The Quran informs the bleivers that they are to fast during Ramadan from dawn (fajr) till night (layl). While the start and end of dawn (fajr) is well understood, there is much debate to when exactly does night start. While some believe that night starts when the sky is dark at dusk, others believe that the night starts at sunset. This leads to debates regarding when believers are allowed to break their fast for Ramadan.
According to the translation by Rashad Khalifa, he clarifies this by using the word sunset in 2:187 to assure individuals that the night starts at sunset and therefore one can break their fast at sunset and not when the sky is dark.
[2:187] Permitted for you is sexual intercourse with your wives during the nights of fasting. They are the keepers of your secrets, and you are the keepers of their secrets. GOD knew that you used to betray your souls, and He has redeemed you, and has pardoned you. Henceforth, you may have intercourse with them, seeking what GOD has permitted for you. You may eat and drink until the white thread of light becomes distinguishable from the dark thread of night at dawn. Then, you shall fast until sunset (layl). Sexual intercourse is prohibited if you decide to retreat to the masjid (during the last ten days of Ramadan). These are GOD’s laws; you shall not transgress them. GOD thus clarifies His revelations for the people, that they may attain salvation.
أُحِلَّ لَكُمْ لَيْلَةَ الصِّيَامِ الرَّفَثُ إِلَىٰ نِسَائِكُمْ هُنَّ لِبَاسٌ لَكُمْ وَأَنْتُمْ لِبَاسٌ لَهُنَّ عَلِمَ اللَّهُ أَنَّكُمْ كُنْتُمْ تَخْتَانُونَ أَنْفُسَكُمْ فَتَابَ عَلَيْكُمْ وَعَفَا عَنْكُمْ فَالْآنَ بَاشِرُوهُنَّ وَابْتَغُوا مَا كَتَبَ اللَّهُ لَكُمْ وَكُلُوا وَاشْرَبُوا حَتَّىٰ يَتَبَيَّنَ لَكُمُ الْخَيْطُ الْأَبْيَضُ مِنَ الْخَيْطِ الْأَسْوَدِ مِنَ الْفَجْرِ ثُمَّ أَتِمُّوا الصِّيَامَ إِلَى الَّيْلِ وَلَا تُبَاشِرُوهُنَّ وَأَنْتُمْ عَاكِفُونَ فِي الْمَسَاجِدِ تِلْكَ حُدُودُ اللَّهِ فَلَا تَقْرَبُوهَا كَذَٰلِكَ يُبَيِّنُ اللَّهُ آيَاتِهِ لِلنَّاسِ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَتَّقُونَ
|2||187||31||وَكُلُوا||And eat [you all]||wakulū|
|2||187||32||وَاشْرَبُوا||and drink [you all]||wa-ish’rabū|
|2||187||34||يَتَبَيَّنَ||it becomes clear / evident / distinct||yatabayyana|
|2||187||35||لَكُمُ||to you [all]||lakumu|
|2||187||44||أَتِمُّوا||complete [you all]||atimmū|
|2||187||47||الَّيْلِ||the night (sunset).||al-layli|
So what is the evidence for this claim, and can we use the verses of the Quran to determine at what point does the day start and the night end?
Sunset in the Quran
To understand the point of transition between night and day it is worth considering the words sunset from the Quran. The specific word “sunset” never actually occurs in the Quran. The common word الْمَغْرِبِ / l-maghribi that is commonly associated with sunset actually has the literal meaning of the “place of setting” or “the west” in the Quran as opposed to sunset (2:115, 2:142, 2:177, 2:258, 7:137, 18:86, 26:28, 55:17, 70:40, 73:9). Instead the expression used in the Quran is “its setting” or “the setting” in place of sunset (20:130, 50:39, 18:86).
We see similar language also used in 17:78, where the word sunset is not specifically used, but instead states that the sun moves till the darkness of the night.
[17:78] You shall observe the Contact Prayer (Salat) when the sun declines from its highest point at noon, as it moves towards sunset (layl). You shall also observe (the recitation of) the Quran at dawn. (Reciting) the Quran at dawn is witnessed.
