Ramadan in lands time forgot

While many Muslims are fasting for Ramadan at the hottest time of year, others living in high-latitude countries are facing an entirely different set of challenges, reports John Henzell

For the 800 faithful who live in Tromso, in Arctic Norway, fasting from sunrise to sunset is impossible, because the sun will be above horizon until July 26, more than halfway through the holy month. Courtesy Sandra M. Moe
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While Ramadan in the middle of an Arabian summer brings challenges for those fasting, spare a thought for the Muslims who attend the world’s northernmost mosque.

For those 800 faithful who live in Tromso, in Arctic Norway, fasting from sunrise to sunset is impossible, because the sun will be above horizon until July 26, more than halfway through the holy month.

Twilight – the traditional test for the end of fasting based on when a black thread and a white thread become indistinguishable – is even more remote.

Even when the sun begins to arc briefly below the horizon, true darkness is not due to return to Tromso until August 18.
Muslim communities elsewhere in Scandinavia and in the far north of Alaska face similar situations.

Sandra Maryam Moe, manager of Alnor Senter mosque in Tromso, says fasting from sunset to sunrise is not an option in the midsummer months.

But Muslims have found a solution that balanced their religious duties and their unique situation above the Arctic Circle.

“Alnor started working on a solution for the Ramadan in the midnight sun-summer period since 2006, and it was difficult to get someone making a fatwa that solved all the problems we have in this region,” Ms Moe says.

“For the last two years, Ramadan has started coming into the midnight-sun period and we have midnight sun during the whole of Ramadan this year.”

A solution was found in the Quran and was reached after the Islamic Centre of Northern Norway gathered imams and leaders of religious communities in the Troms and Finnmark regions that serve about 2,000 Muslims.

“The conclusion and recommendation is that all the Muslim communities in northern Norway should implement a fatwa by Dr Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz Almosleh, that fasting should not exceed 20 hours,” Ms Moe says.

“So the system of Mecca time will be applied when the local [daylight] time exceeds 20 hours of fasting. This is a clear boundary and majority of the Muslims will be able to comply with the pillar of fasting in Ramadan.”

Muslims in Arctic Norway were to pray yesterday at 4.19am, 5.45am, 12.27pm, 7.07pm and 8.37pm – the same as in Mecca.

Ms Moe says Alnor Senter, located in a former dance studio in central Tromso, will host iftar every night for anyone who wants to attend, in one  of few places in the world where the fast will be broken while the sun blazes brightly outside.

The meal has reflected the diversity of the community, which includes immigrants from the Middle East and Africa, and Scandinavian converts to Islam.

Ms Moe says this year’s community includes Syrians, Palestinians, Turks, Moroccans and Algerians. In previous years, Somali samosas have been served alongside Iraqi pilaf, Finnish pasta and Norwegian cakes.

On the far side of the Arctic Circle in Alaska, the community of between 2,500 and 3,000 Muslims also have adopted a variety of solutions for the difficulties with Ramadan in midsummer.

Some work on the oilfields of the North Slope, well above the Arctic Circle and further north than Tromso, but the northernmost mosque in the US is outside the circle in Anchorage, the state capital.

Osama Obeidi, of the Islamic Community Centre of Anchorage Alaska, says there is no one solution adopted for Ramadan.

“In the summer Ramadan has longer hours, for which some of us fast more than 20 hours,” Mr Obeidi says.

“Our centre follows Mecca timing. Some people follow that and others follow nearest city, which is Seattle.”

Another scenario that was unimaginable when Islam began was a devout Muslim spending Ramadan in space, as did Malaysian astronaut Sheikh Muszaphar who was on the International Space Station for the latter part of Ramadan in 2007.

The space station was completing a day-night cycle by orbiting the earth every 90 minutes.

Malaysia’s top Islamic body, the National Fatwa Council, made a special ruling on topics ranging from fasting to how to face Mecca while praying and how to pray in minimal gravity.

Fasting was deemed optional because he was travelling and it was up to each Muslim astronaut to decide for themselves whether to defer the fast until they returned to Earth.

Prayer times were based on times at Baikonur in Kazakhstan, from which Muszaphar was launched into space.

He celebrated Eid after two days on board and handed out satay and cookies to his fellow crew members, US astronaut Peggy Whitson and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko.

Most of the fatwas on how and when to fast in Ramadan take note of the section of the Quran that states the obligation to fast and exemptions for those travelling or who are sick.

The centre in Anchorage Alaska put particular emphasis on the section saying “Allah intends every facility for you; He does not want to put to difficulties” to mean fasting is meant to be a challenge but not insuperable.

Some high-latitude Muslims took note of the ruling by the Council of Senior Scholars in Saudi Arabia that cites references in the Quran to praying five times in a 24-hour period, regardless of the length of the day.

“Whoever lives in a land in which the sun does not set during the summer and does not rise during the winter, or who lives in a land in which the day lasts for six months and the night lasts for six months, for example, has to perform the five daily prayers in each 24-hour period,” the fatwa declares.

“They should estimate their times based on the nearest country in which the times of the five daily prayers can be distinguished from one another.

“Similarly, they also have to fast during Ramadan. They can set the time for their fast and determine the beginning and end of Ramadan and the times of starting and breaking the fast each day by the dawn and sunset each day in the closest country in which night can be distinguished from day.

“The total period must add up to 24 hours.”

In Sweden, home to an estimated 500,000 Muslims, those in the far north use the timings of southern cities as their timing for the fast.

Amer Alramahi, in Lulea above the Arctic Circle, told Radio Sweden that he follows sunrise and sunset times from farther south.

“I’ll follow the times in Stockholm or Uppsala where there’s more time to get enough energy and nutrition,” Mr Alramahi said.

“So I’ll be breaking my fast at around 9.30pm.”

Abdel Ahmania from Boden, even farther north, opts for the prayer times of Malmo, Sweden’s southernmost city.

“We had no choice than to use Malmo time,” Mr Ahmania says. “What are we supposed to do? In July the sun really never sets here, it goes down and comes up a quarter of an hour later.”

In neighbouring Finland, Mahmoud Said is one of an estimated 100 Muslims living in and around Rovaniemi, a town right on the Arctic Circle that markets itself as the site of Santa Claus’s village.

Mr Said, a Kenyan who emigrated to Finnish Lapland in 2009, uses fasting times from the nearest Muslim country, which is Turkey.

"We have to use common sense," he told AP. "[Turkish prayer times] involves 14 or 15 hours of fasting, which is OK, it's not bad."