Contemporary Scientific and Historical Perspectives on Holy Prophet (SAW)’s Routine: A Case Study of the Sleeping Patterns

Ambassador Arif Kamal

Amman- The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan

In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful

Prayers and peace upon His Beloved Messenger, his blessed family and his companions

And of His signs is your sleep by night and day and your seeking of His bounty. Surely in that there are signs for people who listen.” Qur’an 30:23

The Prophet (peace be upon him)’s beauty: physical, inner and functional

In a Hadith narrated by Imam Muslim, the Prophet (peace be upon him) said that “InnAllaha jameel wa yuhibbul jamaal” meaning that surely Allah is beautiful and loves beauty. Out of all of creation, Allah manifested the most beauty in the most honoured of Allah’s creation, i.e. human beings. And out of all of human beings, Allah manifested the most beauty in the external appearance and inner being of the Prophet (peace be upon him). The books of Hadith are replete with descriptions of the physical beauty of the Prophet (peace be upon him). For example, Imam Tirmidhi narrates: “Abu Hurairah (Allah is pleased with him) says: “The messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) was so clean, clear, beautiful, and handsome, as though his body was covered and moulded in silver. His hair was slightly curled.” Meanwhile, the Holy Qur’an itself attests to the beautiful character of the Prophet (peace be upon him), “And assuredly you possess a magnificent nature” Qur’an 68:4. It is therefore not surprising that out of all of creation, the most beloved to Allah is the Prophet (peace be upon him) for Allah loves beauty and has manifested the most beauty in the Prophet (peace be upon him).

However, there is another aspect to the beauty of the Prophet (peace be upon him). When we conceive of beauty, we generally conceive of beauty as being outer beauty and then beauty of character. However, another aspect of beauty is the beauty found in the actions of the Prophet (peace be upon him). When determining whether an action is beautiful, one must look to the effects of such actions on the human condition, i.e. what are the positive effects of this functional beauty on the human condition.

Every aspect of the Prophet (peace be upon him)’s being including every action of the Prophet (peace be upon him), is full of benefit for humanity and acts as a medicine (shifa) or an antidote to the spiritual disease and moral decay which has crept into the contemporary human condition. In fact, this beauty of the Prophet (peace be upon him) becomes even more manifest when we survey the ugliness found in the contemporary human condition especially the epidemics of desacralization and materialism.

The Early Muslims and Sunnah

Each and every Sunnah of the Prophet (peace be upon him) is full of beauty, wisdom and benefits. Allah says in the Blessed Qur’an: “Verily there is for you a good example in the Messenger of God for whoever hopes for [the encounter with] God and the Last Day, and remembers God often.” Qur’an 33:21.

We should state at the outset that none of the Sunnahs of the Prophet (peace be upon him) require revalidation from a scientific or quantitative perspective, i.e. we should not abstain from the Sunnahs of the Prophet (peace be upon him) only because we have not received scientific revalidation for the Sunnah. Nor can we reject a Sunnah of the Prophet (peace be upon him) because it appears that some scientific research on the surface appears to contradict the Sunnah of the Prophet (peace be upon him).

In an ideal world, it should be enough for us to know that a particular act is the Sunnah of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and this would prompt us to emulate his example. “And whatever the Messenger gives you, take it; and whatever he forbids you, abstain [from it].” Qur’an 59:7. This verse of the Qur’an was the motto of the best generations of the early Muslims. For the first generations, knowing that the Prophet (peace be upon him) had engaged in a certain action was sufficient for them to emulate his example. Undoubtedly this was behind the spiritual energy that propelled them within a hundred years of the passing away of the Prophet (peace be upon him) to the Pyrenees and to the borders of China.

The Post-Colonial Muslim

However, we live in a very different day and age. We have inherited a predicament from our recent ancestors in which the Muslim world and our minds and souls have been ravaged by the effects of colonizability and colonialism. Colonizability meaning that we became so weak internally that we became susceptible to colonialism. Colonialism caused every aspect of traditional Muslim life to be uprooted and left in shambles, whether it is our educational systems, our economies, our physical appearances, our thought, our approach towards our traditions, and in particular our relationship with the Sunnah of the Prophet (peace be upon him)—how we view the Sunnah and what superiority and inferiority complexes we engender within our own selves. In fact, it would be no exaggeration to say that if a pre-colonial Muslim were to meet a post-colonial Muslim, it would probably be difficult for the former to recognize the latter as belonging to the same civilization.

