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How Do Muslims Fast for Ramadan if There’s No Sunset?

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Earlier this month, many Muslims all over the world began their observance of Ramadan, the month of daily fasting that serves to train believers’ spiritual and physical discipline and self-control. Between the break of dawn and sunset, observers refrain from all food and drink, as well as other physical pleasures like cigarettes and sex. 

In some parts of the world, this is easier said than done. Some areas have exceptionally long days during the summer. Scandinavia, Canada, Russia, and Alaska all have cities above the Arctic Circle, where the sun literally does not set for weeks at a time. Since Ramadan is tied to the lunar calendar and moves annually, these places will have the opposite problem during winter Ramadans where the sun won’t rise for more than a month. 

What’s a Muslim in Longyearbyen, Norway or Barrow, Alaska supposed to do when there’s no sunrise or sunset to guide their fasting? Starve? Fly south for Ramadan?

With no central authority or leadership like the Roman Catholic Pope to give guidance, different Muslim scholars and organizations have to come up with their own ways of dealing with the problem, and many seem to have convened on one solution: ignore the sun’s local position and follow more reasonable sunrise and sunset times from another place. 

The Islamic Center of Northern Norway, for example, issued a fatwa—a decision given by a scholar of Islamic law or other Muslim judicial authority—that gives local Muslims the option of following the fasting hours of the holy city of Mecca when the local fasting day exceeds 20 hours. The Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America made a similar ruling that said that Muslims living at extreme northern points of Alaska use the sunrise and sunset times of another part of the country where “day is distinguishable from night.” The Council of Senior Scholars in Saudi Arabia likewise decided that Muslims “in a land in which the sun does not set during the summer and does not rise during the winter” should set their fasting times based on “the dawn and sunset each day in the closest country in which night can be distinguished from day.”

One Muslim has gone even further afield from the religion’s Arabian homeland than some snowy arctic village. In 2007, Malaysian astronaut Sheikh Muszaphar had to figure out how to fast for Ramadan while orbiting the Earth every 90 minutes and going through 16 day/night cycles every 24 hours. To advise Muszaphar in his fasting and daily prayers, Malaysia’s Department of Islamic Development and its National Fatwa Council put their best minds together and came out with a booklet called “Guidelines for Performing Islamic Rites at the International Space Station.” Muszaphar was given the option to defer his fasting until his return to Earth or follow the sunrise and sunset times of Baikonur, Kazakhstan, where Muszaphar was launched into space.

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Big Questions
What is Duck Sauce?
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A plate of Chinese takeout with egg rolls and duck sauce
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We know that our favorite Chinese takeout is not really authentically Chinese, but more of an Americanized series of menu options very loosely derived from overseas inspiration. (Chinese citizens probably wouldn’t recognize chop suey or orange-glazed chicken, and fortune cookies are of Japanese origin.) It would also be unusual for "real" Chinese meals to be accompanied by a generous amount of sauce packets.

Here in the U.S., these condiments are a staple of Chinese takeout. But one in particular—“duck sauce”—doesn’t really offer a lot of information about itself. What exactly is it that we’re pouring over our egg rolls?

Smithsonian.com conducted a sauce-related investigation and made an interesting discovery, particularly if you’re not prone to sampling Chinese takeout when traveling cross-country. On the East Coast, duck sauce is similar to sweet-and-sour sauce, only fruitier; in New England, it’s brown, chunky, and served on tables; and on the West Coast, it’s almost unheard of.

While the name can describe different sauces, associating it with duck probably stems from the fact that the popular Chinese dish Peking duck is typically served with a soybean-based sauce. When dishes began to be imported to the States, the Americanization of the food involved creating a sweeter alternative using apricots that was dubbed duck sauce. (In New England, using applesauce and molasses was more common.)

But why isn’t it easily found on the West Coast? Many sauce companies are based in New York and were in operation after Chinese food had already gained a foothold in California. Attempts to expand didn’t go well, and so Chinese food aficionados will experience slightly different tastes depending on their geography. But regardless of where they are, or whether they're using the condiment as a dipping sauce for their egg rolls or a dressing for their duck, diners can rest assured that no ducks were harmed in the making of their duck sauce.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Can You Really Go Blind Staring at a Solar Eclipse?
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A total solar eclipse will cut a path of totality across the United States on August 21, and eclipse mania is gripping the country. Should the wide-eyed and unprotected hazard a peek at this rare phenomenon?

NASA doesn't advise it. The truth is, a quick glance at a solar eclipse won't leave you blind. But you're not doing your peepers any favors. As NASA explains, even when 99 percent of the sun's surface is covered, the 1 percent that sneaks out around the edges is enough to damage the rod and cone cells in your retinas. As this light and radiation flood into the eye, the retina becomes trapped in a sort of solar cooker that scorches its tissue. And because your retinas don't have any pain receptors, your eyes have no way of warning you to stop.

The good news for astronomy enthusiasts is that there are ways to safely view a solar eclipse. A pair of NASA-approved eclipse glasses will block the retina-frying rays, but sunglasses or any other kind of smoked lenses cannot. (The editors at MrEclipse.com, an eclipse watchers' fan site, put shades in the "eye suicide" category.) NASA also suggests watching the eclipse indirectly through a pinhole projector, or through binoculars or a telescope fitted with special solar filters.

While it's safe to take a quick, unfiltered peek at the sun in the brief totality of a total solar eclipse, doing so during the partial phases—when the Moon is not completely covering the Sun—is much riskier.

WOULDN'T IT BE EASIER TO JUST TELL YOUR KIDS THEY WILL GO BLIND?

NASA's website tackled this question. Their short answer: that could ruin their lives.

"A student who heeds warnings from teachers and other authorities not to view the eclipse because of the danger to vision, and learns later that other students did see it safely, may feel cheated out of the experience. Having now learned that the authority figure was wrong on one occasion, how is this student going to react when other health-related advice about drugs, alcohol, AIDS, or smoking is given[?]"

This story was originally published in 2012.

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