The Correct Time to break Fast in Ramadan
The times to begin and end fast are detailed in the following verse of Surah Al-Bakarah:
وَكُلُوا وَاشْرَبُوا حَتَّى يَتَبَيَّنَ لَكُمُ الْخَيْطُ الأَبْيَضُ مِنَ الْخَيْطِ الأَسْوَدِ مِنَ الْفَجْرِ ثُمَّ أَتِمُّوا الصِّيَامَ إِلَى اللَّيْل
"Eat and drink until the white thread of dawn becomes distinct from the black. Then fast to the night." (Qur'an 2:187)
The time to begin fasting in the morning is when light is first seen. The time to stop fasting is when it is "night (layl / ليل)". That is the actual word used in the Qur'an, not 'sunset'. 'Night' refers to the time when the sky becomes such that we would tell someone it is night time.
The verse reads atimmoo al-siyaam ilaa al-layl - اتموا الصيام الي الليل: "complete the fast to the night" literally, i.e. to fast "to the night". Some erroneous translations read "until night" or "until nightfall" - both are incorrect, the correct translation is "to the night".
The Qur'an is in a human language and uses human beings' understanding of how they use the vocabularies in the language. Many Muslims break fasts when the sun is setting, we would not call that 'night / ليل' at all as it is still bright outside - neither at the time of the prophet, nor today. At such a time, the word 'night / ليل' is never used to describe that time of day.
Argument: Allah says He merges night with day and day with night in the Qur'an (i.e. 3:27). This indicates there is an overlap in which day and night are merged (sunset and sunrise). This means it is Quranically correct to consider sunset to be night hence we can break our fast at that time.
This appears to be a valid point. However, there is a mistaken understanding here. The merging time 'zones' (sunrise and sunset) are being thought of as overlaps of complete night and complete day. This is not the correct way to visualise a 'merging'. When Allah is merging the day and night, for instance at sunset, it starts off as 100% day 0% night, then 99% day 1% night, so on until it is 0% day 100% night. It is not an overlap of complete night and day (then, no change in light would be observed!). Thus, the definition of the word "night (layl / ليل)" is not realised during sunset.
Argument: We start fasting when we first see day light, we do not wait for it to be fully day. Likewise, we do not have to wait for it to be fully night to consider it officially night to break our fasts.
The precise times for the two ends of fasting times are being described in the verse. During a 'sunset', it is not 'night', which is what the verse specifies as the time to end fast. Here, one is trying to superimpose the start time of fasting onto the end time, even though the end time has been clearly stated separately - the motive here is to find a way to believe it is sunset. A believer has to take the teaching of the verse first and foremost, and not apply a preconceived understanding of fasting times to suit his own needs.
Argument: How do you know how to define 'night' ? Maghrib / sunset can be the start of night because the Qur'an does not define for us what night is.
Besides the point that the use of the word "night" is in its self sufficient, the Qur'an has expressions for 'night', 'day' as well as 'sunrise' and 'sunset'. For example:
أَقِمِ الصَّلاةَ لِدُلُوكِ الشَّمْسِ إِلَى غَسَقِ اللَّيْلِ وَقُرْآنَ الْفَجْرِ إِنَّ قُرْآنَ الْفَجْرِ كَانَ مَشْهُودًا
"Establish the prayer from declining of the sun / sunset (dulook al-shams / دلوك الشمس) to the darkness of the night (ليل / layl), and the Qur'an at dawn, surely the Qur'an at dawn is witnessed" (Qur'an 17:78)
The words "dulook al-shams / دلوك الشمس" used in the verse means 'setting of the sun / sunset'. Therefore, there is an expression for maghrib / sunset in the Qur'an. Furthermore, the word "layl / ليل", 'night' is used in the above verse too. Here we can see that in the Qur'an, there are words for 'sunset' and 'night', and also notice that night is not the same as sunset (since both are identified separately). The verse of fasting (2:187) uses the word "layl / ليل", 'night' to describe when to finish fasting. If Allah meant sunset, he would have chosen the right word for it. Furthermore, "night / layl" is described as "darkness (غسق / ghasaq)", i.e. "darkness of the night (غسق اليل / ghasaq al-layl)", further emphasising what night is.
In another verse, the phrase "maghrib al-shams", is used again to refer specifically to sunset. This time, by the more commonly known word across the world, "maghrib":
حَتَّى إِذَا بَلَغَ مَغْرِبَ الشَّمْسِ وَجَدَهَا تَغْرُبُ فِي عَيْنٍ حَمِئَةٍ وَوَجَدَ عِنْدَهَا قَوْمًا قُلْنَا يَا ذَا الْقَرْنَيْنِ إِمَّا أَنْ تُعَذِّبَ وَإِمَّا أَنْ تَتَّخِذَ فِيهِمْ حُسْنًا
"Then, when he came to the sunset / setting of the sun (maghrib al-shams / مغرب الشمس), he found it setting into a muddy spring. Nearby he found some people and We said, ‘Dhu ’l-Qarnayn, you may choose to punish or show kindness." (Qur'an 18:86)
One approach is to look directly over-head above you, outside, to see if it is completely dark. There might be faint light to your side, in the distance (it gets gradually brighter to one side). But that light may be many miles to hundreds of miles away from you and is for people in that location (though it may seem it is close). It has to be night in the location you are at, which is determined by the sky directly above you. As long as it has become completely dark over-head, it is night for you. When it becomes continuous uniform darkness from over-head, you may call it night. With practice from checking outdoors, you can look out at the distance from indoors and even with light in the distance, you will know through judgement when it is completely dark over-head your position, without actually looking directly above or having to go outside.
Alternatively, one may be less pedantic and break his fast when he would simply call the time "night" without being so concerned about minor light conditions overhead. There is no fixed way specified - the important thing is that the believer is sincere in following the Qur'an and feels the conditions for 'night' is met.
“If you obeyed most of those on earth, they would lead you away from the path of Allah. They follow nothing but speculation – they are only guessing.” (Qur’an 6:115-116)
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