London: UK mosques have turned to technology for help working out the exact time for dawn prayers, a problem faced for centuries.
As part of a Birmingham-based project expected to be replicated across the UK, mosques used astronomy cameras and crowd sourcing to work out when Muslims should mark 'fajr' the first prayers of the day at first light, 'The Times' reports.
Shahid Merali, a general practitioner and founder of the OpenFajr project, told the newspaper: "During Ramadan we noticed in one local mosque people were still eating as their time of dawn hadn’t set in, while next door they had started fasting and were performing morning prayers, while in another worshippers would already have prayed and gone home to bed or to work.
"The lesson was about collaboration and consensus through open data. It's like a blueprint for enabling community cohesion."
The break of dawn, around two hours before sunrise, differs across the UK, but even neighbouring mosques currently vary by up to 45 minutes in marking morning prayers.
This is due to the use of different formulae to calculate the time at which the first rays of sunlight spill over the horizon in their area.
The problem has now been solved in Birmingham, where around 150,000 Muslims from diverse Islamic denominations now adhere to a synchronised local timetable as a result of the OpenFajr project.
Merali bought an astronomy camera with a dome that captures a 360-degree view of the horizon and mounted it on a rooftop, using image processing to cancel out light pollution. It took a photograph every 60 seconds either side of dawn every day for a year.
Around 25,000 images were uploaded online and circulated to more than 170 local mosques and scholars and also to experts at the University of Cambridge and HM Nautical Almanac Office, asking them to choose which image captured first light each day.
For overcast days, statisticians filled in the gaps based on data from clear mornings.
Birmingham Central Mosque presented the data to local mosques, and they agreed to adhere to the new standardised timetable from May this year.
The OpenFajr project will be replicated in London and Peterborough, with hopes to extend it further.