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Ramadan in the Arctic: How do you break a fast at sundown if the sun doesn't set?

  • Author: Andrew Martin
  • Updated: April 28, 2016
  • Published July 14, 2015

In the Canadian city of Iqaluit, laborers are working long hours to finish the region's first mosque before winter. And they're doing so without eating or drinking anything, even water, for almost 22 hours each day.

Like Muslims around the world, the mosque's construction crew is observing the holy month of Ramadan -- which moves based on the lunar calendar and this year falls during summer -- by fasting from sunrise to sunset. Summertime means longer days without food for Muslims across the Northern Hemisphere. But it is particularly challenging for the thousands who live near the Arctic Circle, where the sun barely sets. In Iqaluit, one of Canada's northernmost cities, dusk begins around 11 p.m. By about 2 a.m., the sun is up again. In St. Petersburg, daylight lasts at least 21 hours. In Stockholm, the sun sets at 1 a.m. and rises just 2 1/2 hours later. The land of the midnight sun does not offer much time for repast.

How Muslims living in nearly 24 hours of daylight should observe Ramadan is a fairly new question for the faith's leaders, says Shankar Nair, a religious studies professor at the University of Virginia. Until the 20th century, the number of Muslims living in northern climes was quite small. But generous immigration and refugee policies have drawn followers of Islam to Canada and Northern Europe. About 600,000 Muslims live in the Nordic countries. Canada's Muslim population numbers around 1 million.

Scholars from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other centers of Islamic learning have issued contradictory fatwas, or legal rulings, on how Ramadan should be celebrated in near-constant sunlight. Muslims in these communities choose which to follow.

Some decide to adhere to the sunrise and sunset hours of nearby, more southern cities, says Hussain Guisti, general manager and chief financial officer of the Zubaidah Tallab Foundation, a Canadian charity. In Iqaluit, that would mean fasting between about 5:30 a.m. and 9 p.m., as Muslims do in Ottawa. But other members of the community prefer to keep to the long hours of their locale, set by the religious leaders. "I think it's a sign of being more serious," Guisti says.

It's also a challenge. Studies show that fasting for most of the day can lead to headaches, fatigue and serious dehydration. At night, followers must eat and rehydrate after a long, sometimes sweaty day in just a couple of hours.

Muslims in Kiruna, Sweden, where the sun never sets, say the long fasts make it hard to get through the day. "Sometimes I got tired and took the bus home from work instead of walking," Fatima Kaniz told Al Jazeera. ". . . I looked at the clock many times."

"This is a heavy burden for the human body," said Yelizaveta Izmailova, who is observing Ramadan in St. Petersburg, according to the Guardian. In Iqaluit, residents have begun to nap after work because the window for fast-breaking is so small and so late at night.

Muslims in these places must also cope with the reality that most people around them are not going hungry for 90 percent of the day. "It makes it more challenging when you're outdoors and you see people eating and drinking, and you're walking around, and you see the food, you see the ice cream," Guisti says. "In Muslim countries everyone fasts, so you don't see those temptations."

Despite the difficulties, most fasters are loath to complain. Rather, they see the long hours without food and water as a test of faith. Mohamed Hassan, the general secretary of the Islamic Society of Nunavut, said a carpenter at work on the Iqaluit mosque told him, "You don't feel the thirst here" because of the cool temperatures. Once you adjust, "22 or 23 hours is not that hard," says Syed Asif Ali, president of the Islamic Society. "It just becomes your habit -- you don't even notice."

Ali now lives in Regina, Saskatchewan, and admits that he does look back with some wonderment at the long hours he kept. "When you're not doing it, you think, 'How could I have done this?'" he said. "I don't even remember. Depending on what you believe in, everything becomes easier."

Other Muslim communities have come up with a different solution. In Inuvik, Canada, home to the northernmost mosque in the Western Hemisphere, there is currently daylight 24 hours a day. Abdullah Mohammed, a member of the mosque who immigrated to Canada from Sudan in 1991, says his community has adopted the fasting and prayer hours of Mecca, in Saudi Arabia. Though they don't follow the literal clock in Mecca (the nine-hour time difference would turn their days and nights upside down), the members of the mosque fast for the same number of hours and pray at the same intervals as worshipers in Mecca, resulting in a more traditional 13-hour day that starts around 5 a.m. and ends about 6:30 p.m.

Mohammed says members of the mosque community determined the hours they would keep for Ramadan together, after a debate. Getting everyone on the same page was important, he explained, so that all at the aptly named Midnight Sun Mosque could eat and pray together. "The purpose is to worship, not to be tortured," Mohammed says. "If you are doing something beyond your capability as a human, that is not Islam."

Still, even with the especially long fasts this Ramadan, Arctic denizens seemed to agree that it was better than the alternative -- days when the sun never rises. "The summer is very nice," Mohammed said. "The winter is the difficult one." A long day without food is far better, they said, than life in the dark.

Martin is a fiction writer and a freelance journalist and critic living in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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