A Muslim brother who in recent years moved from Europe to Canada sent me an email after reading my article The Secret of Seeing the Invisible Lunar Crescent of Ramadan. He referred to another article that discusses how Canada’s geographic quirks pose challenges for fasting Muslims. The article talks about how Muslims in Canada deal with the fact that in far-northern cities the fasting day may not only be very long, but Ramadan may fall in a time of the year when the sun may never rise or never set. The article is followed by a large number of hostile and offensive comments about Muslim practices and Islam in general. For some, there is never a wrong time for a bit of Islam bashing or enough of it.
The friend asked for my thoughts on the harsh comments about the “inadequacy of the Qur’an” which states that fasting should be from dawn to sunset. He also wondered why Muslims in geographical locations with high latitudes would choose to follow the fasting times in cities with lower latitudes in their countries rather than use the fasting times of Mecca.
This question is very serious for many Muslims who live in high latitude cities, even if they do not have a permanent day or night during Ramadan. The fasting day can be just too long for most. Of course, the fasting day can also be very short. This question touches on more fundamental aspects of Islamic law.
As it happened, in my latest book on Abrogation in the Qur’an and Islamic Law, I used this very example of the length of the fasting in Ramadan when expounding my understanding of concept of Islamic law and how specific Islamic rulings are formulated. In brief, the Qur’an contains general principles that should be used to draw specific rulings on various issues. These general principles are eternal in nature and do not change, whereas the specific rulings can change due to various circumstances. Let me explain this view using the subject of fasting as an example. Allah says in the Qur’an:
O you who believe! Fasting has been prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you that you may become pious. (2.183)
Elsewhere He states that Ramadan must be a month of fasting (2.185), and in another verse he gives these details about when to start and finish the fast each day:
And eat and drink, until the white thread shows clearly to you from the black thread at the dawn; then complete the fast until the night. (2.187)
Verse 2.183 states a general principle, which is that all believers, not only Muhammad’s followers, were commanded to fast. This is a permanent principle that never changed. In other words, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and every prophet was commanded and his followers to fast.
However, how God ordered each Prophet to implement this command differed from one Prophet to another. In the case of Muhammad, for example, the believers were ordered to fast the month of Ramadan and to do that from dawn until the night. These details, as I mentioned, may change with circumstance. This means that while this can continue to be the way Muslims fast Ramadan in certain geographical locations, it may have to change in others. It is clear from the command itself that it was not intended, for example, for locations where the day or night is permanent during Ramadan.
So the question becomes about what alternative system to use to determine the length of the fasting day. This, in my view, is a matter of “ijtihād” or “personal reasoning.” Those who use the fasting times of Mecca or Medina base their view on the fact that this is where the Qur’an was revealed and the locations for which those specific details of determining the length of the fasting day were designed. Those who would rather use another more southern cities within the same country for the timings treat the Muslims in that particular country as a community that has its specific issues and challenges, even if they share the same religion with the wider global Muslim community. This view is also seen by its adherents to be in line with hadiths in which the Prophet is claimed to have said that each community should fast according to their local times.
I should also add that I also believe that personal circumstances should also be taken into account when deciding whether an individual should fast the whole day like the rest of the community. For example, currently the length of the fasting day in the UK is around 18 hours. There are people who may be able to observe such a long day, but they may also have to, say, take a medication every 12 hours for a long time. My view is that they should fast for 12 hours. This is a better alternative than not fasting or risking health problems. Fasting is not intended to cause harm, which is why Allah allowed those who are ill to travelling to fast on other days (2.185). He says:
Allah intends for your ease and does not intend for you hardship. (2.185)
The broader point I am trying to make is that when determining the Islamic ruling in any matter, distinction should be made between the immutable principle underlying that ruling and the changeable details of its implementation. The Muslim who can fast Ramadan must fast it. This is a principle. But the length of the fasting day is a detail that is open to interpretation and which can change with circumstances.