If you're a teacher in the public school system and you have Muslim students who wish to uphold their religious right to pray in school I would say that not understanding when the prayer times happen would be a great way to give yourself headaches and opening up yourself up to being pestered and manipulated by these students (heck you might have even have Muslim students who don't care about upholding their religious right to pray in school but decide to start claiming to care about it once they realize it can be used as an effective instrument to evade responsibilities of schoolwork and enter power struggles with the teacher).
Not knowing the prayer times opens up the opportunities for students to claim they have to pray right at this exact moment (when in reality they have a whole long window of time in which to get the prayer in and could easily wait another 15, 20, 30 or even 45 minutes more to pray) when their real motivation may be to avoid work, or rendezvous for a pre-planned goof off session in the hallways with their bro in a different class or maybe even something more nefarious (yes I've heard worse).
To avoid these pitfalls teachers and school administration should work together to establish a regularly scheduled time that falls within the prayer times in which students will be afforded an appropriate amount of time to perform the full ritual of praying.
So how do you do this?
First of all, once you have students who have asserted they want to practice their right to pray in school there is nothing wrong with the school a structured time for them to do it, so long as it does not impede upon them performing it the way their religion dictates; and the Islamic prayer practice has long established bona fides in US court precedent for 1st amendment protection. There are 5 obligatory prayers in Islam and they are named as such:
Dhur, or the noon prayer, is the prayer that students are dealing with performing during the school hours (asr can come into play during the winter, as we will demonstrate.
What make the prayer times complicated in regards to consistency in school is that they are determined essentially by the positioning of the sun in the sky (or beyond the horizon) and not by static times. Just as the daylight has gradual change through the year and seasons (and two instances of drastic change in relation to the clock time when daylight savings occurs), so do the Islamic prayer times.
So let's look at the prayer times throughout the year and analyze this a little bit.
Here's the prayer times on September 6th 2016 for Washington county Minnesota (there is variation in the times based on where you are on the earth longitudinally but a 150 mile span makes for differences of only a matter of minutes, and we'll show you how to always look up the prayer times for your zip code before we are done here).
Fejr (dawn) 5:18am
Dhur (noon 1:10pm
Asr (afternoon). 4:51pm
Maghrib (sunset). 7:45pm
Isha (evening). 9:10pm
Each prayer has a window of time within which it can be performed before it is considered to be neglected (and therefore, as far as the religion is concerned, is registered as a sin that needs to be expiated for).
Fejr begins with the first light of the dawn in the horizon (or when it would appear if the sky is overcast as cloudiness varying whether conditions do not have an effect on when the prayer times occur) and it's time frame ends when the tip of the sphere of the sun makes it first appearance in the sky (assuming a clear cut view of the horizon as things like buildings and trees blocking one's view of the horizon also have no bearing on when the prayer times occurs - the prayer times are all calculation based and their times are therefore easily predictable and mapped out).
The timeframe for dhur (the prayer that students do at school) ends when the next prayer (asr) begins. Similarly the timeframe of asr ends when maghrib begins, and the timeframe for maghrib ends when Isha begins, and the timeframe for Isha ends halfway through the night.
So I know what you’re thinking, you are looking at the time frame of dhur and saying “hey! If it ends at 4:51 and the school day get’s out at 3:30, then they don’t even need to pray at school! They can just do it when they get home! Yes!” But just hold up for a moment there. It is true that students might choose to pray at home in such situations, but it is not that simple.
Firstly, there is plenty of religious pretext to the idea that praying closer to the time the prayer comes in is better than praying later in the time frame. As such, it is commonly the practice of families, and definitely the practice within mosques, that the prayers are done about 20-30 minutes after the time comes in. Therefore, it is typically the case that students who pray are use to praying in that time frame, and wish to pray closer to the time when it comes in because, again, there is plenty of religious pretext to the idea that praying sooner is better than praying later. Students who want to pray dhur in school, even when the timeframe of dhur extends beyond the end of the school day, should still be allowed to do so and accommodated.
Secondly, it can be very hard for non-Muslims to appreciate just how hard it can be to find a place and time to pray when you are generally out and about in the United States. All the more so if you are a young person who does not have total control over your own comings and goings. If a student leaves school at 3:30, even with and hour and 20 minutes until the prayer timeframe ends, it is simply not going to be a simple task for them to just find a time and space to pray in that time. Their bus a ride alone is likely to be at least 30 minutes. They may have another activity scheduled for 4 o’clock or 4:30 that they have to get prepared for, little siblings to look after etcetera. For me, as a general rule, when I am in the United States if I am somewhere and need to pray and the timeframe is within an hour and a half of ending, I make my best effort to pray at the place I am at as oppose to going to somewhere else and expecting that I will be able to get the prayer in sufficiently there. Between traffic, and the simple fact that there are not many places in public where one can expect the space and privacy needed to perform the prayer, you just cannot expect that it is ever going to be convenient to get done.
Thirdly, as you will see, the timeframes are going to change as such that there will be plenty of times during the year in which the timeframes dictate that the students have to pray at school. Therefore, it is best to have it be something structured, regular, consistent, and with clear and well defined expectations and boundaries to be the least disruptive and most respectful process for both the students and the overall school community.
The prayer time frame between dhur and asr gets steadily smaller until the solstice in late December. Look at the timeframes for the prayers on December 22nd, 2016:
Fejr (dawn) 6:19am
Dhur (noon 12:10pm
Asr (afternoon). 2:16pm
Maghrib (sunset). 4:33pm
Isha (evening). 6:03pm
That daily savings has occurred accounts in large part for dhur being an hour earlier (on November 5th dhur comes in at 12:56, the next day is daylight savings and the time for dhur becomes 11:56 and the time becomes a minute later about every 5 days until around the end of July when it starts to recede by the same rate up until around early November) that the daylight length is steadily shorter accounts for the beginning of asr creeping up to 2:16! I do not believe there is a school in the state of Minnesota that will release early enough, even if the release time is 1:50, to where students can be expected to leave school and comfortably find a place and time to pray before the pray time expires in December. Definitely within the fall/winter/spring period after daylight savings, practically speaking, if the students do not take the time to pray at school, they will be unable to perform the dhur prayer within appropriate time frame.
What can be positively identified here is that the latest time dhur will ever come in is 1:18 (in late June and July) and the earliest it will ever end is 2:16. Therefore, 1:19 to 2:15 is in effect a time frame wherein it will always be valid to perform dhur. So if schools want to put in structure to the prayer time schedule-wise, they should choose a time within this time frame (1:30 seems like a good idea) to make the time consistent and predictable for students to leave class or go where they may (under supervision please!) to perform their prayers. This time should not be later 1:45 in the winter months, that is cutting it too close for comfort.
So how much time does the prayer take?
Great question, and we will answer it, but even better than sticking a time label on the length of time (which will do) it will be even better for teachers and educators of Muslim students to get an idea of the whole process of praying and what it all entails to understand the varying factors that make up its time duration. This will be addressed in our next blog post.
By the way, the prayer times for any given location can always be easily looked at any given time at islamicfinder.org - just put in the city or zip code you are in in the top bar, though I believe nowadays the site will likely just read your IP address and give you the prayer times of your locale on the front page. There is also a ever numerous amount of apps for iOS and Android devices (and other platforms) such as Muslim Pro or Athan or whatever else comes up when you search "Islamic prayer" in the iTunes or Google Play or various other app stores.