A primary school in London refused to allow its pupils to watch today’s near-total eclipse of the sun. Below are excerpts from a report in The Daily Mail:
Pupils at a primary school were banned from watching today’s once-in-a-generation eclipse because of ‘religious and cultural reasons’, it has emerged.
Parents of children at North Primary School in Southall, London, said they were ‘outraged’ by the decision and claimed it showed a triumph of ‘religious superstition’ over scientific education.
Phil Belman, whose seven-year-old daughter goes to the school, met with interim headteacher Ivor Johnstone who said he was unable to elaborate on the decision because of ‘confidentiality’.
‘It’s just going back to the dark ages really. My child went in having spent an hour preparing and making up her pinhole camera,’ said Mr Bellman.
‘This is an issue about scientific matters versus religious superstition. I am outraged — is it going to be Darwin next? We will be like mid America.
‘I asked the headteacher to elaborate which religions and which cultures? But he said it had to be confidential. He referred us to the formal complaints procedure.
Khairoe Islam, whose son goes to the school, said: ‘I’m Muslim myself and in my religion it doesn’t say we can’t watch it.
‘I don’t know anything about it but if they say it’s because of religion maybe they could have spoken to those people who had a problem and let the other kids enjoy it.
‘It shouldn’t be spoiled for the rest of the school.’
I’m with Khairoe Islam on this one — there’s no indication that Islam forbids the observation of eclipses. After all, Islamic astronomers built observatories and charted solar and lunar eclipses carefully. So what’s going on here?
Vlad Tepes, who tipped me to this story, suggested that we consult Islamic law to see what it says about viewing eclipses. I looked it up in Reliance of the Traveller*, and it turns out that there’s an entire chapter of Book F, “Prayer”, dedicated to a ritual known as “The Eclipse Prayer”:
Chapter f20.0: The Eclipse Prayer
|f20.1||The eclipse prayer is a confirmed sunna (def: c4.1) (O: and missing it is not permissible, but rather is offensive).
|f20.2||(O: Like the drought prayer, it has no call to prayer (adhan) (n: besides that mentioned at F19.4(4)).)
|f20.3||It is recommended to be performed in a group at the mosque.
It is recommended for women without attractive figures to attend (O: in their household clothes, that is, women advanced in years and the like. As for women who have attractive figures, it is desirable for them to perform it in their homes (dis: f12.4(N:))).
|Description of the Eclipse Prayer
|f20.4||The eclipse prayer consists of two rak’as. The minimum is:
One then prays the second rak’a like the first.
It is not permissible to lengthen the amount of time one stands or bows merely because eclipse has not yet passed, or to shorten the rak’as to less (O: than the above way after having intended it) because the eclipse has passed.
|f20.5||The optimal way is that after reciting the Opening Supplication (Isiftah, de: f8.13), the Ta’awwudh (f8.16), and the Fatiha, one:
One bows and says “Subhana Rabbiya al-’Adhim’ (“How far above any limitation is my Lord Most Great”) after the first of the four Koran recitals for a period equal to reciting one hundred verses of al-Baqara (N: about 20 minutes); after the second recital for the length of eighty of its verses; after the third for the length of seventy verses; and after the fourth for the length of fifty verses. The other parts of the eclipse prayer are the same as other prayers.
|f20.6||After praying, it is recommended that the imam give two sermons like those of the Friday prayer (O: in integrals (def:f18.9) and conditions (f18.10), except that here the sermons follow the prayer, as opposed to those of the Friday prayer, which precede it).
|f20.7||One may no longer perform the eclipse prayer if one has not yet begun it when the eclipse passes, when the sun sets while still eclipsed, or when the sun rises while the moon is still eclipsed. But if one has begun the prayer and the eclipse passes or the sun sets while still in eclipse, one nevertheless completes the prayer.
The above rigmarole provides some clues about what made the eclipse problematic for North Primary School in Southall.
First of all, the prescribed ritual (which is mandatory for observant Muslims) is lengthy, includes at least one “Allahu Akhbar”, and features a lot of bowing, kneeling, prostrating, etc. This is not something a head teacher would want going on in his classrooms with non-Muslims also present. However, if he forbade the prayer, devout parents might file a complaint that he was being intolerant, racist, and discriminatory to their children. He’d be caught between a rock and a hard place.
Secondly, there is the prohibition against shapely women being present during the prayer. Some of the teachers at the school, whether Muslim or kafir, may well be comely young women. Their presence at the time of the eclipse would thus be problematic. Substitute teachers (males or dumpy old women) would have to fill in, creating an administrative nightmare for the school staff.
Vlad suggests another possible reason for the prohibition. Islamic orthodoxy covers not just ritual and other human behaviors, but also what is now commonly known as science. Various tenets of Islamic “science” — which are just as infallible and immutable as anything else in the Koran or the sharia — contradict modern Western science. For example, no pious Muslim may assert that the solar system is heliocentric (see this video for an overview of Islamic cosmology).
Assuming that teachers in the school intended to turn the eclipse into a “teachable moment”, one or more of these heretical assertions would almost certainly have been presented to their charges. The Earth revolves around the sun. The Moon revolves around the Earth. The sun’s corona, which is made visible during eclipses, is caused by ionized particles emitted by nuclear reactions within the sun. And so forth. No djinns involved!
We can’t be having our innocent children exposed to these filthy heresies, now, can we?
As a result, on January 20 the full body of Islamic doctrine passed between the children of North Primary School and the day’s amazing events, creating a total eclipse of the truth.
|*||’Umdat al-salik wa ’uddat al-nasik, or The reliance of the traveller and tools of the worshipper. It is commonly referred to as Reliance of the Traveller when cited in English.
The Revised Edition (published 1991, revised 1994) and is “The Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law ’Umdat al-Salik by Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri (d. 769/1368) in Arabic with Facing English Text, Commentary, and Appendices”, edited and translated by Nuh Ha Mim Keller. The publisher is listed as amana publications in Beltsville, Maryland.