Should Muslims in the North Fast 20 Hours a Day?

A Survey of Relevant Fatwas

Sunset without darkness

During the summer months, in some northern regions, the sun sets but still remains too close to the horizon for these regions to experience total darkness. In particular, regions north of 48 degrees latitude do not experience any total darkness (or `Isha’), given that `Isha’ is defined by the sun being lower than the horizon by 18 degrees or more. Since there is no total darkness, then there is no physical start of the break of dawn or Fajr. This means that the “signs” (` alamat) for `Isha’ (which is complete darkness) and Fajr (which is the end of complete darkness) do not exist. Keep in mind that sunset and sunrise still happen (except north of the arctic circle).

In order to calculate `Isha’ and Fajr time, scholars follow different methods, all of which depend on calculations based on the timings for the actual sunset and actual sunrise. One popular method, for example, is to divide the period between sunset and sunrise into seven intervals; `Isha’ begins after the first interval and Fajr begins after the sixth. However, the time between the calculated Fajr and the actual sunset in the regions north of 48 degrees latitude will be somewhere between 18 to 23 hours of fasting every day.


Fatwa to fast until the actual sunset

Traditional schools of Islamic jurisprudence did not deal with this particular situation as far as I know. Some late scholars, such as Ibn Abedeen, Al-Suyuti, and Ibn Arafa dealt only with the case when there is no sunrise or sunset (Refer to: Radd Al-Muhtar, Al-Hawi Lil-Fatawi, and Hashiyat Al-Dusouki).

Contemporary scholars of Islamic jurisprudence held the opinion that as long as there is sunset and sunrise, then a Muslim in the northern parts of the world is expected to fast from the (estimated) dawn to the actual sunset, even if this period is close to 24 hours every day.

Scholars who endorse this opinion say that in cases of possible harm or hardship, Muslims should take the provision (rukhsa) and not fast this Ramadan. They should then make up for the days during some other times of the year with shorter days, or when they travel to other countries with more moderate timings (Refer to: High Council of Ulama, Saudi, Decision 61, 12/4/1398H. Also: Islamic Fiqh Council, Fifth Cycle, Decision No. 3, 1402-1982. Recently: European Council for Fatwa and Research – ECFR, Seminar on Fasting, Stockholm, 9/6/2015.)

There is a number of problems with this fatwa:

1. Most people would agree that it is very hard for an average healthy person to fast for 23 or even 20 hours every day for the entire month. Although I am not aware of any related scientific studies, I can attest from personal experiences as well as the experiences of others (old and young, men and women, athletic and non-athletic, healthy and not so healthy) that fasting that long is very hard and potentially harmful to an average healthy person.

This is contrary to what the Shari`ah intends, because Allah Almighty, in the context of mentioning fasting and its rules, said: {Allah intends for you ease and does not intend for you hardship} (Al-Baqarah 2:185).

Thus, ease and facilitation are amongst the Maqasid or higher objectives of Shari`ah in general and fasting in particular, as the Qur’an confirms. It is obvious that this fatwa makes it too hard for Muslims to carry out their duty of fasting the month of Ramadan or otherwise not to fast at all during Ramadan.

2. The duration of night accepted by this fatwa is not long enough for Muslims to perform the well-known obligations and recommendations of the Shari`ah during the nights of Ramadan. As little as fifty minutes in some regions, or even a few hours, is not long enough to pray Maghreb, `Isha’, and Taraweeh (night prayers) let alone to eat two meals that are highly recommended, i.e., iftar (breaking the fast) and suhur (night meal), as well as to allow marital relations.

Allah says:

{It is lawful for you to go in unto your wives during the night preceding the day’s fast: they are as a garment for you, and you are as a garment for them. God is aware of what you did secretly, and so He has turned unto you in His mercy and removed this hardship from you} (Al-Baqarah 2:187).

A hardship and a tough test that was removed by Allah in the Qur’an cannot be imposed by a humanijtihad/fatwa.

3. It is not the general spirit of the Shari`ah to allow the overwhelming majority of Muslims in a particular region to take a provisional license or rukhsah. Rules have to be doable and applicable to most people, and arukhsah is by definition an exceptional and individual “license” to be exercised on the basis of necessity.

4. The signs of the sunrise and sunset have a purpose of dividing the day in reasonable proportions and within a reasonable variation for the sake of prayers and fasting.

When the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) told his companions about the days of al-Dajjal (Anti-Christ) at the end of time, he told them that some of his days will be as long as one month or one year. The companions asked: “Would we pray 5 prayers only when the day gets that long?” He replied: “No, estimate the timings [and pray as usual]” (Muslim 2937, also: Tirmidhi, Dawud, and Ibn Majah).

This is a clear evidence that the signs of the sun are only means to regulate the prayers, and that the 5 prayers are meant to be distributed over every 24 hours, even if the signs of the sun are missing. In other words, the objective of maintaining 5 prayers every day is more important than observing the signs of the sun per se.

Similarly, when the signs of the sun are causing the fasting period to be impossibly long leading to hardship, then we should “estimate the timings”, as the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said.

The objective of maintaining a reasonable amount of ease during fasting (yusr, mentioned in 2:185) is more important than observing the signs of the sun per se when they are not within a reasonable range.

5. There is an underlying assumption in the above fatwa that Muslims in these regions are living there temporarily, hence the recommendation to fast elsewhere. The majority of Muslims, however, in these regions are permanent residents.So, finding a permanent solution to this problem is imperative for their welfare and for Islam to take root in northern societies.

6. It is against the spirit and objective of unity and solidarity with fellow believers for a significant portion of the Muslim Ummah not to fast in Ramadan with the rest of the Muslim Ummah, just because they live in the northern parts of earth. Also, it is going to be hard for Muslims in these regions to make up for the 29 or 30 days of Ramadan in other months. There is a much higher motivation to fast while Muslims in the community and around the world are fasting.

7. Finally, fasting does impose some physical hardship on the believer and does require patience and perseverance. However, it is not an objective for fasting to be incapacitating to the believer to the extent of not performing necessary religious, family, social, or professional duties. This is definitely the situation of people who will fast for up to 23 hours for the whole month.

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About Dr. Jasser Auda
Jasser Auda is a Professor and Al-Shatibi Chair of Maqasid Studies at the International Peace College South Africa, the Executive Director of the Maqasid Institute, a global think tank based in London, and a Visiting Professor of Islamic Law at Carleton University in Canada. He is a Founding and Board Member of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, Member of the European Council for Fatwa and Research, Fellow of the Islamic Fiqh Academy of India, and General Secretary of Yaqazat Feker, a popular youth organization in Egypt. He has a PhD in the philosophy of Islamic law from University of Wales in the UK, and a PhD in systems analysis from University of Waterloo in Canada. Early in his life, he memorized the Quran and studied Fiqh, Usul and Hadith in the halaqas of Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo. He previously worked as: Founding Director of the Maqasid Center in the Philosophy of Islamic Law in London; Founding Deputy Director of the Center for Islamic Ethics in Doha; professor at the University of Waterloo in Canada, Alexandria University in Egypt, Islamic University of Novi Pazar in Sanjaq, Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies, and the American University of Sharjah. He lectured and trained on Islam, its law, spirituality and ethics in dozens of other universities and organizations around the world. He wrote 25 books in Arabic and English, some of which were translated to 25 languages.