Riddle of fasting in land of the longest day

Special fatwas needed to resolve the issue of worship during the holy month in the northernmost towns of the Arctic Circle.

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If you think Ramadan fasting during the long days of summer is challenging, spare a thought for Muslims living where daylight lasts nearly 18 hours a day. In Alaska's northernmost cities of Barrow and Deadhorse there were only about six hours between sunset and sunrise when the holy month started.

It gets worse. Because Ramadan occurs about 10 days earlier each year, within six years it will happen over the summer solstice, when the world's northernmost towns will be in 24-hour daylight. Dali Osame, of the Islamic Community Center in Anchorage, Alaska, said there were between 2,000 and 3,000 practising Muslims in his group. They resolved the problems of prayer and fasting times in polar environments through a special fatwa issued last year.

The Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America ruled that prayer and fasting times had been "based on the moderate regions in which day is distinguishable from night" but that did not apply to all the countries in which Muslims lived. "Therefore, in the regions in which some of the times for prayer overlap or those places in which the night or the day last for more than the regular time span for day or night - where night or day may last for several months as is the case in the polar regions - there must be a ruling for these people ... by which their situation would be set right and with which they would be able to perform the rites of their religion and to worship with ease.

"The correct, reliable stance in this situation is that which the majority of Muslims, in times of old and recently, have adopted, which is that their prayer times should be estimated for them based on the location nearest to them in which night can be distinguished from day. "Among the scholars there are those who said that the estimation should be on the basis of the temperate regions in which the law-making occurred, such as Mecca and Medina."

Each was deemed acceptable but the assembly favoured following the nearest place where day can be distinguished from night on a 24-hour basis. It also quoted a ruling by Egyptian fatwa authorities that allowed for an estimation during Ramadan because fasting in places that had 23-hour daylight was an "undue burden, rejected by the wisdom of the Most Wise and the mercy of the Most Merciful". A Pakistani Swedish woman who writes a blog as Shaykhspeara Sha'ira said the long daylight hours made Ramadan challenging in her new home in Sweden, where she lives with her Bosnian Muslim husband and newborn child.

"It will be a challenging fast for us northerners," she wrote this week. "Starting the fast at 3.38am and ending it at 8.26pm is not exactly a walk in the park - more like a hike in the mountains! "Still, as has famously been pointed out many times before; where there is a will there is a way! And a will there is!" A similar fatwa was sought for the roughly 200 Muslims among the 50,000 inhabitants of Tromso, in northern Norway. The city is north of the Arctic Circle, which means from late May to late July the sun remains above the horizon.

They were directed to a ruling, obtained by the Union of Muslim Students in Holland, about determining the timing of maghrib, isha and fajr prayers, and the first days of Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr. The Council of Senior Scholars in Saudi Arabia ruled on the union's request by citing 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 declared.

"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 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."

At the other end of the globe in Antarctica, the southern winter means the opposite occurs. Among the 43 workers stationed this winter at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, run by the US at the geographic South Pole, there are no practising Muslims. There the next sunrise is not projected to occur until September 21, after the projected end of Ramadan, but that particular day will last six months until the autumn equinox.

Pakistan has a base, Jinnah Station, in Antarctica that operates only in summer and is empty during Ramadan this year. jhenzell@thenational.ae