The extremely long days in summer and long nights in winter in the Arctic Circle raise questions about the timings of prayer and fasting. The historian Masudi (d. 345 AH) and the astronomer Albiruni (d. 440 AH) have mentioned that days and nights in the regions located near the poles are unusually long. An eminent Turkish scholar Haji Khalifa (d. 1658 CE) raised the question about determining the timings of prayers and fasting in the regions near the poles.
The question of determining the timings of prayer and fasting in the Northern Hemisphere is no longer a hypothetical one. Since the early 1980s, thousands of Muslims, mainly immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, have settled in northern Europe. The population of Muslims in Sweden is estimated to be between 250,000 and 350,000. Kiruna, the northernmost part of Sweden located 145 km north of the Arctic Circle, is home to approximately 700 Muslims. Over 1,000 Muslims are living in Tromso in Norway, 350 km north of the Arctic Circle. The population of Muslims in Iceland exceeds 1,200. More than 42,000 Muslims are living in St Petersburg. Finland has a Muslim population of approximately 60,000.
In the Quran and Hadith, the timings of prayer and fasting are stipulated on the basis of such natural signs as dawn, sunrise, sunset and the disappearance of twilight. Since these signs are markedly different in the Northern Hemisphere in summer and winter, Muslims living in the region are faced with a dilemma. In Makkah, for example, the variations in the duration of fasting days throughout the year are within 2 hours and 44 minutes. In Oslo, there is a variation of 12 hours in the length of days in summer and winter. In Lulea, a city in the north of Sweden, the dawn time in June is 00:51 a. m. and the sunset time is 11:43 p. m. If one observes the fast according to local timings, the fasting day will last for 21 to 23 hours, leaving just about one or two hours for breaking the fast, suhur for the following day and maghrib, isha and tarawih prayers.
If one follows the local timings for fasting in the Northern Hemisphere, the duration of the fasting day this year in Oulu (Finland) is 22 hours; in St Petersburg, 22 hours; in Reykjavik, Iceland, 21 hours; in Denmark, 21 hours; in Oslo, Sweden, 20 hours; in Stockholm, Sweden, 20 hours; in Anchorage, Alaska, 19 hours; in the Netherlands, 18 hours 30 minutes; in the UK, 18-19 hours; in Helsinki 18 hours. On the other hand, the fasting time for Muslims in Melbourne, Australia this year is 10 hours, for Muslims in Argentina 9 hours 30 minutes, and for Muslims in Buenos Aires 9 hours.
Muslims living in the Northern Hemisphere follow different patterns and time schedules for beginning and breaking the fast. In Kiruna, Sweden, the majority of Muslims follow the timings of the Swedish capital Stockholm, 1,240 km further south, where there are days and nights in summer, unlike in Kiruna, and where fasting days in summer last for about 20 hours. This is according to the advice given by the European Council of Fatwa and Research (ECFR). Some of them follow the timings of Makkah and Madinah for beginning and breaking the fast while others follow the timetable of Istanbul, the closet Muslim city from Kiruna. A few of them follow the local timings. There is no central authority or organization of Muslims in Sweden which could suggest a uniform timetable for fasting in the country.
A few years ago, Muslims in Tromso approached Dr Abdullah bin Abd al-Asis al-Muslih, a respected Saudi scholar, and asked him for guidance in determining the proper timings for prayer and fasting. After many email exchanges with Sandra Maryam Moe, a Norwegian covert and one of the local community leaders, Dr Muslih issued a fatwa outlining three options: They could follow the prayer and fasting timings of Makkah, or adopt the time schedule of the nearest city where the sun actually sets in summer, or they could devise their own time schedule. After much discussion and consultation, the Muslims of Tromso decided to follow the timings for prayer and fasting in Makkah, where the fasting days this year last for 15 hours. Now Muslims in Tromso begin the fast at 5 a. m. (Norwegian time, when the sun is shining), which marks the beginning of the fast in Makkah, and break it at 7:07 (when the sun is still above the horizon), the time of breaking the fast in the holy city. A few Muslims in Tromso follow the local timings for prayer and fasting. In Oslo, where there is sunrise and sunset, Muslims fast for about 20 hours.
There is a good deal of confusion, contestation and uncertainty about fasting times in many parts of northern Europe, mainly due to an absence of consensus among scholars and jurists about prayer and fasting timings in the Northern Hemisphere. In the UK, several schools have prohibited students from fasting on grounds of health. Barclay School in East London has disallowed Muslim students from fasting and has justified the ban in the light of the ‘higher purposes and intents of Islamic law (maqasid al-Shariah), which ‘safeguard the health and education of a child.’
