You know those amazing pictures of the night sky studded with thousands of stars and the Milky Way clearly visible? Subhan Allah, they are beautiful. But have you ever actually seen the sky like that? If you live in a city, or even a small town the chances are that you haven’t. I can honestly say that I have never seen the Milky Way. But I hope to be able to see it one day, insha Allah, if I manage to travel somewhere wild and unspoilt and free from light pollution.
When we think of pollution we imagine dirty stuff contaminating water, soil or the air. But how can light be polluting? It’s not even a substance, but some kind of electromagnetic wave, as modern physics defines it, so how it could cause problems? Unfortunately, light pollution is too often taken lightly, but it’s a serious problem. And especially so for Muslims. Let me explain.
Light pollution is defined as excessive, misdirected, or obtrusive artificial (usually outdoor) light. (http://www.globeatnight.org/light-pollution.php) It is a new thing: the by-product of civilizations powered by electricity. Just imagine, some hundred years ago there was no street lighting and no illuminated signs and no light seeping from the windows of the houses. How dark it must have been! Nowadays people living in urban areas do not even experience such darkness. And they are missing out on the amazing signs in the sky above their heads! But light pollution also has some more serious consequences.
In the Qur’an we are reminded time after time of the importance of the circadian rhythm: “And it is He Who gives life and causes death, and His is the alternation of night and day. Will you not then understand?” (Al-Muminoon :80) The succession of day and night is one of the signs of Allah (SWT) and the natural pattern of light and dark is crucial for the Earth’s ecosystems. Owls are not the only creatures which wake at dusk and even flowers follow the sunlight and close for the night. Light pollution disrupts the delicate balance of ecosystems and negatively affects nocturnal wildlife, both plants and animals. Artificial light can: confuse the migratory patterns of birds and other animals (each year in New York City alone, about 10,000 migratory birds are injured or killed crashing into lighted skyscrapers and high-rise buildings); alter competitive interactions of animals, as some animals only forage in the dark; change predator-prey relations, where predators are more likely to see nocturnal animals that used to be hidden in the dark and even cause physiological harm. Plants are affected too: strong-scented flowers are generally pollinated at night, but if the darkness does not come, neither do the pollinators who are normally active in the dark.
By disrupting the ecosystems, light pollution affects humans as well: if the plants don’t get pollinated they won’t bear fruit, and if some animals don’t reproduce due to lack of darkness, then it may cause the decline or escalation in populations of other species. But the upset in the balance of day and night has an even more direct impact on us. The most obvious consequence is sleep disorders, such as delayed sleep–phase syndrome, in which people tend to fall asleep very late at night and have difficulty waking up in time for work, school, or social engagements. (Environmental Health Perspectives Journal: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2627884/) This could explain why we find it so hard to wake up for Fajr prayer, but it is certainly no excuse to miss it. Some researchers suggest a link between excessive exposure to artificial light and breast cancer. According to the Chronobiology Journal (Jan 2008) “women living in neighbourhoods where it was bright enough to read a book outside at midnight had a 73% higher risk of developing breast cancer than those residing in areas with the least outdoor artificial lighting.” The suspected link is melatonin, a hormone known for helping to regulate the body’s biological clock. Melatonin is produced by the pineal gland and secreted at night; melatonin levels drop sharply in the presence of artificial or natural light. Scientists admit that the health consequences of light pollution are yet largely unknown, but the research on this subject is slow, as the problem of light pollution is often disregarded.
The modern way of life disassociated from the natural rhythm of day and night is not only unhealthy, but it also goes against the teaching of Islam. “See they not that We have made the night for them to rest therein, and the day sight-giving? Verily, in this are signs for the people who believe.” (An-Naml :86)
Our worship is scheduled by the rhythm of night and day and by the lunar calendar. The two important prayers, Fajr, offered at second dawn, and ‘Isha, offered at night, require the measuring of the amount of twilight, which is caused by the scattering of sunlight by the upper layers of the Earth’s atmosphere. But nowadays light pollution makes it hard to identify nautical twilight and for this reason leading Islamic organizations endorse the beginning and end of night (‘Isha) prayer when the Sun is geometrically approximately 18° at sea level that is, the point of astronomical twilight. Modern technology may help determine the prayer times, but it won’t be of much use when it comes to looking for the Ramadhan and Eid moon, as it has to be observed with the naked eye, and light pollution makes it much harder.
Light pollution is certainly at its worst over the biggest cities and many observers claim that the worst of them all is Dubai. “Does it mean the end of Arabian nights?” – asks Brian Nitz on the Green Prophet website. It is a cynical joke of his: “Imagine if One Thousand and One Arabian Nights had ended on the third page with king Shahryar telling Scheherazade: “The sun has risen. I must fulfill my oath and execute my wife before she betrays me.” And Scheherazade replies with her final words, “But master, that is not the sunrise. It is merely the lights of a new shopping center.”
Light pollution is not to be taken lightly: it is a big problem with big consequences the scope of which we probably cannot even fully imagine. So can we do anything about it? We have neither the power nor the authority to turn off the lights of the big bright cities… But to make a big difference we have to start with small changes: turn off the light in your bedroom, in your house, campaign to reduce the amount of lighting on your street and in your neighbourhood. And most importantly of all spread the awareness of the problem – shed the light of knowledge.
Klaudia Khan is a Muslim writer who takes her responsibility as Earth’s steward seriously and hopes she can inspire others to do more green living. She lives with her husband and three daughters in the UK.