Does fasting start at imsak or fajr?

In the Month of Ramadan, believers need to know the time of imsak, as it is the time at which they must stop eating and drinking. But we all know that we can eat suhur (the pre-dawn meal) until fajr. So which is it, fajr or imsak?

Imsak is the recommended time to stop eating to ensure that you have not actually eaten past the adhan of fajr. It is a precautionary measure that we observe in the west on account of the variety of opinions about the adhan for fajr. And so, you will usually see that imsak is about 10 to 15 minutes before fajr. 

What is the imsak meaning?

Here it’s probably worth asking, “What is the imsak meaning?” Linguistically, the term imsak means to “cease” or “hold back from.” It is an appropriate term to use in the context of fasting, for we refrain from eating and drinking when imsak has set in. 

Imsak and the search for true dawn

The goal of imsak is to ensure that we begin our fasts at al-fajr al-sadiq (“true dawn”). In Quran 2:187, God says, “Eat and drink until the white streak of dawn becomes distinguishable from the darkness.” Jurists explain that this is describing al-fajr al-sadiq, so it is marked by a whiteness that appears upon the horizons and increases in clarity and brightness. 

Before seeing the whiteness of true dawn, a bright column arising vertically from the horizon upward to the sky decreases both in size and brightness until it disappears. This moment is called al-fajr al-kadhib (“false dawn”). For more details on fasting, check out our dedicated book on the topic.

Those who live in rural areas can usually distinguish between true and false dawn rather easily. However, those who live in urban areas, especially those in larger cities, see a good deal of artificial light at night, making it difficult to distinguish the two times. That is why we so often refer to astronomical sources to determine the time of these events to establish the actual time of fajr prayer. 

Why are there differences in prayer times? 

When we refer to astronomical sources to determine when to pray, we end up with several times listed for the start of fajr prayers. These times may vary by up to twenty minutes, which can confuse us as to the actual time to pray. 

For example, the Umm al-Qura calculation method might determine that fajr is at 5:35 a.m. The Leva Institute might result in fajr being at  5:50 a.m. Astronomical data may reveal the time to be 5:40 a.m. And when we check the times for various organizations we find that they vary by fifteen minutes or so precisely on account of the methods of calculation that they use.

To ensure that our prayers are established during the correct time, we must wait until we are certain that it is fajr. In the absence of any other form means to determine fajr time, we can simply pray at the latest time listed, assuming it gives us such confidence or certitude. 

How to determine imsak time 

There is no precise calculation for how much earlier imsak time is than fajr. Rather, imsak will be the time at which you think there’s a reasonable chance that it is now fajr. To observe precaution, we should stop eating at imsak time. Meanwhile, it is obligatory to delay fajr prayer until we are certain or confident its time has set in. 

To clarify, let’s take this example. There are four organizations with four different prayer times

  • Organization A lists fajr at 5:35 a.m.
  • Organization B lists fajr at 5:38 a.m.
  • Organization C lists fajr at 5:40 a.m.
  • Organization D lists fajr at 5:50 a.m.

For imsak, following organization A is the most precautious route. As mentioned above, the imsak meaning is to “refrain”, so we will stop eating at 5:35 a.m to observe imsak time. Meanwhile, for praying fajr, following organization D is necessary if it is the only way we can gain confidence that the time for prayer has set in. 

Is observing imsak obligatory?

You may have noticed in the paragraphs above that observing imsak well before fajr is a precautionary measure. According to Sayyid Sistani, it is not obligatory to stop eating so far in advance when you do not know when the time of fajr is. Rather, it is just added precaution we take here in North America. 

Still, Sayyid Sistani does point out that you must only stop your pre-dawn meal a moment before you are certain or confident that fajr has set in. This imsak time, much closer to the time of fajr, is observed to ensure that we have covered the entirety of the time of fasting. Similarly, we must wait a moment after we are certain or confident that maghrib has set in before we break out fast. 

Of course, there is an exception to this rule for imsak before fajr. If you know that, by not observing imsak time in obligatory fasts, there will be some days in which you will have eaten beyond the point of fajr, then yes, you should observe an imsak time that is different from fajr time. However, the opposite is true for breaking your fast. You must always be certain or confident that the time for maghrib prayer has arrived before you begin eating or drinking. 

Reach out to us here with your religious questions, and we’ll get back to you soon, God-willing!

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