Muslims in northern latitudes get their day in the sun

Earlier this week, Religion News Service ran an intriguing story by a Reuters reporter about Muslims who live in far northern latitudes and their struggles to keep the Ramadan fast when daylight stretches for nearly 24 hours.

Personal note: For the past year, I’ve lived in Alaska, where daylight is as little as two hours in the winter and is now at 22 hours. From my perch in Fairbanks, the sun sets at 12:45 a.m. and rises at 2:58 a.m. It’s a tad hard to sleep when you get a blast of sunshine (even through closed blinds) at 3 a.m. Last week, I visited Prudhoe Bay, where at 70º latitude, the sun never sets from May 20 to July 22. It’s beyond weird to go to bed there in broad daylight.

So here you have a religion founded in latitudes close to the equator where huge swings in hours of daylight aren’t an issue. But what happens when that religion expands to the north and south? As the story says:

(RNS) When the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan begins later this week, some Muslims around the world will face bigger challenges than others. The Quran is clear that the fast should last from before dawn to after dusk but says nothing about how many hours that might be.
Since Islam has spread from its Arabian heartland to the far reaches of the Earth, Muslims who live farther north must fast several hours longer than those in Mecca. On the year’s longest day, June 21, some could end up fasting for as long as 20 hours.
Usama Hasan, a British Islamic scholar, thinks this makes Ramadan fasting unbearable for many Muslims living in Northern Europe and Canada, especially the old and children just beginning to observe the practice. It also prompts many Muslims to give up fasting altogether during the summer, he said, or sneak a secret snack to help them get through the long days.

For those of you who wonder if Muslims actually live up in these parts, they do, and the Muslim community in Anchorage is trying to build its first mosque. There’s also a small community of Muslims in Fairbanks that meets in a shopping center near the University of Alaska.

Although the story was reported out of the U.K., RNS put an America-centric headline line with it: “Why Muslims in Alaska will fast 9 hours more than Muslims in Cape Town (and what 1 scholar is doing about it”), hence my comments as someone who actually lives in the 49th state. The story centered on a British Islamic scholar who’s issued a fatwa setting out more liveable times to fast and eat during the holy month, which begins on Thursday. It has a nice kicker (ending) that suggests that if people cut their fasting times during long summer days, maybe they should increase them when Ramadan occurs during the winter and fasting times are short.

The article continues:

“I wondered if there were any fatwas out there and I did some research,” Hasan said. “I suspected that Mohammad Abduh, the famous Egyptian reformer, might have talked about it. He did, and that was a good 100 years ago.”
In more recent decades, the respected Syrian-born legal scholar Mustafa al-Zarqa and Egypt’s retired Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa have also advocated flexibility.

One minor quibble: The story never details what these scholars said. Would’ve been nice to know.

The article comes with a very helpful graphic showing how geography affects Muslims during Ramadan. Some places, such as Tromsø, Norway or Inuvik, a community in Canada’s far north that just got their first mosque in 2012 , have 24 hours of sun. I wish the writer had reached out to someone in these places to see how they’ve dealt with the problem, as it’s obviously not a new one.

Since the headline mentions Alaska even though there’s no one from here quoted therein, an RNS staffer could have put in a call to the Anchorage mosque for a quote. Just a thought.

Photos from and Shutterstock

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