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 light) becomes distinguishable from the dark thread at dawn. Then, you shall fast until night.” 2:187
If fasting is to be maintained till 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 school of thought, night does not begin until the last trace of light has disappeared from the sky. In other words, the night begins when all the 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 revealed to you this book to provide explanations for everything” 16:89
And 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.
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 two concepts, and they are “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 as “Day” is a defined period of time.
Now, to demonstrate how 39:5 provides us with the correct definition of night and day, let us look at the following diagram:
When we read the words in 39:5, we note 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? The reason is as follows:
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.
And thus to them, they state that fasting should be maintained till all the light has faded away after sunset and it is totally dark (approximately 1.5 hours after sunset).
However, if this definition is correct, then 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.
But since 39:5 states that the day is rolled onto the night, then by definition part of the night will have some daylight in it. And that part of the night can only be the time after sunset and the time before sunrise when 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:
We can also see two periods of time where night and day mix. These are the periods just before sunrise (part of the night), and the period just after sunrise (part of the day).
During those two periods we witness how the night is rolled onto the day and vice versa.
Once again, if the night does not begin until it is totally dark, then the words in 39:5 (day rolled onto the night) would not make any sense.
We also read in 22:61 how God “Yulig” the night into the day and the day into the night:
”It is a fact that God “yulig” (merges) the night into the day, and merges the day into the night.” 22:61
The concept of the night merging into the day, and day merging into the night, confirms what was written under “First Indication”. We can also say that 22:61 would not make any sense unless parts of the night have some light in them, and once again these are the times just before sunrise and just after sunset.
The same is confirmed in 31:29 and 35:13.
We also 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 “naslakh”:
“Another sign for them is the night: we “naslakh” (gradually extract) the daylight therefrom, till they become in total darkness.” 36:37
The gradual extraction of 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, till it becomes full darkness.
If night was only when it is totally dark, there would not be a case where the day is extracted gradually from the night.
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 one of these words on its own 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 the full process.
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 daylight 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 the daylight is merged into the night (remember that the time before sunrise is part of the night, and as we approach sunrise more daylight is gradually being merged into 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 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 more darkness is being extracted from the day).
- It also describes time 4 when daylight 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 more daylight is being extracted from the night).
The word "yulig" can only describe two of the four times, and similarly the word "naslakh" can only describe the other two times of the day, hence the need for using both words.
The second indication to offer us the correct definition of the night can be found in the following verse:
“You shall observe the Contact Prayers (Salat) at the "tarafai” (two terminals) of the day .......” 11:114
The key word in the above verse in relation to our subject matter is the Arabic word "tarafai". This word is the plural form of the word "taraf", and the word "taraf" means a terminal or an edge.
This word speaks of two specific terminals/edges of the day.
The only specific and defined points in time around the ends 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 edge/terminal. But sunrise and sunset are specific points in time that last only few seconds.
What follows is that if sunrise and sunset are the beginning and end of the day, then by definition, and in reverse, they must also be the end and beginning of the night respectively.
To conclude, the correct definition of the night, and in the light of the Quran, is the period between sunset and sunrise.
We also read in 11:114 a reference to the “Zulaf al-layl”. This phrase translates to the “near parts of the night”. What are they near to? They can only be near to the two points given in the same verse, and these are the “tarafai al-nahar” (ends of the day). The ends of the day as per the "Fourth Indication" are sunrise and sunset.
The parts of the night, which God describes as “zulaf al-layl”, are those times when night is mixed with the day. Zulaf al-layl cannot be the times after sunrise or before sunset when daylight and darkness mix, since at those times the sun is still in the sky. They can only be the times before sunrise and after sunset.
Once again, the words “zulaf al-layl” indicate that parts of the night have some daylight in them. Thus to claim that night is only when there is total darkness is in violation of the concept of “zulaf al-layl”.
Finally, and to seal this issue, we are given Quranic words in Sura 91 which provide conclusive proof as to the timing of the “Nahar” (day) and the “Layl” (night). The following words speak about the sun:
[91:1] By the sun and its brightness.
[91:2] And the moon that follows it.
[91:3] And the "nahar" (day) that reveals it.
[91:4] And the "layl" (night) that covers it.
These simple words give us an absolute 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 before sunrise (when there is light in the sky) but still we cannot see the sun (it is covered) then this is part of the night (91:4). Equally, the time after sunset (when there is light in the sky) but still we cannot see the sun (it is covered) then this 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).
This definition of night and day in sura 91 is absolute and cannot be contested.