When does the 'Night' begin?

By: A Muhammad

The question of when exactly does the night begin (in Quranic definition) has been debated over the years primarily due to its implications with regards to the time when the daily fasting ends.

The time given in the Quran for fasting is as follows:

You may eat and drink until the white thread of dawn becomes distinguishable to you from the dark thread. Then you shall maintain the fast until the night. 2:187

If fasting is to be maintained until night, when exactly does the night begin?

1- The first understanding defines night as the period of time between sunset (beginning of night) and sunrise (end of night).

2-
According to the second understanding, night does not begin until all light has disappeared from the sky after sunset, and ends when the first trace of light appears in the sky before sunrise.

Before we attempt to determine which of these definitions is the correct one, we must remember that the Quran gives explanations to all things:

We have brought down the Book to you providing explanations for all things. 16:89

If we have this guarantee in the Quran, we do not need to look for the answer to this question anywhere other than in the Quran.

When we research the Quran we find that there are two clear indications that confirm that the night begins at sunset and ends at sunrise.

First Indication:

The first indication to confirm the correct timing of the night can be found in the following verse:

He rolls the night over the day and rolls the day over the night. 39:5

It can be shown (explanation below) that according to 39:5 the night begins at sunset and ends at sunrise.
Before presenting the significance of 39:5, it is important to distinguish between 'Night' and 'Darkness'. Similarly, we must distinguish between 'Day' and 'Light'.

1- Darkness simply means lack of light, while as 'Night' is a defined period of time.
2- Light is what we receive from the sun, while 'Day' is a defined period of time.

To demonstrate how 39:5 provides us with the correct definition of night and day, we are aided by the following diagram:



The words in 39:5 include two very important statements:

1- The night is rolled over the day
2- The day is rolled over the night

When we look at the diagram above we note two periods of time, one just before sunset, and one just after sunset. During these two periods, light and darkness mix. It is not totally dark nor is it totally light.

Verse 39:5 describes these periods very accurately. Just before sunset, which is part of the day, the darkness starts to creep in and thus the night is rolled over the (end) of the day.
Similarly, just after sunset (which is part of the night), the remaining light starts to fade out of the night and thus the day is rolled out of the night.

So how does 39:5 give us the confirmation that the night begins at sunset and ends at sunrise?

Let us consider the second definition used by some scholars for a moment. They state that the night does not begin until all the light has disappeared from the sky and it is totally dark. They state that the period in time when there is some light in the sky is part of the day and not night.
They follow that by saying that fasting should be maintained until all light has faded away after sunset and it is totally dark (approximately 1.5 hours after sunset).

If this definition is correct, the case described by God when the day is rolled onto the night would never be possible. In other words, if the night does not begin until it is totally dark, then the day can never be rolled onto the night.

However, since 39:5 states that the day is rolled onto the night, then by definition part of the night will have some light in it. The parts of the night when this is possible are the times immediately after sunset and just before sunrise. During these two parts of the night there is light in the sky. These two periods of time must be parts of the night for the reason explained.

The words in 39:5 confirm that some of the night has light otherwise we could not have a situation where night and day mix.

Similarly, we can look at the diagram which represents the time around sunrise:

Second Indication:

We read in 22:61 how God "yulig" the night into the day and the day into the night:

Verily, God 'yulig' (merges) the night into the day and merges the day into the night. God is Hearer, Seer. 22:61

The concept of the night merging into the day, and day merging into the night, confirms once again that parts of the night will have light (not sunshine), and that parts of the day will include some darkness (lack of light). Once again, the words in 22:61 would not make any sense if the Night is restricted to the time when it is pitch black. The same is confirmed in 31:29 and 35:13.

Third Indication:

We read in 36:37 the very significant word "naslakh". This word means to gradually extract. God says how the day is being gradually extracted from the night:

And a sign for them is the night; We 'naslakh' withdraw the daylight from it whereupon they are in darkness. 36:37

The gradual withdrawal of the daylight from the night can only happen at the time just after sunset, which as per 36:37 is defined by God as night. During this period of the night the daylight is being gradually extracted from it, until it becomes totally dark.
If night was only when it is totally dark, there would not be a case where the day is extracted gradually from the night.

