Northern Ramadan


The sun rose yesterday at eleven minutes before one a.m. in Pangnirtung in northern Canada. It set at 11:55 p.m. No, that is not a misprint. They had less than an hour of darkness.

Looking at the Environment Canada website it seems to me that further north there is no sunrise or sunset, that they have 24 hours a day of sunshine.

Like any Canadian child I learned about the midnight sun (and the months of winter darkness) about the time I started school. But I never thought of the religious implications. This month though, with Muslims observing Ramadan, the concept of fasting has been on my mind.

Observant Muslims are supposed to fast during Ramadan from sunrise to sunset, for a 30 day period. I haven’t bothered to research what Mohammed’s reasoning was, if he indeed was the one who imposed this practice, but I note that at Mecca sunrise and sunset are only a little more than 13 hours apart at this time of year. Fasting for that short a time period isn’t a hardship for most people.

It’s quite different when there is no sunrise or sunset and it is light for 24 hours a day. What is a person supposed to do? A truly observant Muslim should logically starve themselves to death. Or move south.

Canadian novelist Mordecai Richler actually dealt with this topic in his book Solomon Gursky Was Here. In his case though, the issue of Arctic fasting was examined from a Jewish perspective. Observant Jews fast during Yom Kippur, the day or Atonement, from one nightfall until the next. But, given that Yom Kippur takes place in the Fall, what if there is no nightfall? The Arctic the land of the midnight summer sun is also the land of winter darkness with no sunshine for months. Richler was notorious for disliking research. I don’t think October in northern Canada really is that dark – but I haven’t looked it up either. (If you do get a chance to read the novel, I definitely recommend it, though it has been a number of years since I last opened it – my memory of the plot has become pretty hazy.) The issue is the same though: how do you justify breaking your fast if the mandated conditions don’t exist?

A quick internet search told me Muslims are divided over how to observe Ramadan in the Arctic. No need to detail the various compromises. No matter which one is adopted, there are those who disagree with it.

But thinking about this topic has me thinking about the difference between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Islam is an orthopraxic religion. What you believe is far less important than what you do. Just follow the rules (or someone’s interpretation of the rules) and everything will be okay. It’s black and white and really not that difficult. Oh, 30 days of fasting aren’t that pleasant, but at least you don’t need to think if it is really necessary. You just do it. There is little to no personal responsibility.

Christianity, on the other hand. Is an orthodox religion. What you believe is important because from those beliefs will flow your actions. Like Muslims Christians are told to fast. But the why of that fasting, dare I say it, is more important than the action of denying oneself food.

That makes it a much tougher faith to practice. There are scriptural guidelines, there is tradition, history, common sense (and the Holy Spirit), but there is much more wrestling with what is the mind and will of God rather than blindly following rules. You are responsible for what you do – and you can’t hide behind someone else’s rules.

For a Christian any question of how Muslims observing Ramadan in the Arctic seems rather silly. Faith is supposed to be liberating and bring you closer to God, not restrictive.

But I guess some people don’t see it that way.


  1. alexander davidson · · Reply

    My Ottawa friend Imam Mohamad Jebara wrote an article published this past week in the Ottawa Citizen that may resonate with you, and addresses several of the thoughts you expressed: see .

  2. Fabulous article and one that has crossed my mind as I work with people from all over the world and many of them are Muslim. In the UK our summers are fairly long with sunrises at about 4am and sunsets close to 10pm at this time of year.

    Maybe some take time off work to head to a destination where the sunlight hours are more “Ramadan friendly” as it were??

    1. I suppose that’s a possibility – but it is tough to get that long off most jobs!

      1. That is true of course – I am thinking of a lot of the guys in the IT business who work between here and countries where Islam is the predominant religion. Some of my Pakistani colleagues for example who work for global companies – so maybe not taking holidays, just in jobs that span continents!

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