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!