Q. I have been researching a point about Ramadan and cannot seem to find a straight answer. Many people take the pre-dawn meal (suhoor) an hour or more before dawn / fajr (morning prayer). They consider that this is the last time one can eat even though the light has not yet broken and will not break for another hour or more. I have read an explanation that says that this is because it allows sufficient time to do the 50 ayat before the morning prayer begins.

The first part of my question is: Does suhoor need to be taken this early or is it simply sufficient to finish eating by the time dawn breaks? Moreover, during the Prophet's time, they did not have clocks to tell the time precisely like we can today. Do we have some flexibility when it comes to the cutoff time for the morning meal or is it written in stone that all eating and drinking must stop at the break of dawn according to the time on the calendar?

My second question is: Are the 50 ayat required or is this just another misguided Islamic tradition?

A. The question reflects the logic that should always pervade our belief -- the spirit of the law and not the letter. Nonetheless, there are several ahadith that indicate that the time on the calendar is not etched in stone. The last part of your question forms, as you correctly surmised, part of the answer. The Qur'an is very clear in its injunction: "Eat and drink until the white streak of dawn is distinct from the black streak" (2:187). We also know too that one of the peculiarities of the fajr prayer is that it has two adhans, and this is extremely important for the question at hand. For in several hadith -- and here we use the one reported in Sahih Muslim by Ibn Umar -- that the Messenger of Allah had two mu'adhins, Bilal and Ibn Umm Makhtum, the blind man. The Messenger of Allah said: "Bilal gives the adhan at night, so eat and drink until Ibn Umm Makhtum gives the adhan." (Ibn Umar) said: "And there was not between them except for one to descend and the other to ascend."

There is a similar narration, reported on the authority of Ibn Mas'ud wherein he states that the Messenger of Allah said: "Do not let the adhan of Bilal prevent any of you from taking his suhoor, for he gives the adhan at night, so that he who is awake may take his time, and to awaken the one who is sleeping..." Since the logical conclusion of all the fuqaha is that an adhan cannot be given before the time of entry of the prayer, except in the case of the first adhan of fajr, then we know that this business of "imsak" before the prayer is not based on any firm foundation. The second adhan, which means the fajr time has arrived, denotes when one must stop eating.

Now the time between the first adhan and the second adhan is quite little, as evidenced by the first hadith -- "there was not between them except for one to descend and the other to ascend." Based on the meaning of the second hadith, the scholars agree that the time period between the two is to allow one to take a bath, get up in time to take a light meal, make wudu, "or to make the witr for those who may not have done so, or to prepare himself for the subh if he needs to purify himself or something of that nature, or do whatever is in conjunction with preparing for the nearness of the prayer" (Sharh Sahih Muslim by An-Nawawi, Dar al Qalam, no date, 7.210 ff.).

Even if one hears the adhan and is in the process of eating, one continues until the meal is finished. Certain scholars restrict it to finishing the mouthful one is chewing, but I see no need for this. Of course if one has a multi-course meal, there should be some restriction based on common sense. Remember that in Islam, God's mercy and compassion does not allow us to let the clock be like a sword over us. The time for fajr is extremely flexible. It allows some leeway, for example, if one had sex the night before, and for whatever reason wakes up late. Should we forego a meal, etc. if it is still fairly dark, but fajr has apparently passed? Our Merciful God would not ask this of us, especially knowing that we were not eating and drinking, but doing an act of compassion and then sleeping. One simply takes a light meal, a shower, and prays -- doing all in a manner that is non-attention getting, end of story.

I think the Hanafis answered the question a long while ago by stipulating that as long as the sun has not risen, the fast can be started. Of course they were a bit restrictive about the food part. But the body is not to be punished, so again, the time on the calendar is something that is subject to interpretation. Regarding the discernment of the black thread of dawn from the white thread, how can we calculate this? The pollution in the atmosphere, the interference with the sun's light, and the interference of unnatural lighting all make it impossible to have a set time. Therefore, I use my own judgment. As long as there is a darkness tending to light, I will pray fajr. For the maghrib, as long as it gets a bit dark, I will break the fast. On breaking the fast, however, I am more likely to follow the calendars, as sunset is a more precisely calculable time.

As far as the reading of 50 ayat are concerned, we do not find in our research grounds for this in any of the fiqh or hadith manuals. The hadith that we quoted also serve as evidence against this on several counts. The time should have been enough for one to descend and the other to ascend, given the fact that the top of the mosque, from where the adhan was made, was only -- we estimate -- about seven feet from the ground, and knowing that Umm Makhtum was blind, given that Bilal may have made supplication immediately on finishing the adhan, and allowing for some error estimation in time perception on the part of the narrators, we assume a time of about five minutes. Is five minutes enough to recite 50 ayat? What is the rate of recitation of the person? Why 50? Where is the proof? To none of these questions can we find plausible answers. The second hadith totally negates the 50 ayat provision because one eats and drinks until the adhan for fajr.

As I pointed out, this second adhan cannot be made before the actual entry of the fajr time. This means in fact that there is no measurable time between the person abstaining from food and the fajr. In fact, what occurs is that one is allowed to eat for some time into the fajr. This matter is discussed among the fuqaha under the issue of whether it is allowed to make the niyat of fasting, and yet continue to eat. The traditional position is that one must make the niyat before the fajr, but since one is allowed to eat until one hears the second adhan, which again, we stress, is given sometime after the actual entry of the time for the fajr prayer, then you can see that the ruling from the Qur'an and the hadith are much more liberal.

There is definitely not time for 50 ayat. "Indeed Allah wants that which is easy for you, and does not want that which is difficult." Certainly the fasting is not always easy, and it is against Allah's sunnah to add to something that is already difficult. Therefore, there are no grounds for the half-hour or more abstinence from eating, nor are there any for the number of ayat you mentioned. And Allah, the Most Merciful, knows best.

Posted November 21, 2001