Conflicting Legal Opinions
Broadly, one can identify four distinct legal opinions or fatwas in respect of prayer and fasting timings in those regions of the Northern Hemisphere which have extremely long days in summer and long nights in winter. One of the earliest views on the subject was expressed by Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905), a prominent Egyptian scholar and social reformer. He said:
Allah—who revealed the Qur`an, Knower of the unseen and Creator of the Heavens—gave ordinances that can be followed by everyone alike. The command to establish prayers is general; the Prophet [pbuh] specified prayer times based on the hours that suit countries with moderate hours and which constitute the greater part of the world. This was the norm until Islam reached those countries where day and night is longer than usual. Muslims living in these countries may estimate prayer times depending on their independent reasoning and in analogy to the timings specified by the Prophet [pbuh] in the Hadith of al-Dajjal. 1
There is some difference of opinion among Muslim scholars and jurists about the lands which have normal days and nights and which could be used as a yardstick for the estimation of timings for prayer and fasting in the Northern Sphere. Some jurists have suggested that the timings for prayer and fasting in Makkah and Madinah should be followed in the Northern Sphere. Others are of the view that the timings of the nearest regions with normal or moderate days and nights should be adopted for the purpose. Muhammad Abduh held that both opinions are valid and legitimate.
Hadith on Dajjal
Muslim, Tirmidhi, Abu Dawud and Ibn Majah report that when the Prophet foretold the appearance of Dajjal (Antichrist) on earth, some of his companions asked him, “How long will he remain on earth?” The Prophet replied, “Forty days, of which one day would be like a year, one like a month, one like a week and one like your normal days.” The companions then asked him, “On the day which will be as long as a year, would it be sufficient to offer only five prayers of the day?” The Prophet replied, “No, but you must make an estimate (of time for prayers).”
Muhammad Abduh’s views have been endorsed by Dar al-Ifta al-Misriyyah as well as several eminent Muslim scholars, including Shaykh Mustafa al-Zarqa, Mahmud Shaltut, former Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Mosque, Dr Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, former Grand Mufti of Egypt, Dr Ali Juma’a, former Grand Mufti of Egypt, Shaykh Jadd al-Haqq, former Grand Imam of Al-Azhar and Shaykh Muhammad Abu Hashim, former Grand Mufti of Jordan.
Dar al-Ifta al-Missriyyah has given the following fatwa:
Muslims in countries with extreme variations in daylight hours and nights and where it is difficult to fast, are to estimate the time for starting and breaking their fast. They are to disregard the signs on which the legal rulings for prayers and fasting are based such as dawn, sunrise, midday, sunset, the disappearance of twilight and the like. This is because the Divine injunctions deal with common circumstances and situations without establishing a ruling on what is uncommon. From this, Muslim legal theorists and jurists stated that the Lawgiver's intent with regards to the general meanings of the texts concerns common circumstances that are present in the lives of people. 2
Shaykh Mustafa al-Zarqa (1904-1999) stated in his book Al-'Aql wa al- Fiqh fi Fahm al-Hadith al-Nabawi:
Generalizing [the principle of adopting normal prayer times to countries of extreme latitude] based on the ability to distinguish between day and night regardless of the great difference in their length, totally contradicts the objectives of Islamic law and the legal principle of mitigating harm. It is unreasonable to distribute the prayers performed during daylight hours and night over a half hour period as it is likewise unreasonable to break one's fast for one hour and fast for twenty three. 3
Shaykh al-Zarqa suggested that Muslims living in the Northern Hemisphere should either follow the timings for prayer and fasting in Makkah and Madinah or those of the farthest northern and southern regions that are under Muslim rule.
Normal and Abnormal Time Zones
In 1930 a committee comprising some ulama and scientists was constituted in the erstwhile Hyderabad state in the Indian subcontinent for the purpose of offering suggestions, in the light of Islamic law as well as scientific observations, about the determination of the timings of prayers and fasting in the regions near the poles. After much deliberation the committee suggested that the world’s regions should be classified into normal and abnormal zones, and that this classification should be based on the length of days. The two zones should be divided by drawing a line at 45 degrees latitude. The normal zone would comprise the regions that lie at 45 degrees latitude, and the timings for prayers and fasting that prevail in the normal zone should be made applicable to the regions that lie in the abnormal zone above or below 45 degrees latitude. In other words, the timings for prayers and fasting in the abnormal zone should be determined not according to the movement of the sun but the movement of the clock. The timings for prayer and fasting in Paris, for example, would be applicable to Sweden and Norway. This suggestion was later approved by the ulama of Makkah, Madinah and Cairo.