One of the effects of colonialism is a deep-rooted spiritual and intellectual inferiority complex in the Muslim psyche. The irony is that while post-colonial Muslims are unable to equal or even emulate the scientific achievements of the contemporary West, we have on the whole become indiscriminate consumers of Western thought and science and its fruits. Furthermore, the Muslim psyche has become overawed by Western science. We have become afflicted with and victims of gharbzadegi i.e. “westoxification” (to borrow a term used by post-colonial Eastern philosophers). One of the results of such gharbzadegi is that we, as a nation, have more easily abandoned the Sunnahs of the Prophet (peace be upon him).

Cures for Gharbzadegi

What is the medicine for the above mentioned illness of abandoning the blessed practices of the Prophet (peace be upon him)? I would posit that it is two-fold. Firstly, there is a task best-suited for our esteemed ‘ulema and shaykhs and those engaged in the field of da’wah and that is reviving our love for the beloved Prophet (peace be upon him). The revival of this love for the Prophet (peace be upon him) will to a great extent wash away the effects of the inferiority complexes that afflict us.

Secondly, keeping in view our existing inferiority complexes, it is critical that our Muslim scientists and medical researchers (under the guidance of qualified ‘ulema), delve deeply into the Sunnahs of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and uncover those benefits which are not immediately apparent to us. Unfortunately, a large number of educated, contemporary Muslims will be more inclined to give weight to a Sunnah of the Prophet (peace be upon him) if the scientific and medical benefits of such a Sunnah are presented before us. Those of us who are afflicted by inferiority complexes will be further encouraged to emulate the blessed example of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and will be able to take advantage of the benefits in these sunnahs. This in turn will also aide those esteemed ‘ulema, shaykhs, and people of da’wah who are engaged in the process of engendering the love of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and his Sunnahs in the hearts of the Ummah.

Purpose of this Paper

Keeping in view the above need, the purpose of the paper is to make a first limited attempt, albeit from the perspective of a non-specialist, to shed scientific and historical light on one aspect of the Prophet (peace be upon him)’s daily routine, i.e. his sleep routine. This aspect of the Prophet (peace be upon him)’s daily routine will be examined from the perspective of scripture as well as science to illustrate the wisdoms in the Prophetic Sunnah.

At the outset, the following should be noted about what we mean by “daily routine”. Firstly, the daily routine we are referring to is that in the Madinan period of the Prophet (peace be upon him)’s life rather than the Makkan period. This is because the Madinan period is one for which we have the majority of reports in relation to the Prophet (peace be upon him)’s daily schedule. Moreover, as the Makkan period was characterized by persecution of the early Muslims, the early community was not able to establish a routine that they could follow due to daily arising challenges. Secondly, when we use the term “routine”, we mean the general pattern of the Prophet (peace be upon him)’s day and night. This however would be altered on many occasions when there was a need to fulfil in relation to the challenges faced by the newly established Muslim polity in Madinah Munawwarah.

An Overview of the Prophet (peace be upon him)’s Sleep Routine

Broadly, an examination of the Hadith of the Prophet (peace be upon him) indicate that his sleep pattern and routine consisted of the following:

  • He would encourage his followers to perform ablution (wudu) before sleeping.
  • He would say some prayers (dua) before sleeping.
  • He would lie on his right side.
  • He would dust and clean his bed before sleeping.
  • He would turn off the lamp before sleeping.
  • He would sleep after Isha until about after midnight.
  • Then he would stay awake and pray tahajjud until when about a sixth of the night was left before the Fajr time starts.
  • Then, he would nap after tahajjud until the Fajr prayer.
  • He would take a mid-day afternoon nap around Zuhur time.

In the sections that follow below, we will examine some of the above aspects of the Prophetic routine and examine them from a scientific, medical, and historical perspective.

Ablution before sleeping

The Prophet (peace be upon him) encouraged his followers to perform ablution (wudu) before sleeping. Imam Bukhari (Allah is pleased with him) narrates that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said:

When you go to bed, you should perform the ablution (wudu) for the prayer, and then lay down on your right side. Then say, ‘O Allah, I have turned my face to You and I have surrendered myself to You and I have committed my back to You out of fear and desire for You. There is no place of safety or refuge from You except with You. I have believed in Your book which You revealed and Your Prophet whom You sent.’ If you die that night, you will die in fitra (natural state). And make these the last words you utter.”

