Ramadan 100 Years Ago

The Light (UK), September 2007 Issue (pp. 4–5)

As some of our readers will know, in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the death of Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad next May [2008], we have been following, every few days, the events and news of a hundred years ago in the Ahmadiyya community. This is done in a “weblog” or “blog” style column on the Internet at the link below:


Looking at articles about Ramadan of 100 years ago in the Ahmadiyya community newspapers, we find the coming of this month mentioned in Badr of 3rd October 1907. It was due to begin on around 10th October. The editorial is a standard article about fasting with quotations from the Holy Quran and Hadith. It also quotes a couple of extracts from the Bible on fasting and gives several other references without quotation. One of the unquoted references is the following from the book of Isaiah:

“‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you (O Lord) have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’ Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarrelling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.

“Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter — when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.” (Isaiah, 58:3–10)

The short passages from the Quran and Hadith quoted on page 1 of this issue summarise what is emphasised above in the book of the prophet Isaiah. For example, while the Bible says:

“Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I”

the words in the Quran spoken by God are similar in relation to fasting:

فَاِنِّیۡ قَرِیۡبٌ ؕ اُجِیۡبُ دَعۡوَۃَ الدَّاعِ اِذَا دَعَانِ ۙ فَلۡیَسۡتَجِیۡبُوۡا لِیۡ وَ لۡیُؤۡمِنُوۡا بِیۡ لَعَلَّہُمۡ یَرۡشُدُوۡنَ ﴿۱۸۶﴾

“…surely I am near. I answer the prayer of the suppliant when he calls on Me, so they should hear My call and believe in Me that they may walk in the right way” (The Holy Quran, 2:186).

These being the purposes of fasting according to the Jewish scriptures, accepted also by Christians, as well as according to the Islamic holy book, one should expect the followers of all these faiths to try to achieve these aims practically and thereby display their shared values, rather than observe mere superficial fasting and continue to bicker and fight with each other.

Use of Watches:

In recent years Muslims have been discussing whether to use calculation as the means to determine the Ramadan and Eid dates. In the Badr newspaper of 3rd October 1907 mentioned above, there is an article recommending the use of watches to determine if the fasting time at dawn has arrived. The author begins it with this interesting remark:

“If the means for doing something are not available then if someone makes an error it is forgivable in the eyes of God. But if, despite the existence of means, we are negligent and careless then it is difficult to avoid being called to account by God.”

He then goes on to mention the problems people face in knowing, each morning, when to start the fast. Some leave it too late, he writes, believing that they must see “ants coming out” before stopping eating, as this indicates that dawn has arrived. Others await the azan [call to prayer], which is often delivered late. Still others are too cautious and start the fast too early, in order to be on the safe side. Sometimes genuine misunderstandings lead to mistakes in deciding if dawn has broken. Finally, he adds that the human eye makes errors in this respect, particularly in the middle of the month when the moon is near to full and its light does not allow the light of dawn to be distinguished easily.

To avoid these problems, he recommends the use of watches. But he foresees this objection:

“A man of Wahhabi inclination will cry out: Watches were never used in the time of the Holy Prophet Muhammad.”

The writer does answer this possible objection but we need not reproduce his reply since no one raises the objection today, although it would be most interesting to know if anyone does object.

The writer then raises the problem that while obtaining a watch is not difficult, how do you set it to the right time? This may sound strange to our ears, but if we give it a little thought we will realize that the means by which we set our watches did not exist at the time. There was no radio or TV, nor in a place such as Qadian any public clock tower set to the correct time by the authorities. The only standard time that existed in the country in those days, as in fact mentioned in this article, was railway time. Even in the U.K. before the advent of the railway train in the 1800s different towns had their own times, varying by some minutes. This did not matter very much because before the railways it took you days to travel from one town to another, rather than hours and minutes.

Our author advises people to observe the sunrise a few days before Ramadan and set their watches to a rough time. It wouldn’t matter whether they set it to, say, 6 a.m. or 6.20 a.m., providing they continue using the same watch. Then, he says, that by observing sunrise/sunset over the next 3 or 4 days and looking at the watch (providing it was kept wound up!) you would also find out by how much each day the sunrise/sunset time is changing. Then during Ramadan you know what your watch will be reading at sunrise time each morning, and you simply start your fast one and a half hours before that time.

Separately from this article, there is a Ramadan timetable printed in the same issue of Badr. A note with it states:

“These times are according to Railway Time which is the standard time”.

It advises that as times in different cities vary somewhat, therefore to obtain local times approximately one should check these times, on just one day, against observed sunrise/sunset. This will give a rough idea of how much the local fasting times differ from the printed timetable.

Quite obviously, advances in technology have rendered obsolete the methods of a hundred years ago as discussed in the above extracts, and they now appear to us as quaint and amusing. One hopes therefore that in the future our present-day discussions and controversies about the appearance of the new moon will sound just as outdated.