(٧٨) أَقِمِ الصَّلَاةَ لِدُلُوكِ الشَّمْسِ إِلَىٰ غَسَقِ الَّيْلِ وَقُرْآنَ الْفَجْرِ إِنَّ قُرْآنَ الْفَجْرِ كَانَ مَشْهُودًا
|17||78||2||الصَّلَاةَ||the Contact Prayer (Salat),||l-ṣalata|
|17||78||3||لِدُلُوكِ||at (the) declining [from its highest point] (of)||lidulūki|
|17||78||6||غَسَقِ||(the) darkness / obscuring (of)||ghasaqi|
|17||78||7||الَّيْلِ||the night (sunset)||al-layli|
It is worth noting that the word غَسَقِ / ghasaqi used as translated as darkness doesn’t insinuate black, but actually the obscuring of vision from the removal of light. This is seen when we look at the root for this word غ س ق as well as the only other use of this root in the context of light and darkness in the following verse.
For clarity, Sura 113 is a prayer that we make to seek refuge in God for when the right path becomes obscured for us to be able to make a clear distinction. For anyone who watched the series Ozark, they may appreciate Wendy’s explanation to how she fell into the wrong path.
Night and Day Are Binary
The Quran distinguishes between the night (layl) and the day (nahar).
[17:12] We rendered the night and the day two signs. We made the night dark, and the day lighted, that you may seek provisions from your Lord therein. This also establishes for you a timing system, and the means of calculation. We thus explain everything in detail.
وَجَعَلْنَا الَّيْلَ وَالنَّهَارَ آيَتَيْنِ فَمَحَوْنَا آيَةَ الَّيْلِ وَجَعَلْنَا آيَةَ النَّهَارِ مُبْصِرَةً لِتَبْتَغُوا فَضْلًا مِنْ رَبِّكُمْ وَلِتَعْلَمُوا عَدَدَ السِّنِينَ وَالْحِسَابَ وَكُلَّ شَيْءٍ فَصَّلْنَاهُ تَفْصِيلًا
[25:62] He is the One who designed the night and the day to alternate: a sufficient proof for those who wish to take heed, or to be appreciative.
(٢٥:٦٢) وَهُوَ الَّذِي جَعَلَ الَّيْلَ وَالنَّهَارَ خِلْفَةً لِمَنْ أَرَادَ أَنْ يَذَّكَّرَ أَوْ أَرَادَ شُكُورًا
These verses inform us that the night and the day are binary. That at any time it is either night or day.
Some individuals point to the following verse to make the claim that night and day are not binary, but that there is a time between that is not night or day based on the following verses: 3:27, 22:61, 31:29, 35:13, 57:6.
[22:61] It is a fact that GOD merges the night into the day, and merges the day into the night, and that GOD is Hearer, Seer.
(٦١) ذَٰلِكَ بِأَنَّ اللَّهَ يُولِجُ الَّيْلَ فِي النَّهَارِ وَيُولِجُ النَّهَارَ فِي الَّيْلِ وَأَنَّ اللَّهَ سَمِيعٌ بَصِيرٌ
[57:6] He merges the night into the day, and merges the day into the night. He is fully aware of the innermost thoughts.
(٦) يُولِجُ الَّيْلَ فِي النَّهَارِ وَيُولِجُ النَّهَارَ فِي الَّيْلِ وَهُوَ عَلِيمٌ بِذَاتِ الصُّدُورِ
There is a period where day is transitioning to night, but this does not negate that there is a distinct moment when it is day and when it is night. As the sun is declining into the horizon it is merging the day into the night, but the moment that the sun sets it is no longer day and it is now officially night. Similarly, when the moment the sun rises in the horizon it is officially day. This all still leaves us with only two possibilities at any time, it is either night or day. There is no time when one can say it is neither night or day.
When individuals translate night as only when it is dark, therefore they are creating a time period that is neither night nor day which contradicts that night and day are the only two binary states that exist in this world.
[36:40] The sun is never to catch up with the moon—the night and the day never deviate—each of them is floating in its own orbit.
(٣٦:٤٠) لَا الشَّمْسُ يَنْبَغِي لَهَا أَنْ تُدْرِكَ الْقَمَرَ وَلَا الَّيْلُ سَابِقُ النَّهَارِ وَكُلٌّ فِي فَلَكٍ يَسْبَحُونَ
Night vs. Isha
The Quran distinguishes between different times in the night and day, just like there are different times within the day. For instance noon, morning, and afternoon all occur during the day. While sunset, evening, dusk, and dawn occur during the night. To equate day or night to any of these times is mistaking the general for the specific. Therefore, to equate the entire night to the evening would be applying the general to the specific.
