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.