People of ancient civilizations from all parts of the globe developed various myths and legends about eclipses. The Chinese believed that during an eclipse the sun was devoured by a dragon. Native Americans believed that a bear bites the sun and moon after an argument, while the Serrano Indians thought that dead spirits caused eclipses by trying to eat these celestial bodies.
Today we know that an eclipse is a natural phenomenon caused by the partial or complete obscuring of one celestial body by another. The phenomenon is called a lunar eclipse when the earth, sun and moon are lined up and the Earth’s shadow falls on the moon. In a solar eclipse, the moon is the eclipsing body, passing between Earth and the sun and casting a traveling shadow across Earth’s lighted surface.
In spite of all the scientific explanations, many people still believe that an eclipse is the harbinger of some impending natural disaster or the death or downfall of a ruler.
Islam tells us that the sun and the moon, like everything thing else in this universe, have been created by Allah and these celestial bodies are subject to imperfections and changes just like any other created entity. It is only Allah who is Eternal and Ever Living, the creator of the Universe, who sustains everything.
It is stated in the Holy Quran: “And of His signs are the night and day and the sun and moon. Do not prostrate to the sun or to the moon, but prostate to Allah, who created them, if it should be Him that you worship.” (Surah Fussilat, 41:37)
In another place it is stated: “It is He who created the night and the day and the sun and the moon. All (the celestial bodies) swim along, each in its orbit.” (Qur’an 21:33)
Worshipping the sun and the moon does not only mean bowing or prostrating to them. It can also mean believing that they have divine powers to affect and alter the fate of human beings. Hence Muslims believe that the sun, stars and moon have no power to affect the destiny of mankind or benefit them in any way other than what Allah has created them for.
“And it is He who ordained the stars for you that you may be guided thereby in the darkness of the land and the sea.” (Surah An’am-97)
The moon and the sun play a vital role in the daily life of a Muslim. Muslims determine the beginning and the end of the months in their lunar calendar by using the moon. By using the position of the sun in the sky, Muslims can calculate the times for daily prayers, the direction of Qibla and observing fast.
“They ask you about new crescent moons, say they are but signs to mark fixed period of times for mankind and Hajj….” (Qur’an-Baqara 2:189)
There are hundreds of verses in the Quran which indicate that all of Allah’s creations are for the benefit of mankind so that he observes them, ponders over their existence and comes to recognize one true God, who alone is worthy of worship. During the time of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him), a solar eclipse took place. It created panic among the people. It was also the time when young Ibraaheem, Prophet Muhammad’s (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) son had passed away. The people said that the sun had eclipsed because it mourned Ibraaheem’s death.
Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) told the people to gather in a mosque and declared the pre-Islamic notions and superstitions regarding eclipses null and void. He said: “The sun and the moon are two of the signs of Allah; they do not become eclipsed for the death or life of anyone. If you see that (an eclipse) then call upon Allah and magnify Him, and pray, and give in charity.”
Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) also told the people to pray a special prayer in case they observe an eclipse. This prayer is called Salaat al-Kusoof, and it lasts from the beginning of the eclipse until it is over. It is sunnah to pray Salaat al-Kusoof in congregation, but it can also be prayed individually, like all other voluntary prayers. However, praying it in congregation is better.
This command is also a clear reminder to Muslims that they should not just disregard natural phenomenon like eclipses but use this time to make du’aa’, seek Allah’s forgiveness for their sins, give charity and do other righteous deeds.