Polar prayers: Spring Ramadan makes midnight iftars a thing of the past for Arctic Muslims

Equinox offers 'semi-normal' rhythm for polar Muslims after 20-hour fasts in recent years

Midnight sun shines on the Midnight Sun Mosque in Inuvik, Canada. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Powered by automated translation

It is something of a watershed Ramadan for Muslims living near the Arctic Circle.

Behind them are years of summer Ramadans, marked by 20-hour fasts and iftars in the middle of the night when the sun finally dipped below the polar horizon.

Winter fasts lie ahead when the question will be how to ensure it is still a sacrifice when dawn turns to dusk in a few hours at most.

The whole cycle repeats every 33 years or so, meaning Muslims in the high north will experience both extremes over their lifetime.

Ramadan in 2024 is the midpoint. It coincides with the spring equinox, when the hours of fasting in Iceland or Norway are, at least in March, not all that different to those in the UAE or Saudi Arabia.

“This year, and probably in the next two years, the timing is going to be semi-normal,” Ermir Pellumbi, a Muslim in Reykjavik, Iceland, told The National.

The volcanic North Atlantic island is home to three mosques and about 7,000 Muslims, some with roots in the Arab world, others in the Balkans.

The world’s northernmost Islamic sites include mosques in Tromso, Norway; Inuvik, Canada; and Norilsk, Russia.

The extremes of day and night that come when you approach the Earth’s poles mean these are unusual places for religious rites ordered around daylight.

In summer, the call to sunset prayer in Reykjavik can come as late as midnight.

During Ramadan, some exhausted worshippers who had gathered for iftar fell asleep in the corner and missed the brief window to break a 20-hour fast. On days with no sunset at all, scholars advised carving out a single hour for a meal because “you just have to eat”.

The plus side of Iceland’s climate is that a typical summer day of 15°C makes it easier to go 23 hours without water.

Winter is coming

The lunar calendar means Ramadan moves back 10 or 11 days a year, meaning it will soon occur in winter.

“It starts to get too short, to a point that we have to ask the scholars again what to do in this case, because Ramadan will become like three hours or maybe two hours,” said Mr Pellumbi, a 33-year-old computer scientist and board member of the Muslim Association of Iceland.

“I live in Reykjavik, but if you go further up north, there is more than a month where they don’t even see the sun at all. In that case, I don’t know what we’re going to do but we will wait for an answer.”

There is little human settlement comparably far south, although Pakistan has a research station in Antarctica.

Views differ on how to handle exceptional cases, with some adopting the rhythms of Makkah or of a nearby temperate country.

Emirati astronaut Hazza Al Mansouri was advised to follow Makkah times for prayers while witnessing 16 sunrises and sunsets a day in space.

A fatwa on high latitudes issued by an academy of the Muslim World League in Saudi Arabia, and adopted by some Muslims in Iceland, said people could break a fast and compensate on another day if necessary.

The countries of the Arctic Circle have thriving communities, including Finland where the fast can still stretch to 17 hours. In Norway, several groups agreed that a Moon sighting in a Muslim country is sufficient to begin Ramadan even if it is not visible in the Arctic sky.

They came to an consensus on “A Common Eid” after two years of discussions to bring “more unity and love among Norwegian Muslims”.

Even in 2024’s relatively moderate conditions, the hours of fasting will vary widely over the month.

Norway, unlike Iceland or most Middle East countries, changes its clocks to summertime this weekend.

That means sunset prayers called at 5.32pm on Tromso on March 11 will have slipped back to 8.30pm by April 9.

In the UAE, the hours of fasting will vary by only 45 minutes this year.

Thoughts of Gaza

Even thousands of kilometres from the Middle East, the war in Gaza is touching hearts in the far north too this Ramadan.

Iceland’s Muslim Association was founded by a Palestinian immigrant, Salmann Tamimi, who died in 2020.

About 700 to 1,000 people in Iceland are believed to have Palestinian roots and worshippers frequently ask for prayers for those killed after last-ditch negotiations failed to secure a Ramadan truce.

“It’s every night now, during the taraweeh [night-time prayer] – ‘can we pray, now we have to pray’ – and it dampens the mood, of course. It makes it hard,” said Mr Pellumbi.

“When you talk to people – ‘how are you, have you heard from your family?’ ‘No, not for a month or two months’ – it’s hard to cope with, without being part of that sadness.”

A Nato member, Iceland became the first country in western Europe to recognise a Palestinian state in 2011 and has recently sent new donations to the aid agency UNRWA in Gaza. It also voted for a ceasefire at the UN.

Iceland was even feted by pro-Palestinians on social media after its men’s football team knocked Israel out of Euro 2024 qualifying with a 4-1 win on Thursday.

Some Muslims arrived in Iceland during the wars of the 1990s in Bosnia and Kosovo. Mr Pellumbi’s family migrated from Albania. As well as the Palestinian contingent, others have claimed asylum from Syria, Libya and Algeria.

Although community relations are generally good, hostile views from a minority in Iceland were enough to derail plans for a first purpose-built mosque in the country, said Mr Pellumbi.

For now, Iceland’s Muslim groups sometimes join forces at Ramadan to share iftars in a building converted to a mosque or bring rugs and mats to an indoor basketball court to pray together for Eid Al Fitr.

The community tries to get together at least once a week during Ramadan, as much as it can fit it in around people’s schedules. There are even some converts to Islam in Iceland.

“It’s a tradition now that we do,” Mr Pellumbi said. “It’s a sense of bringing people together, and also feeding the people, the poor if we can call them that, because a lot of them are coming from war-torn places.”

Updated: March 29, 2024, 6:00 PM