All perfect praise be to Allah, the Lord of the worlds. I testify that there is none worthy of worship except Allah and that Muhammad is His slave and Messenger.
The scholars of Fiqh differed in opinion about the ending time of the ‘Ishaa’ prayer.
The Fiqh Encyclopedia reads:
“As for the ending time of the ‘Ishaa’ prayer, then it is when the true dawn starts, without any difference of opinion between Abu Haneefah and his companions; this is also the view of the Shaafi'i School and the less known view of the Maaliki School... The well-known view in the Maaliki School is that its ending time is the end of the first one-third of the night, for the hadeeth in which Jibreel (Gabriel) led the Prophet in prayer, which is already mentioned above, which includes that: 'he prayed them on the second day at the first third of the night.' The Hanbali School is of the view that its ending optional time is the first third of the night; after which there is the time of necessity, until the start of the Fajr, like, for example, if a person was sick and then he recovered or a menstruating woman or a woman who had post-partum bleeding (bleeding following childbirth) who has become pure.”
Ibn Rushd said in Bidaayat-ul-Mujtahid:
"As regards the ending time of the ‘Ishaa’ prayer, then the scholars differed in opinion into three views:
The first is that it is the first third of the night;
The second is that it is the middle of the night [which is the middle time between the Maghrib and Fajr],
The third is that it is until the start of the Fajr.
The first view (I mean the first third of the night) was stated by Ash-Shaafi'i (as the time of choice) and Abu Haneefah, and it is also the well-known view of the Maaliki School. The second view was also reported from Maalik (I mean the middle of the night). The third was the view of Daawood.”
As regards the evidence that its time extends until the start of the Fajr, then Al-Bayhaqi said in As-Sunan:
“Chapter: the end of the time of permissibility of the ‘Ishaa’ prayer: it was reported to us from Ibn ‘Abbaas that he said, ‘The time of ‘Ishaa’ is until the Fajr.’ It was also reported from him and from ‘Abdur-Rahmaan ibn ‘Awf that if a woman becomes pure (from menses or post-partum bleeding) before the Fajr, she prays the Maghrib and the ‘Ishaa’. It was narrated from ‘Ubayd ibn Jurayj that he asked Abu Hurayrah, ‘What is the negligence in performing the ‘Ishaa’ prayer?’ He replied, ‘(To delay it until) the beginning of the Fajr.’ It was narrated to us from ‘Aa’ishah that she said, ‘The Messenger of Allah delayed the ‘Ishaa’ prayer till a great part of the night was over one night, and the people in the mosque had gone to sleep. He then came out to them and observed the prayer and said, ‘This is the proper time for it, but I do not want to burden my people (i.e. I would normally pray it at this time).’ Then he mentioned – with his chain of narrators – from Abu Qataadah that the Prophet said in a long Hadeeth, ‘There is no negligence in sleep; rather, negligence is that one does not pray until the time for the next prayer comes.’ [Muslim] According to the view of the Hanbalis who consider that after the first third of the night it is a time of necessity, then according to them it is forbidden to delay it until after the first third part of the night without a necessity. Al-Mardaawi said in Al-Insaaf, ‘It is forbidden to delay (the prayer) without a sound excuse till the time of necessity according to the correct view of our School...’”
The view which we adopt here at Islamweb is that the time of choice for the ‘Ishaa’ prayer extends until the middle of the night [which is not necessarily midnight, but the middle time between the Maghrib and Fajr] for the hadeeth narrated by ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Amr – regarding the timings of the prayers – that the Prophet said, “…and the time of the ‘Ishaa’ extends until the middle of the night.” [Muslim]
An-Nawawi said, “It means the time of choice for performing it. As regards the time of permissibility, it extends until the Fajr, for the hadeeth narrated by Abu Qataadah that, ‘...negligence is that one does not pray until the time for the next prayer comes.’” [Muslim]
Therefore, if a person prayed the ‘Ishaa’ before the time of the Fajr starts, then he has prayed during the time of permissibility and not during the time of choice.
Nonetheless, there is no doubt that it is desirable to avoid the difference of opinion, so it is better to pray the ‘Ishaa’ prayer at a time during which there is no difference of opinion among the scholars, and we have already mentioned their statements to you.
Allah knows best.