Mentioning some of the spiritual benefits of performing ablution before sleeping, Imam Tabarani narrates in al-Mu`jam al-Kabir that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said:

Purify these bodies, and Allah will purify you. There is not a slave who spends his night in a state of purification except that an angel spends the night besides him. And whenever the slave turns over during the night, the angel says: ‘O Allah, forgive Your slave, for he went to sleep in a state of purification.’”

In addition to the above mentioned spiritual benefits to performing ablution (wudu), there are several scientific and medical benefits. During the day, our skin comes into contact with various materials including dust and other particles. Importantly, our hands come into contact with a lot of different items which may be covered in dirt and bacteria. When we then touch our face with our hands, the bacteria and dirt particles get transferred to the skin on our face. According to dermatologists, by not washing the face before going to sleep, the bacteria will have a lot of time and a perfect environment to multiply and cause damage to a person’s skin. Moreover, bacteria settling into the pores of skin, which are wide open during sleep, is a major reason for acne outbreaks. Thus, performing ablution before going to bed, as is part of the sleep pattern of the Prophet (peace be upon him), will reduce the dirt, bacteria, and oils that may have accumulated on the skin throughout the day.(1)

Lying on the right side

The Prophet (peace be upon him)’s blessed practice was to lie on the right side when initiating sleep. The Prophet (peace be upon him) is reported by Imam Muslim to have said, “Whenever you go to bed, perform ablution like that for the prayer, and lie on your right side.” In another Hadith narrated by Imam Muslim, it is stated that“[w]hen the Prophet (peace be upon him) wants to go to sleep, he puts his right hand under his cheek.” As is the Sunnah of the Prophet (peace be upon him), contemporary scientific studies have suggested that sleeping on the right side:

…has a beneficial effect of right lateral decubitus position on the heart. In particular, one study assessed the autonomic effect of three sleep positions (supine, left lateral decubitus, and right lateral decubitus) in healthy subjects using spectral heart rate variability analysis.(2) The results indicated that cardiac vagal activity was greatest when subjects were in the right lateral decubitus position. In addition, an animal study indicated that vagal stimulation has an antiarrhythmic effect.(3) Several studies have demonstrated that the recumbent position affects autonomic nervous system activity in patients with congestive heart failure, and that there is attenuation of the sympathetic tone when subjects are in the right lateral decubitus position.(4)

The Prophet (peace be upon him) also discouraged sleeping in the prone position, i.e. lying on one’s stomach. He once told a man who was lying on his stomach, “Allah and his Prophet dislike this position” (Sunan Al-Tirmdhi). In a 2007 study conducted by Australian researchers and published in the peer-reviewed publication, The Internet Journal of Allied Health Sciences and Practice researchers stated that the side lying position significantly protected against waking cervical, scapular and arm pain and significantly promoted high sleep quality ratings. It further stated that the worst position to sleep in is on the stomach as is prohibited by Hadith. The Australian team wrote: “There is a consensus that the prone sleep position should be avoided.”(5) If a person is lying with their belly down and face pressed into the pillow, they must crane their neck in order to breathe, which can begin to strain the vertebrae in the bottom part of the skull after just fifteen minutes. One researcher was quoted as saying:

It’s a natural tendency, too, for the person to then bend the knee and hip of the same side to which the head is turned, and bring that leg up. This causes an unnatural lateral, or outward, rotation of that leg that, overtime, leads to a chronic lateral hip rotation on that side.(6)

Furthermore, medical studies have concluded that infants who sleep in the prone position have a seven-fold increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome.(7)

Turning off the lamp before sleeping

Imam Bukhari narrates that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said, “Put out lamps when you go to bed, shut the doors, and cover water and food containers.” Focusing, in particular, on the putting out of lamps, this recommendation from the Sunnah is supported by current medical studies which give importance to maintaining a dark environment during sleep so that the circadian rhythm is not disrupted.