One challenge in English is that there is not a common term for the time between dusk to dawn like there is in Arabic which is the word عِشَاء / ‘isha. ‘Isha is when looking east or west one cannot tell that which side is east or west because they are both equally dark. Because of this shortcoming in the English language the word ‘isha in Arabic is commonly translated as “night” even though this is not enitrely correct. We see this commonly in the translations for the below verse.
[24:58] O you who believe, permission must be requested by your servants and the children who have not attained puberty (before entering your rooms). This is to be done in three instances—before the Dawn Prayer, at noon when you change your clothes to rest, and after the Night Prayer (Salat al-‘Isha). These are three private times for you. At other times, it is not wrong for you or them to mingle with one another. GOD thus clarifies the revelations for you. GOD is Omniscient, Most Wise.
يَاأَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا لِيَسْتَأْذِنْكُمُ الَّذِينَ مَلَكَتْ أَيْمَانُكُمْ وَالَّذِينَ لَمْ يَبْلُغُوا الْحُلُمَ مِنْكُمْ ثَلَاثَ مَرَّاتٍ مِنْ قَبْلِ صَلَاةِ الْفَجْرِ وَحِينَ تَضَعُونَ ثِيَابَكُمْ مِنَ الظَّهِيرَةِ وَمِنْ بَعْدِ صَلَاةِ الْعِشَاءِ ثَلَاثُ عَوْرَاتٍ لَكُمْ لَيْسَ عَلَيْكُمْ وَلَا عَلَيْهِمْ جُنَاحٌ بَعْدَهُنَّ طَوَّافُونَ عَلَيْكُمْ بَعْضُكُمْ عَلَىٰ بَعْضٍ كَذَٰلِكَ يُبَيِّنُ اللَّهُ لَكُمُ الْآيَاتِ وَاللَّهُ عَلِيمٌ حَكِيمٌ
Night Begins at Sunset
So now that we covered some background let’s look at the evidence in the Quran that night begins at sunset. In the following verse, God informs us to praise and glorify God before the rising of the sun (sunrise) and before its setting (sunset). This shows the two boundaries of the day.
[50:39] Therefore, be patient in the face of their utterances, and praise and glorify your Lord before the rising of the sun, and before the setting.
(٣٩) فَاصْبِرْ عَلَىٰ مَا يَقُولُونَ وَسَبِّحْ بِحَمْدِ رَبِّكَ قَبْلَ طُلُوعِ الشَّمْسِ وَقَبْلَ الْغُرُوبِ
Proof of the start and end of the day is surise and sunset can be found in the following verse when it informs us that these two times are the two boundaries or ends of the day.
[20:130] Therefore, be patient in the face of their utterances, and praise and glorify your Lord before the rising of the sun, before its setting, and during the night. Therefore, glorify by both ends of the day, that you may be happy.
فَاصْبِرْ عَلَىٰ مَا يَقُولُونَ وَسَبِّحْ بِحَمْدِ رَبِّكَ قَبْلَ طُلُوعِ الشَّمْسِ وَقَبْلَ غُرُوبِهَا وَمِنْ آنَاءِ الَّيْلِ فَسَبِّحْ وَأَطْرَافَ النَّهَارِ لَعَلَّكَ تَرْضَىٰ
|20||130||1||فَاصْبِرْ||So be patient||fa-iṣ’bir|
|20||130||7||رَبِّكَ||(of) your Lord||rabbika|
|20||130||9||طُلُوعِ||(the) rising (of)||ṭulūʿi|
|20||130||13||وَمِنْ||and from / among||wamin|
|20||130||14||آنَاءِ||during / hours (of)||ānāi|
|20||130||17||وَأَطْرَافَ||by (the) ends||wa-aṭrāfa|
|20||130||18||النَّهَارِ||(of) the day||l-nahāri|
|20||130||19||لَعَلَّكَ||so that you may be||laʿallaka|
|20||130||20||تَرْضَىٰ||[you be] satisfied / happy.||tarḍā|
A deeper investigation into the statement of “the two ends of the day” and how this equates to sunrise and sunset can be found in the following article.
From 20:130 it becomes clear that the transition points between day and night are sunrise and sunset, that these are the two ends of the day. So when God informs the believers that they are to fast until the night (al-layl) then it becomes clear that night begins at sunset.