When do you fast for Ramadan in the land of the mid­night sun? It’s com­pli­cated.

An­drew Martin re­ports on the ways Mus­lims near the Arc­tic Cir­cle ob­serve Ramadan

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - An­drew Martin is a fic­tion writer and a free­lance jour­nal­ist and critic liv­ing in Char­lottesville, Va. out­look@wash­post.com

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 11:00 p.m. By about 2:00 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 21/ 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 nine­hour 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.

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