According to the American National Sleep Foundation, exposure to light stimulates a nerve pathway from the eye to parts of the brain that control hormones, body temperature, and other functions that play a role in making us feel sleepy or wide-awake. Too much light, right before bedtime may prevent a person from getting a good night’s sleep. In fact, one study recently found that exposure to unnatural light cycles may have real consequences for our health including increased risk for depression. Regulating exposure to light is an effective way to keep circadian rhythms in check.(8)

Sleeping immediately after Isha until after midnight

The Prophet (peace be upon him) generally encouraged his companions to limit their activities after Isha prayer. Imam Bukhari narrates that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said, “One should not sleep before the night prayer, nor have discussions after it.” Thus, the encouragement of the Prophet (peace be upon him) is to sleep early, i.e. as soon as possible after Isha prayer.

Researchers mention several scientific benefits of sleeping early including the following:

  • Less negative thoughts(9)
  • Being more optimistic, patient and relaxed and less short-tempered, irritable and stressed(10)
  • Increased productivity
  • Easier time maintaining a healthy weight
  • Stronger immune system.(11)

Segmented sleep

It was the blessed habit of the Prophet (peace be upon him) that he would sleep after Isha prayer and then awake around the middle of the night. Thereafter, he would stay awake including to engage in tahajjud prayer and then sleep again when about a sixth of the night was left until when Fajr time would start. Thus, the sleep of the Prophet (peace be upon him) was segmented sleep, i.e. it was composed of a first and second sleep segment in a single night.

Prior to modern times, segmented sleep was the norm in many societies, i.e. people would sleep early, then wake up in the middle of the night for a few hours and then go back to sleep. In the preindustrial West, the French called it dorveille while the English called it “the watch”. In the Islamic world, following the practice of the Prophet (peace be upon him), people would use the same time to engage in tahajjud prayer. Beyond the West and the Islamic world, there is evidence that even African and South American tribes engaged in segmented sleep.(12)

Writing in Doctor’s Review in February 2015, Rose Foster listed a number of luminaries who engaged in segmented sleep and took advantage of the wakefulness between the two sleep segments for various purposes:

Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, was in the habit of taking up books on moral philosophy before bed with the intention of waking after his first sleep to ‘ruminate’ over them. A century earlier, poet Francis Quarles (1592-1644) praised the hour between sleeps, saying, “Let the end of thy first sleep raise thee from thy repose: then hath thy body the best temper, then hath thy soul the least encumbrance; then no noise shall disturb thine ear; no object shall divert thine eye.” An odd handful of modern creatives have extolled the virtues of what is today considered an eccentric practice. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright woke at four, worked for several hours, and then resumed sleep. Psychologist B.F. Skinner kept paper and pen at his bedside for night wakefulness, and Nobel-Prize-winning Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun regularly woke in the dead of night to write.(13)

The Doctor’s Review states that when we lost the practice of segmented sleep, we meddled with our circadian rhythms and asks very poignantly: “Could the loss of this night time immersion in dreamy pontifications and meditative merging with the divine be at least partly responsible for the current proliferation of anxiety and mood disorders which often lead to sleeplessness?” (14) Other writers have pointed out that the appearance of sleep maintenance insomnia in late 19th century literature coincides with the period where accounts of split sleep start to disappear.(15)

While our esteemed ‘ulema continued the Prophetic practice of segmented sleep and were quite aware of the segmented nature of the Prophet (peace be upon him)’s night sleep pattern, and due to the advent of artificial lighting like the light bulb, much of the Western memory of segmented sleep was forgotten until 2001 when Roger Ekirch, a historian, unearthed segmented sleep in the cultural history of pre-19th century Europe.(16) In doing so, he supported the 1992 research of an American biologist who concluded that segmented or bimodal sleep is more natural than the monophasic variety we now aspire to.(17) Furthermore, studies suggested that there is a hormonal component to the peace we feel in the middle of the night. A scientist at the National Institute of Mental Health, Thomas Wehr, researched how exposure to light affects sleep. His studies concluded that exposed to preindustrial light conditions, over several weeks, most of us will gradually start sleeping twice a night, hooked to the Ur-rhythm of our internal clock.(18)