Interesting Observation:

As we have read above, God uses the words "yulig" (merges) and also the word "naslakh" (slowly extract) to describe the periods when the day and night mix. This raises the following question: Is this a repetition that describes the same event? Would only one of these two words been sufficient to describe this process?

The answer is that it is not a repetition, and the use of both words is necessary as they describe different times of the day and different astronomical events. One of these words on its own cannot describe both times.

To demonstrate this feature which is yet another indication of the meticulously precise attribute of the Quranic words, let us remind ourselves of the various times when day and night mix, they are:

1- The hour or so before sunrise.

2- The hour or so after sunrise

3- The hour or so before sunset

4- The hour or so after sunset.

These are the 4 times of day when light and darkness mix.

Let us first consider the word "yulig" (merges).

This word can describe 2 of the above four times of day:

- It describes time 1 when light is gradually merged into the end of the night (remember that the time before sunrise is part of the night).

- It also describes time 3 when darkness is merged into the day (remember that the time before sunset is part of the day), and as we approach sunset more darkness is gradually being merged into the end of the day).

Now let us consider the word "naslakh" (gradually extract).

This word can describe 2 of the above four times of day:

- It describes time 2 when the darkness is gradually being extracted from the day (remember that the time after sunrise is part of the day), and as we recede away from sunrise the last remains of darkness is extracted from the day).

- It also describes time 4 when light is being gradually extracted from the night (remember that the time after sunset is part of the night), and as we recede away from sunset the last remains of light is extracted from the night).

The word "yulig" can only describe two of the four times. Similarly the word "naslakh" can only describe the other two times of the day, hence the need for both words.

Fourth Indication:

The fourth indication to offer us the correct definition of the night can be found in the following verse:

You shall observe the Salat at the 'tarafai' (two ends) of the day; and during 'zulufan min al-layl (near parts of the night). 11:114

The key word in 11:114 in relation to our subject is the Arabic word "tarafai". This word is the plural of the word 'taraf' which means terminal or end point. This word speaks of two terminals/ends of the day.
The terminals of the day are sunrise and sunset. The word "tarafai" cannot be speaking of the periods when light is fading or darkness fading since these periods last around 1.5 hours to complete. A period of 1.5 hours would not be described as an end point/terminal. But sunrise and sunset are specific points in time that last around a minute each.

If sunrise and sunset compromise the beginning and end of the day, by definition, they must also be the end and beginning of the night. It follows that the night is the period between sunset and sunrise.

Fifth Indication:

We also read in 11:114 a reference to the "zulafan min al-layl". This phrase translates to the 'near parts of the night'. What are these parts of the night near to? They can only be near the two points given in the same verse, and these are the "tarafai al-nahar" (ends of the day). We have already established that the ends of the day are sunrise and sunset.
The parts of the night, described as "zulafan min al-layl", are thus the parts of the night that are near sunrise and sunset. These parts of the night cannot be the times after sunrise or before sunset when the sun is in the sky, since these times are part of the day and not night. They can only be the times before sunrise and after sunset.
The words "zulafan min al-layl" therfore refer to the parts of the night which contain some light. Thus, the claim that night is only when there is total darkness is in violation of the concept of "zulafan min al-layl".

Sixth Indication:

Finally, and to seal this issue, the Quranic words in Sura 91 provide additional conclusive evidence for the definition of the "nahar" (day) as well as the "layl" (night). Sura 91 is called Al-Shams (The Sun). The following words speak of the sun:

By the sun and its brightness,
and the moon when it follows it,
and the 'nahar' (day) when it reveals it (sun),
and the 'layl' (night) when it covers it (sun). 91:1-4

These words provide a clear definition of night and day. Whenever the sun is revealed (i.e. it can be seen) it is day (91:3), and whenever the sun is covered (it cannot be seen) it is night (91:4).

This means that the time just before sunrise, when the sun is not revealed yet, is part of the night (91:4). Equally, any time immediately after sunset, when the sun is also un-revealed is also part of the night (91:4).

It follows that anytime between sunrise and sunset, when we can see the sun (it is revealed) it is day (91:3). The definition of night and day in sura 91 is absolute and cannot be contested.