Ramadan in Arctic: Why Fasting is Not Subject to Persistent Sunlight  

Night on the beach of Skagsanden - a popular beach on the Lofoten Islands, Norway. It is among the most scenic destination in the Arctic Norway (photo: iStock by Getty Images).

Ramadan is Muslim holy month of fasting. Traditionally, fasting is observed from dawn i.e., with appearance of first light before sunrise to dusk i.e., immediately after sunset. During the fasting hours Muslims completely abstain from eating and drinking. Another important aspect of Muslim “month” of fasting is that it is based on lunar calendar. That means the month of Ramadan rotates yearly. Accordingly, fasting hours in summer months are longer than winter.

With Muslim immigrant population swelling in Northern Europe and close to Arctic line especially in Norway, Finland, and Iceland, a unique challenge related to fasting come to face Muslim communities living in these regions. In places lying at and above the Arctic line, fasting in summer months pose challenge for Muslims because sun does not set, marking it hard to figure out hours for fasting in-terms of dawn to dusk. The difficulty in distinguishing clearly the dawn before sunrise and darkness associated with the sunset in Arctic regions, imposes even greater predicament for Islamic scholars as much as they have struggled to issue a universally accepted guidelines for fasting in Arctic regions. Nevertheless, several “fatwas” were issued. Fatwas refer to new Islamic rulings on matters of modern living and faith. One of the fatwas declares fasting in Arctic regions to be observed according to nearest cities that have clear distinction of dawn from sunrise and experience regular sunset. Yet, another fatwa instructs fasting in Arctic regions to be observed according to Mecca (in Saudi Arabia) time ignoring the principle of fasting from the first light of dawn to dusk.

Yet, unease with these ambiguous theological dictations have persisted notwithstanding the rationale for marking hours of fasting for Arctic regions. The debate about fasting in Arctic regions have captivated attention of high-profile media organizations, scholars, and even atheists who seem to question the apparent contradiction or lack of direction about fasting in Arctic. Some serious concerns were raised about the word of Allah (God), the Quran. One may argue, if Allah is the Creator of this universe, and Quran the Word of Allah (God), how come God did not anticipate and provide guidance to fasting for the faithful who will inhabit areas above Arctic line. In search of answers for these intriguing questions how faithful living close to Arctic regions should or would fast when the sun does not set? I revisited the verses in Quran that mentions about fasting. First, I wanted to mention that Quran is the book that allows itself to put to test against hard scientific facts. Because, Allah (God) declares that in the Chapter 16 of Quran, titled An-Nahl (The Bee), verse 89: “ ……We have send down to you (O Muhammad) the book (Quran) explaining all things, a guide……...”  Therefore, let us learn if Quran has to offer any explanation to the challenging question about fasting in Arctic regions. An unconvincing explanation has potential to shake the foundation of faith in many faithful Muslims. Quran was revealed 1400 years ago and is preserved word for word. If any reader is interested in checking the authenticity of what is written here, can simply refer to verses mentioned below, which I am copying from the English translation of Quran authored by Abdullah Yusuf Ali.

Fasting is mentioned in five verses in Surah “Baqra” The Cow i.e., chapter 2 of Quran.

In Quran, fasting is mentioned first time in Chapter 2, verse 183, it reads. “O You who Believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you (referring to Jews and Christians), that you may gain self-restraint”. This verse of Quran does not provide instructions about how to perform fasting. The next two verses of the chapter 2, i.e., verse 184 and 185 also did not provide any specific instructions about how to perform fasting.

Verse 187 is the only verse in the entire Quran that provides instructions about how to perform fasting. Chapter 2 verse187, “Permitted to you, on the night of the fasts, is the approach to your wives. They are your garments and ye are their garments. Allah knoweth what ye used to do secretly among yourselves; but He turned to you and forgave you; so now associate with them, and seek what Allah Hath ordained for you,  and eat and drink, until the white thread of dawn appears to you distinct from its black thread; then complete your fast Till the night appears;………..,” What is remarkable in this verse is the reference to distinction of white thread of dawn from the black thread and no mention of Sun. The word Sun is not mentioned in any of the verses in Quran that talked about fasting.