After the Prophet (peace be upon him) would perform tahajjud prayer, he would go back to sleep when a sixth of the night remains. This correlates with the natural tendency for human beings to experience a sudden and strong wave of tiredness around 3 to 4:30 a.m. Researchers have proposed that this wave of tiredness is caused by a surge of progesterone which causes sleepiness and is a sign of healthy sleep.(19) Furthermore, this supports the segmented sleep theory because a segmented sleeper would need a physiological cue to take their second segment of sleep after being awake for a few hours.(20)

Rising early and staying awake after the Fajr prayer

After sleeping for the second segment of the night, the Prophet (peace be upon him) would awake again at the time of Fajr prayer and then would stay awake. The Prophet (peace be upon him) would also encourage his followers to take advantage of the morning – in fact a Prophetic prayer as narrated in Ibn Majah is: “Oh Allah, give barakah to my Ummah in their early-morning work.” In another Hadith narrated by Imam Ahmad, the Prophet (peace be upon him) was reported to have said: “Allah made the early hours blessed for my Ummah”.

Various studies have highlighted the following benefits for waking up early:

  • Increased cognitive performance – Texas University study
  • Increased productivity – study by a Harvard biologist Christoph Randler
  • Easier to sustain a healthy diet
  • Better mental health(21)

Taking a mid-day afternoon nap around zuhur time

There are several Hadith which indicate that it was the blessed habit of the Prophet (peace be upon him) to take a short mid-day nap (qaylulah) around the time of the zuhur prayer. Anas (Allah is pleased with him) said, “Umm Sulaim used to spread a leather sheet for the Prophet (peace be upon him) and he used to take a mid-day nap on that leather sheet at her home.” (Bukhari). In another narration, Anas (Allah is pleased with him) narrated that “[w]e used to offer the Friday prayer early and then have an

Segmented Sleep with Seista

Source: “Segmented Sleep”, Polyphasic Society overviews/segmented-sleep/
Source: “Segmented Sleep”, Polyphasic Society

afternoon nap.’’ (Bukhari). In another Hadith, the Prophet (peace be upon him) was reported to have said: “Take a short nap, for Devils do not take naps” (Sahih Aljamie).

Research has shown that short daytime naps improve cognitive functions and are beneficial for memory consolidation.(22) A recent study assessed the health effects of napping in more than 20,000 adults for an average of about six years. The researchers concluded that those who napped at least three times weekly for about half an hour had 37% lower coronary mortality than those who did not nap.(23)

When taken together with the Prophet (peace be upon him)’s night time schedule, we can conclude that the Prophet (peace be upon him) was generally a triphasic sleeper. In fact, the triphasic sleep schedule stated by the Polyphasic Society (as summarized in the diagram) exactly correlates with the sleep pattern of the Prophet (peace be upon him):

The most important thing to do when setting up a triphasic sleep schedule is to make sure that the three naps are at times of the day that line up with your circadian rhythm. This means that one nap should be taken an hour or two after dusk, when the hormone melatonin is reaching high levels, one nap should be taken 30 minutes to an hour before dawn, and have you waking up after the sun rises, so your body is natural aroused by the morning daylight, and a third nap should be taken sometime between the hours of 1pm and 4pm, where your alertness naturally drops, allowing you to sleep.(24)


A review of the above paper and its associated research literature indicates that science is catching up with the Sunnah of the Prophet (peace be upon him). In particular, taking the Prophet (peace be upon him) as a model of human behaviour and in examining his daily routine and schedule. Just by examining one aspect of his daily routine (i.e. his sleeping pattern), it becomes apparent that there is a great need to delve deeper into the study of the Prophet (peace be upon him)’s daily routine from the perspective of modern science in order to highlight the benefits in adopting it.

It is our hope that the readers of this paper, in particular Muslims scientists and medical researchers, will be encouraged by this layperson’s efforts to seek out qualified ‘ulema under whose guidance they can conduct research into aspects of the Prophetic Sunnah. Furthermore, while there are many centres in the Islamic world for the study of the Sunnah and Hadith, it is our recommendation and hope that some Muslim government will take it upon itself to establish a unique centre of excellence and research under the umbrella of which Muslim scientists, medical researchers, and ‘ulema will work together to highlight the wisdoms behind the beautiful practices from the life of our beloved Prophet (peace be upon him) so that the meaning of the verse “Verily there is for you a good example in the Messenger of God for whoever hopes for [the encounter with] God and the Last Day, and remembers God often” (Qur’an 33:21) becomes even more apparent.