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How Astronomy Cameras Are Helping British Muslims Schedule Morning Prayers

The cameras would help track exactly when the sun rises

The Birmingham Central Mosque in the United Kingdom. (Ted and Jen via Flickr)
smithsonian.com

Regardless of where in the world they are, observant Muslims must know what time the sun rises and sets to know when to begin their daily prayers. But the calculations used to figure this out can vary from mosque to mosque, depending on thow it's calculated. Now, one group is trying to unify Muslims throughout the United Kingdom by using cameras designed for astronomers to help figure out exactly when to schedule their morning prayers, Mindy Weisberger reports for LiveScience.

Of particular importance in the Islamic faith is knowing the exact moment of daybreak. Traditionally, the morning fajr prayers are supposed to start at the first sign of light breaking over the horizon. But even within a single city this isn't an easy thing to figure out.

“During Ramadan we noticed in one local mosque people were still eating as their time of dawn hadn’t set in, while next door they had started fasting and were performing morning prayers, while in another worshippers would already have prayed and gone home to bed or to work,” ​Shahid Merali, founder of the OpenFajr project, tells Kaya Burgess for The Times. Some mosques in Birmingham went by such different calculations of sunrise that they started their prayers nearly 45 minutes before their neighbors, reports Kitty Knowles reports for The Memo.

So Merali is turning to astronomy cameras to get everyone on the same clock.

To determine when the fajr prayer should be held, Merali installed a 360-degree astronomy camera to a rooftop and programmed it to take a set of pictures around sunrise every day for a year. After he had collected roughly 25,000 photographs of the dawn sky, Merali distributed them to nearly 200 local mosques and Islamic scholars to figure out what exactly constitutes a sunrise. Based off of this photographic data, many mosques in Birmingham now set their prayers according to a standardized timetable, Burgess reports.

“The lesson was about collaboration and consensus through open data,” Merali tells Burgess. “It’s like a blueprint for enabling community cohesion.”

This concept doesn't stop at Birmingham’s city limits. Several mosques in major cities throughout the country are experimenting with bringing the project to their own backyards—including London and Peterborough, Knowles reports.

Unifying practicing Muslims across cities on a standard time for the fajr prayers is the project's current goal. But if it’s successful, Merali and his colleagues hope to build a network of localized prayer timetables stretching across the country—from England to Scotland.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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