Allah (God) in the Quran could have simply chosen to reveal, Eat or drink before the sunrise or before the first light of sun and then complete fast till the sunset when night appears”. Imagine, the mere reference to Sun in the above verses of Quran would have been a grave defect in the Word of Allah that Muslims believe the Quran is, because in the Arctic regions sun does not set and the fasting which is one of the fundamental pillars of Islam would not apply universally.

Remarkably, another verse of Quran i.e., verse 196 in chapter 2 again mentions about fasting during Hajj. Hajj is an annual pilgrimage to Mecca and fasting is recommended as part of rituals.

With respect to fasting during Hajj, Chapter 2: verse 196 in Quran reads, “And complete the Hajj or 'umra in the service of Allah. But if ye are prevented (From completing it), send an offering for sacrifice, such as ye may find, and do not shave your heads until the offering reaches the place of sacrifice. And if any of you is ill, or has an ailment in his scalp, (Necessitating shaving), (He should) in compensation either fast or feed the poor……….,” The Hajj and Umrah are performed in Mecca in Saudi Arabia. It is common knowledge that in Middle East there is a clear distinction of day from the night. Yet, Almighty Allah (God) did not choose to refer duration of fasting during Hajj in Mecca in terms of Sunrise or Sunset. If Allah had chosen to refer fasting during Hajj in terms of Sun, it again would have been a grave error as it would clearly imply that fasting is to be performed with respect to Sunrise and Sunset. The obvious missing reference to Sun is no ordinary miracle as there exists a full chapter in Quran dedicated to the Sun, the Surah ASH-SHAMAS (translated THE SUN) which is chapter 91.

Now coming back to the question of Fasting in Arctic regions. The regions at or the above Arctic circle during midnight Sun do experience a relative degree of fading of light (Image below) indicative of night and also a relative degree of brightness (indicative of early morning) distinct from dim or less brighter light even though Sun does not set. Now, with this background in mind let us reanalyze the following verse, “….. eat and drink, until the white thread of dawn appear to you distinct from its black thread; then complete your fast Till the night appears. Some would argue that white thread of dawn is reference to first light of Sun and till the night appears a reference to fading of light associated with early sunset. That interpretation actually forms the basis of traditional fasting in Ramadan. The other plausible interpretation very evident from this verse is the reference to relative degree of fading of light and relative degree of brightness as being witnessed at Arctic circle (Image below). Miraculously, the verse 187 can further be understood in the context of “biological clock” present in humans’ brain. Human brain has capacity to recognize and process nighttime and daytime irrespective of sunlight and darkness. Our brain gets trained naturally to sense daytime and nighttime, allowing us to sleep regardless of sunlight is present or not. This mechanism allows people living at and above Arctic circle to fall sleep even though sunlight is present well into midnight. The word till the night appears” in the verse 187 refers to the biological perception of time and not necessary the darkness associated with night due to sunset as word Sun or Shams does not appear in any of these verses.

 

A shadow of darkness can be seen, even though the sun is visible (courtesy: visitnorway.com).

If Quran was written by Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) who lived in Arabian Peninsula for his entire life, there was no need of him avoiding a clear reference to Sun or sunlight in these verses. Besides, there was no way that Mohammad (PBUH)  in the 6th Century could have  traveled to Arctic circle to have witnessed Midnight Sun that might have offered explanation of him using the phrase white thread of dawn appear to you distinct from its black thread….

 

Dr. Mumtaz Y. Balkhi is an Academic scientist who is actively engaged in research and teaching at Tufts Medical University, Boston, MA and University of Maine, Orono, Maine.  His most recent book, Basics of Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) Immunotherapy presents the latest on how T cell adoptive immunotherapy has progressed in its ultimate goal of curing metastatic malignant cancers. 


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