Prayers on International Flights — A Brief Investigation

Note: I do not possess or claim expertise to any religious matter. If you are contemplating long-distance travel and need to figure out prayer times specific to your needs, consult competent religious authority or a trustworthy online service and, of course, safe travel.

I was flying from Geneva to Abu Dhabi a few days ago on an Etihad flight. Being a flag carrier of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the plane’s on-board entertainment system is embedded with two useful, and to me novel, features — a “Mecca Pointer” and a countdown to the next daily prayer. Such obligatory prayers, or Salah, are performed five times a day by Sunni Muslims at prescribed timesfajr between dawn and sunrise; zuhr between midday and 10 minutes before asr; asr between when a thing’s shadow is once or twice its length (i.e., in the afternoon) and sunset; maghrib between sunset and the end of dusk; and isha at night. Naturally, these obligations may run into troubles in our modern times — while travelers of yore were usually slow enough to not run into two consecutive sunrises, there is such a possibility now, and a commercial airplane isn’t exactly known for its spaciousness.

Taken shortly after departure from Geneva

First, the Time

Say, for example, a flight was to depart today from Dubai at 5:30 am, the time of local sunrise and that by which our pious traveler should have had his fajr, for Jakarta. It was a direct flight and took a little over 8 hours and, should he have stuck to his Dubai clock, he must have had his second prayer en route, as the cutoff for zuhr in Dubai was at 12:22 pm, at which time he was still on that plane. However, when he landed in Jakarta he would have found the city at 3:45 pm and, with a little delay, would have missed the local time for his third daily prayer at, well, 3:45 pm sharp. So what gives? Should he have had his asr between 12:22 pm Dubai time and 3:45 pm Jakarta time, i.e., within the last hour or so of his flight? If so, at what specific time? He should have spent most of that hour above the timezone GMT+5:30, where people had their asr at 2:50 pm. Should he have followed suit? Other flights present other problems — as an online tool designed to solve this very puzzle freely admits, for some summer flights between Asia and North America they “may not encounter sunset at all,” not to mention the potentiality of losing a day while crossing the International Date Line, which may rightfully trouble some followers of that faith about “los[ing] a whole day’s worth of Sala[]h.

Some uniformity in response to these questions seems to exist within the Muslim community. Most agree, for example, that for fajr, maghrib and isha, all of which are tied to some observable natural phenomenon (i.e., dawn, sunset, nightfall), a traveler should pray once these visible signs appear. Consensus over zuhr and asr is less so. While some affirm that zuhr should be practiced when one sees the sun “at its meridian” on a plane, others adopt a more nuanced approach and recommend sticking to the time zone one’s flying above, but with some delay “because time in the air is not like time on the ground.” It indeed is not — because time speeds up ever-so-slightly when you are further away from the Earth’s gravitational pull, although as a human you will be hard-pressed to notice any difference. It has also been said that because presumably prayers on the ground are preferable, as long as the traveler can be certain that the time for prayer would not have elapsed by the time of arrival, they should wait till then.

On top of that, some authoritative sources, such as the Islamic Association of Raleigh in North Carolina, cite to passages in the Quran in saying that while traveling one is allowed to condense five daily prayers down to three by combining zuhr with asr, and maghrib with isha, as long as this combined prayer takes place at the correct time for either of its constituent parts. Note that this methodology saves the trouble of calculating the exact time for an elusive zuhr, and anchors all three prayers to naturally occurring, readily visible events. What to do in times of rain, fog or stormy weather I do not know — Point is, as long as you make your best efforts and make up for inadvertently missed prayers, the rules seem to be quite forgiving of such careless mistakes.

Then, the Place

Once the time is ascertained, a Quora user explains, we must then determine the Qibla, as in the relative direction of the holy Kaaba in Mecca. The Etihad installment effectively solved this wayfinding quest for us, but in other cases one may try asking the pilot, checking the more regular on-board flight maps, or performing mental trigonometry to his or her best abilities. Then, the user quite casually instructs us to “find a small place where you can pray” and pray “as you normally do,” although some have complained about the occasional impracticability of so doing. The general response to these complaints seems to be the command that “it is not permissible to pray sitting in the plane… if one is able to stand” per Quranic teachings.

This is fair and square, as a pilot identifies a plane’s “front most door” as a most suitable place for prayers. The “if one is able” language is naturally a little vague — one certainly cannot be expected to unbuckle their seat belt and pray during take-off, taxi, descent or turbulence, but what about those less stringent scenarios that still demand safety precautions? What if, say, the cabin is poorly lit, luggages placed haphazardly, and your neighbors fast asleep, hence blocking your access to the public areas? Where must we draw the line of inability? I have a sneaking suspicion that more people construe it liberally than not, because throughout my flight I did not see one person leave their seat to pray — which if done properly most certainly would have been visible.

So the issue becomes whether this more liberal line-drawing exercise should be sanctioned. Perhaps it should not, as the Holy Quran itself requires that its followers “stand in true devotion to Allah,” and yet perhaps it should, as the highly authoritative Sahih al-Bukhari tells us that the Prophet himself once said, as retold in a collection specifically devoted to the issue of shortening prayers during inconvenient times, that “pray while standing and if you can’t, pray while sitting and if you cannot do even that, then pray lying on your side.” Perhaps it is best left to the judgment of every pious follower of the Islamic faith, and not the musings of an outsider like myself.