A conference of Muslims jurists and astronomers was held in Istanbul about three or four decades ago. All the jurists gathered there agreed that the areas above 64 degrees latitude in the north and below 64 degrees latitude in the south should be considered 'abnormal zones' wherein people should not follow the movement of the sun but the movement of the clock for their daily prayers and fasting. They can pray and fast according to the timings of the cities that are nearest to them in the normal time zone, i.e. below 64 degrees north or above 64 degrees south. 4
Professor Muhammad Hamidullah (1908-2002), a renowned Islamic scholar, proposed that regions that are above 45 degrees latitude in the northern hemisphere and those below 45 degrees latitude in the southern hemisphere should be considered abnormal for the purpose of determining the timings for prayers and fasting and that these regions should follow the timings of normal zones in 45 degrees latitude. He suggested that if one takes the latitude of 45 degrees North or South as the limit of a normal zone, the maximum duration of fasting days in the northern region would be 16 hours and the minimum 8 hours.
In regions far away from the equator, these times are too inconvenient to be practical. So instead of the movements of the sun, one calculates and follows the movements of the clock: and, as has been explained, the times obtained at the 45º North or South Latitude are valid in all the regions between 45º N or S and the pole. So, Bordeaux-Bucharest in Europe, Portland-Halifax in North America constitute the limit of the normal zone; all countries North of these places have to follow the time table of these places. Mutatis mutandis the same applies to countries in the extreme south of Argentina and Chile in South America. 5
Dr. Jasser Auda, Director of Maqasid Institute, London, while agreeing with Professor Hamidullah’s suggestion, proposes that the limit of the moderate region should be 48 degrees latitude. Therefore, Muslims living in the Northern Hemisphere should follow the timings of the normal regions lying below 48 degrees latitude. The maximum duration of fasting days, according to him, should be 18 hours. 6
Shaykh Jad al-Haqq, former Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, has taken exception to this view. He argues that the application of the timings of the nearest regions with moderate days and nights for prayer and fasting to the Northern Hemisphere requires precise calculations, which is fraught with difficulties and is likely to create confusion. He suggests that Muslims living in the regions near the Arctic Circle should follow the timings of Makkah for prayer and fasting.
A third view is espoused by some Saudi scholars and jurists. Shaykh Abd al-Aziz ibn Baz, former Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, gave a fatwa to the effect that as long as there are days and nights (regardless of their length within 24 hours), one must fast from dawn to dust. This view has been endorsed by Saudi Arabia’s High Council of Ulama, which has held that one must begin and break the fast according to local timings as long as night is distinguishable from day, regardless of how long the day might be.
Many eminent scholars and jurists have pointed out that this fatwa is at variance with the higher purposes and intents of Islamic law (maqasid al-Shariah) and the basic principles of Islamic jurisprudence, which emphasize ease, convenience and facilitation for the Muslim ummah. The Quran says: “Allah desires for you ease and convenience, and not hardship” (2:185). Further: “Allah does not burden a person beyond his capacity” (2:286). The Prophet (SAAW) said: “Make things easy for people; do not make things hard for them. Give them good tidings and do not make them turn away from religion (by making things hard for them).” Ibn al-Qayyim says: “Shariah is based on wisdom and achieving people’s welfare in this life and the afterlife. Shariah is all about justice, mercy, wisdom and good. Thus, any ruling that replaces justice with injustice, mercy with harshness, common good with mischief or wisdom with folly is a ruling that does not belong to the Shariah, even if it is claimed to be so according to some interpretation.” 7
When fasting days are as long as 20-22 hours (as is the case in many regions of the Northern Hemisphere this year), it is too inconvenient, if not impossible, to break the fast and partake of suhur for the next day’s fast and offer the maghrib, isha and tarawih prayers in the space of two or three hours. Furthermore, fasting for 21-22 hours over a month has deleterious effects on health.
Another view, articulated by Saudi Arabia’s High Council of Ulama in 1977 and endorsed by the Islamic Fiqh Council in 1982 and the European Council for Fatwa and Research in 2015, is that when fasting days in the Northern Hemisphere are too long and fasting on such days is likely to cause harm or hardship, Muslims living in these regions are not obliged to fast in such times. They can make up for the lost days of fasting at some other time of the year when there are moderate days and nights or when they travel to other countries, which have normal days and nights. This opinion is fraught with difficulties. It does not take into account the inseparable linkage between the month-long fasting period and Ramadan. Moreover, the suggestion is impractical.
In respect of the question of determining the timings of prayer and fasting in the Northern Hemisphere, there seems to be a broad agreement among a majority of Muslim scholars and jurists on the following points.
