at Zalaqa, and unified Spain once more. They were followed later by the Almohads, who kept Spain under Muslim rule for another two centuries, until the middle of the 13th century, when Muslim Spain, with the exception of Granada, was lost for good.

Al-Zarqali constructed the famed clocks of Toledo, which al-Zuhri has described in a Castilian translation, published by J.M. Millas-Vallicrosa. The clocks were in use until 1135, when King Alphonso VI tried to discover how they worked and asked Hamis Ibn Zabara to dismantle them. Once they were taken apart, nobody could reassemble them. They constituted a very precise lunar calendar and were, to some extent, the predecessors of the clocks or planetary calendar devices that became fashionable six centuries later in Europe.

Ahmad Thomson has given a vivid account of the intricate working of the clocks. The clocks consisted of two basins, which filled with water or emptied according to the increasing or waning of the moon. At the moment when the new moon appeared on the horizon, water would begin to flow into the basins by means of subterranean pipes, so that there would be at day-break the fourth of a seventh part, and at the end of the day half a seventh part, of the water required to fill the basins. In this proportion the water would continue to flow until seven days and as many nights of the month had elapsed, by which time both basins would be half filled. The same process during the following seven days and nights would make the two basins quite full, at the same time that the moon was at its full. However, on the fifteenth night of the month, when the moon would begin to wane, the basins would also begin to lose every day and night half a seventh part of their water, until by the twenty-first of the month they would be half empty, and when the moon reached her twenty-ninth night not a drop of water would remain in them. It is worthy of remark that, should anyone go to any of the basins when they were not filled, and poured water into them with a view to quicken its filling, the basins would immediately absorb the additional water and retain no more than the just quantity; and, on the contrary, were anyone to try, when they were nearly filled, to extract any or the whole of their water, the moment he raised his hands from the work the basins would pour out sufficient water to fill the vacuum in an instant.

Dawn and Sehri/Suhur/Suhoor Timings Confusion for Ramadan in the UK 1430/2009

September 4, 2009

Bismillah. (Apologies that this is a little late, since half the month has passed, but it will still be useful insha’Allah.)

Much confusion has been caused by varying dawn timings on mosque timetables, even within the same UK city. Variation is caused by different fatwas on how low (as an angle, in degrees) the sun is below the horizon when dawn first breaks. The major fiqhi schools differ between 15 and 18 degrees.

The timings can vary by up to an hour. For example, in London: the East London Mosque (ELM) uses the rule of 15 degrees, I believe. The Regent’s Park Mosque (RPM) uses 17.5 or 18 degrees, following a fatwa from the World Fiqh Academy (al-Majamma’) based in Mecca.

The RPM timings are therefore much earlier than ELM, making the fast much longer. The Muslim World League (MWL) London uses RPM timings but subtracts another 10 minutes at the beginning of the fast, following the disputed, “cautious” method of imsak.

The MWL fast was thus *a whole hour* longer than the ELM one at the beginning of Ramadan this year, approximately 17 vs. 16 hours! The difference reduces to about half an hour by the end of the month, as the days shorten and the end of Ramadan coincides approximately with the autumn equinox.

At Tawhid Mosque (TM) in Leyton, we usually use a 90-minute rule for dawn and nightfall (before sunrise and after sunset, respectively) in working out prayer times throughout the year. For Ramadan, we’ve adjusted the dawn rule to 100 minutes, to be safe, but this is still slightly shorter than the ELM timings.

Only observations of dawn can settle this matter. A few nights before Ramadan, 18/19 August 2009, we had an exceptionally clear night in London. The stars and planets, especially Jupiter and Venus, were much clearer than is normal. I observed the dawn in the morning and first saw it above local rooftops at 4.27am. My estimate of dawn over the horizon, allowing also for light pollution, was between 4 and 4.20am. This was confirmed by Dr. Ameen Kamlana, observing simultaneously in Ashford, Kent. Timings that morning were: sunrise 5.49am (1-2 min variation possible), ELM dawn 4.03am, TM dawn around 4.11am with the 100-min rule.

I observed the dawn again this morning after another clear night. In fact, every time I have observed it around the UK over the years, the timing is close to the 15-degree or the 90-100-minute rules. Many other observers have also preferred the 15-degree timings, including (I think) Maulana Yaqoob Miftahi in Northern England and Refi Shafi (Abu Rumaysah) in High Wycombe.

The 17.5 or 18 degree timings are far too early in my view, indicating dawn when there is actually pitch darkness on the horizon. Perhaps the reason for this is that 18 degrees corresponds to the beginning/end of astronomical twilight, when even sensitive telescopes are unaffected by tiny amounts of scattered sunlight. However, this is not the same as dawn that is visible to the naked eye. Furthermore, as Ramadan moves through midsummer over the next few years, 18 degrees is not attained in most or all of the UK, so this method will provide no timings whatsoever.

Perhaps the jurists who issued the Majamma’ fatwa were wrongly advised about the nature of “first light” ? However, Dr. Musharraf Hussain of the Karimia once told me that 18 degrees is an established Hanafi position. Others, such as the imam of Brick Lane mosque, told me that 15 degrees is, too.

The Majamma’ perhaps needs to reconsider its ijtihad, which has another inconsistency: it uses a 17.5 degree rule equally for dawn and nightfall, although the majority of schools hold that the two are not symmetrical since they depend on white and red twilight, respectively. Imam Abu Hanifah, of course, held that they were symmetrical, both being white threads of dawn/twilight.

Summary: this is all a matter of ijtihad, so the public are free to follow their preferred authorities.

I advise brothers and sisters to observe the dawn and make up their own minds. 15 degree timings are perhaps preferable to 18 degree ones, especially since they make involve less hardship in the fast and seem to correspond far better with the dawn visible to the naked eye.

Note: several narrations in Tafsir Ibn Kathir have Companions/Successors describing the dawn breaking over the mountains of Mecca and Medina. This would indicate that there is no need to be obsessed with sea-level horizon timings, within reason. Allah asked us to begin fasting when the dawn becomes apparent. However, I have never found a good answer to a work colleague’s question, “What do Muslims do, who live in deep valleys?”

All the above is for discussion. Please contribute your views, observations, experiences, etc.

And Allah knows best!