How to Fast for Ramadan in the Arctic, Where the Sun Doesn't Set
One Norwegian Muslim community's clever solution to an unusual geographic problem.
Marya Hannun Jul 16, 2013 Global
The sun shines low in the sky just after midnight over a frozen coastline near the Norwegian Arctic town of Longyearbyen on April 26, 2007. (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)
This week, with the start of Ramadan, Muslims from Indonesia to Michigan began fasting from sunrise to sunset in observance of one of the religions' primary holidays. But what happens in places where the sun never sets because the country is too far north? For many, this particular dilemma is a relatively new one, only apparent over the last two years. Since the month of Ramadan is pegged to the lunar calendar, it rotates on a yearly basis. The last time the holiday fell this deep into the summer months was nearly three decades ago in the mid 1980s, a time when few Muslim communities could be found above the Arctic Circle. But with Muslims from Somalia, Iraq, and Pakistan -- to name a few places -- increasingly immigrating to countries like Sweden, Norway, and Finland, the ethical dilemma posed for them by the endless summer days has become very real.
For an answer to this question, I caught up with Muslim residents of Tromsø, a city located in the heart of Norway's northernmost region -- approximately 350 km (215 miles) north of the Arctic Circle. Between late May and the end of July, the island city, which is surrounded by dramatic snow-covered mountains and fjords, experiences the phenomenon of "midnight sun." This year, for the first time in the growing Muslim community's history, the sun will not cease shining for the majority of the Ramadan month.
In 1986, the last time Ramadan and the midnight sun overlapped so closely, the city of Tromsø barely had a Muslim population to speak of. The establishment of a refugee center that same year encouraged the first Muslims to begin arriving, primarily from Iran. Today, Tromsø's Muslim population numbers roughly 1,000 and consists largely of refugees from Somalia, but it also includes immigrants from elsewhere around the globe and a handful of local converts.
As Hassan Ahmed, a Muslim resident who came to the city from Somalia and works at the Islamic Center of Northern Norway told me, "the sun doesn't set. For 24 hours it's in the middle of the sky." Faced with the impossibility of adhering to the sunrise/sunset rule, Tromsø's Muslims must find alternative ways of determining when to fast. "We have a fatwa," or clerical decree, Ahmed said.
"We can correspond the fast to the closest Islamic country, or we can fast with Mecca."