(1) The timings for prayer and fasting, which are stipulated in the Quran and the Prophet’s Sunnah and which are based on such natural phenomena as dawn, sunrise, sunset and the disappearance of twilight, are applicable to regions that have normal or moderate days and nights (which cover most parts of the world).
(2) In the Northern Hemisphere, the regions close to the Arctic Circle experience extremely long days in summer and extremely long nights in winter. Natural signs such as dawn, sunrise and sunset in these regions are altogether different from those in the rest of the world. Therefore, the timings of prayer and fasting in these regions cannot be determined on the basis of natural signs such as sunrise and sunset.
(3) If the timings and hours of prayer and fasting in these regions were to be determined according to local timings, fasting hours in summer would last for 20-22 hours. Such long hours of fasting would be strenuous and difficult for Muslims living in the region. In addition, they will be left with very little time for breaking the fast and taking suhur for the next day and for the maghrib, isha and tarawih prayers. This will be contrary to the higher objectives and intents of Islamic law (maqasid al-Shariah), which emphasize ease, convenience and facilitation for Muslims and the mitigation of harm and hardship. It is therefore not advisable to follow local timings for prayer and fasting in the Northern Hemisphere.
(4) In such regions the timings for prayer and fasting should be estimated or calculated in accordance with the timings of those regions which have normal or moderate days and nights. In other words, the timings for prayer and fasting in such regions should be determined not according to the movement of the sun, but according to the movement of the clock.
There is some disagreement among scholars and jurists about the lands which have normal or moderate days and nights and which could serve as a yardstick for the determination of timings for prayer and fasting in the Northern Sphere. Most scholars and jurists seem to be of the view that the timings for prayer and fasting in Makkah and Madinah should be followed in the Northern Hemisphere. On the other hand, some scholars suggest that the regions above 45 (or 48 or 64) degrees latitude in the north and below 45 (or 48 or 64) degrees latitude in the south should be considered normal zones and that the timings for prayer and fasting in the normal zones should be followed in the abnormal zones like the Northern Hemisphere.
The problem of determining the timings for prayer and fasting in the Northern Hemisphere has been in the focus of attention since 2007. Unfortunately, Muslim scholars and jurists and organizations like the European Council for Fatwa and Research have not been able to provide clear, consistent and pragmatic guidelines in the matter to thousands of Muslims living in the Northern Sphere. There has been an evident absence of mutual consultation and coordination among Islamic organizations that deal with legal opinions and fatwas. Consequently, Muslims living in the region follow different patterns and time schedules for prayer and fasting. This situation has created confusion, uncertainty and ambivalence among substantial sections of Muslims.
Evidently, the issue calls for ijtihad. There is a pressing need for Islamic organizations like the European Council for Fatwa and Research, Fiqh Council of North America, International Islamic Fiqh Academy and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to pool their expertise and resources together to address the problem and to forge a consensus on the issue. The issue presents a challenge as well as an opportunity to Muslim scholars and jurists and its satisfactory resolution will enable them to demonstrate that Islamic law possesses an inherent dynamism and that it can effectively meet the challenges of different situations and circumstances.
It is imperative that scholars and jurists who are engaged in this exercise are able to rise above narrow factional affiliations and denominational and sectarian considerations. While grappling with the issue, it will be beneficial to draw on the expertise of astronomers and geographers (for gaining an adequate knowledge of extreme climatic conditions in the Northern Sphere), physicians and health specialists (to understand the effects of fasting for unusually long hours on health) and local Islamic groups and organizations (to know and take cognizance of the experiences of local Muslim communities).
1. Muhammad Rashid Rida. Tafsir al-Manar, Vol. 2, p. 162 (cited in the website of Dar al-Ifta al-Missriyyah: http://eng.dar.alifta.org/foreign/ViewFatwa.aspx?ID=2806)
3. Al-'Aql wa al- Fiqh fi Fahm al-Hadith al-Nabawi (1996), p. 124 (quoted in Jasser Auda, ‘Should Muslims in the North fast 23 hours a day’ http://www.onislam.net/english/shariah/contemporary-issue)
5. Muhammad Hamidullah. Introduction to Islam. Lahore. Ch. 15.
6. Jasser Auda, ‘Should Muslims in the North fast 23 hours a day’ http://www.onislam.net/english/shariah/contemporary-issue
7. Shams al-Din ibn al-Qayyim. I’lam al-Muwaqqi’in (1973), Vol. 1, p. 333. (quoted in Jasser Auda. Maqasid al-Shariah as Philosophy of Islamic Law. London: International Institute of Islamic Thought, 2008, p. 20).