The year was 632 of the Common Era (Julian) calendar, the day 27 January (29 Shawwal year 10 of the Islamic Hijri calendar). It was probably a mild, dry, mid-winter day in Madinah, with a clear sky, and a gentle easterly breeze. In the middle of the morning, the people of Madinah witnessed a solar eclipse, with about three-fourths of the sun becoming obscured. A solar eclipse remains even today a moving experience, with darkness falling and the stars coming out in the middle of the day, but in that late-antique period, superstitions and myths about eclipses were still rife, and this particular instance came in the midst of an emotionally charged atmosphere. The Prophet Muhammad’s son, Ibrahim, had just died that day, aged about 16 months. It was not long before people began chattering, saying that the two events were connected, and that the eclipse was either a sign of divine mourning or a portent of negative consequences to occur on the earth. The Prophet himself did not buy into his people’s superstitions, but upon the onset of the eclipse his first thoughts were turned towards the Creator, for the eclipse is a awe-inspiring reminder of God’s power, and of similar cosmic events that will occur on the Day of Resurrection. Prophet Muhammad therefore hastened to the mosque, where he performed a special prayer involving recitation of lengthy portions of the Quran, and prolonged glorification of God’s greatness. After completing the prayer, he gave a special sermon to address and dispel the superstitious rumor. He said, “The sun and moon are two of the signs of God. They do not eclipse for anyone’s death nor for anyone’s birth. So, when you see that [occurring] then perform prayer until it passes over.”
Theological Dimensions of the eclipse
1. The Quran states clearly that the sun and moon move, “by precise calculation,” (Quran, 55:5) and that each moves in its own path, so that neither of them reaches or catches up to the other (Quran, 36:40). This cuts at the heart of baseless beliefs of eclipses being a fight between the sun and moon, or a union between them. These verses had been revealed in Makkah (i.e. many years before the eclipse), but it often takes time for people to release themselves from the mental and psychological shackles of superstition. Lunar eclipses are relatively frequent, and the Prophet used to observe the eclipse prayer when they occurred.The solar eclipse, on the other hand, is rarer and also more striking, and the instance described above was probably the only solar eclipse witnessed by the Prophet Muhammad. It was therefore an ideal teaching moment, and the lesson conveyed in such a moment would have a powerful and lasting impression on those present. Rather than opportunistically fuel people’s superstitions, and thereby garner status for his own family by presenting the eclipse as a divine sign in honor of his son’s death, the Prophet instead used the opportunity to uproot the superstition. Sadly, some Muslims even today still hold on to superstitions, such as believing a pregnant woman should not view an eclipse or should not use a knife during an eclipse lest her child be born deformed. Such baseless notions are still firmly ingrained in many Muslim cultures, despite the fact that they have no basis in the Quran or sunna.
2. One question might remain, however, Why did the Prophet perform a special prayer during the eclipse, for is this not itself superstitious? The answer (to which I already alluded in the narrative) is that the eclipse prayer is not motivated by superstition, but rather by senstivity to the greatness of God that the eclipse manifests. We do not pray out of unfounded fears such as thinking that the dragon might gobble up the sun if we don’t pray for safety. But there is a big difference between superstition and being in tune with nature and aware of the attributes of God that manifest in the natural world.
“And how many a sign within the heavens and earth do they pass over while they, therefrom, are turning away. ” (Quran, 12:105)
“Do they not look into the realm of the heavens and the earth and everything that Allah has created and [think] that perhaps their appointed time has come near? ” (Quran, 7:185)
That heart that is not awed and moved by powerful natural phenonema is either spiritually cold and unfeeling, or too much distracted by other concerns. As William Wordsworth observed in one of his poems, “The world is too much with us,” and we often fail to see the beauty and power of the universe. The Prophet Muhammad was in touch with God’s signs, and would see powerful natural phenomena as reminders of God’s greatness and ability to punish, and would draw admonition from them. An eclipse, in particular, is a reminder of cosmic events associated with the Day of Judgment.
“When the sight is dazzled, and the moon loses its light, and the sun are brought together (possibly in the figurative sense that they will both lose their light, as many Quranic commentators suggested).” (Quran, 75:7-9)
The moon “losing its light” might be an eclipse, and the Arabic word used carries both the meanings of “eclipse” and of “losing light.”
Even such seemingly mundane things as the winds and rain can be powerful reminders of God, as the Quran often draws our attention to. Unusual natural phenomena catch our attention, and are therefore appropriate occasions for spiritual reflection and prayer.
– Suheil Laher
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