Who Were the ‘Unbelievers’ Referred to in the Hadith Concerning Sun Worshippers?

Answered by Shaykh Jamir Meah

Question: In a Hadith from Fath al-Bari, there is a Hadith which prohibits praying between the times of sunrise and sunset as that’s when the ‘unbelievers’ prostrated to the sun. Who are these ‘unbelievers’? Did the Arabs also worship the celestial bodies in addition to their idols?

Answer: Wa’alaykum assalam. Thank you for your question.

The major books of hadith commentary do not seem to mention a specific people in regards to the hadith you have mentioned (quoted below). What becomes clear from perusing these texts, as well as major works of tafsir on related verses, is that the reference to the unbelievers prostrating to the sun is general.

Sun worship

Sun worshipping, in one way or another, is a primeval practice and was widespread in many cultures such as Ancient Egypt (Ra), Norse Mythology (Sol), the Romans (Apollo), Greek (Helios), Persia (Magians), Britain and Gaul (Druid’s ‘Mighty Oak’) and various Arabian and the Levant tribes.

Amongst the well-known of the Arabs who worshipped the sun, and who survived in various forms during the time of the Prophet ﷺ, were the Sabeans who worshipped the celestial bodies and historically, a solar goddess named Shams, and in Palmyra, Syria, the Temple of Bal was dedicated to a triad of deities, one being Yarhibol, a sun god.

Mecca was a busy trading center, and the Custodians of the Sacred Sanctuary invited people from all of Arabia to make the holy pilgrimage each year, and these people were encouraged to bring with them their various divinities and deities. It would be very likely that there were sun worshipers among them and this was familiar to the Quraysh.

Sun worshippers in the Quran

In surat al Naml, we find the Hoopoe’s words ‘I have found her [Saba] and her people prostrating themselves to the sun, instead of Allah, and the Satan has beautified their deeds for them, and has prevented them from the way, so they do not take the right path.’ [27:24]

And in al Fussilat, God tells people, ‘Do not prostrate yourselves to the sun, or to the moon. And prostrate yourselves to Allah who has created them, if it is Him whom you worship.’ [41:37]

This again is a general admonishment to all who worship the sun and moon. Imam al Razi in his Tafsir, mentions the Sabeans as an example of those addressed in this verse, indicating that the practice of sun-worship was still part of their religious practise at the time of revelation. Other authors (though the references given need to be verified) have stated that there were Arabs tribes who worshipped the sun and called the sun ‘al Ilaha’ [Taw’il Mukhtalif al Hadith]

Prohibition of praying when the sun rises and sets

Two of the prohibited times for praying is when the sun rises and when the sun sets. This is based on the hadith you mentioned, ‘Observe the dawn prayer, then stop praying when the sun is rising till it is fully up, for when it rises it comes up between the horns of Satan, and the unbelievers prostrate themselves to it at that time.’ … ‘then cease prayer till the sun sets, for it sets between the horns of devil, and at that time the unbelievers prostrate themselves before it.’ [Sahih Muslim]

The reason for the prohibition is three-fold:

a) Because satan puts his head in front of the sun as it rises and sets, so that those worshipping the sun look as if they are prostrating to him.

b) Because Allah Most High and the beloved Prophet ﷺ only want good for the believers so prevent the Muslims from being in such a situation and letting the devil get the upper hand over the believers.

c) Because this was the specific time sun worshippers pray, and the Prophet ﷺ was always keen to distinguish the practice of the Muslims from the practice of other religions.

[Fathul Bari, Sharh Muslim]

In conclusion, the hadith we discussed, as well as some verses of the Quran address sun worshippers in general, though the Prophet ﷺ would have had knowledge of some of these groups, such as the Sabeans, previous nations, and most likely, other Arab tribes, particularly among the outlying Bedouins. And Allah knows best.

Warmest salams
Shaykh Jamir Meah

Shaykh Jamir Meah grew up in Hampstead, London. In 2007, he traveled to Tarim, Yemen, where he spent nine years studying the Islamic sciences on a one-to-one basis under the foremost scholars of the Ribaat, Tarim, with a main specialization and focus on Shafi’i fiqh. In early 2016, he moved to Amman, Jordan, where he continues advanced studies in a range of Islamic sciences, as well as teaching. Jamir is a qualified homeopath.