Last year I published an article about The Length of the Fasting Day of Ramadan in which I discussed the fact that in high latitude cities, the length of the day or night can be unreasonably long for Muslims to fast from down to sunset or too short for fasting to make sense. I also covered the broader concept of differentiating between the general principles that underline the Islamic law, which do not change with time, and the implementation details, which are subject to change.
In that article, I mentioned two views about how to calculate a reasonable length of the fasting time for such special geographical locations:
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 was recently contacted by somebody from Stockholm, Sweden, where the length of the fasting day this year started with over 19 hours and 30 minutes! This brother said that he was told that it is illegal to follow the Mecca/Medina timings I mentioned in my earlier article. I will discuss here the conflicting views of scholars on this matter and which is more reasonable.
Let me start first with the view of those who prohibited this ruling. One relatively recent ruling from a recognized authority comes from Shaikh ‘Abd Al-‘Aziz Ibn Baz, the former Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia. In his view, as long as there are both night and day, regardless how short or long, within 24 hours, the person must fast from dawn to sunset. In other words, in a city such as Oulu in Finland, the Muslim must fast over 22 hours, leaving him with less than 2 hours to eat and drink!
The view of Ibn Baz, which is shared by other Salafi scholars, such as Ibn al-Uthaymeen, is based on literal interpretation of the Qur’anic text that excludes the possibility that this specific ruling implied certain circumstances and assumptions. This is not a sensible position. It is irrational because we know that there are places in the world where a literal interpretation of Qur’anic or Sunna rulings would make no sense. This is the case, for instance, with the times of prayer and fasting being defined in terms of day and night, as there are geographical locations that during certain seasons do not have days or nights, or where the day or night is so short or long that the standard calculations of the prayer times cannot be applied.
This, of course, creates a problem for Ibn Baz’s view. His proposed solution is to use the times of the nearest city where there is some day or night in the 24 hours. This means that if the nearest city has a fasting time of 23:30 minutes, then the fasting person is allowed to eat and drink for 30 minutes only! But the more fundamental problem in this ruling is that it explicitly acknowledges that the Qur’an’s ruling does not cover certain geographical locations, which is the very fact that Ibn Baz denies when rejecting replacing very long fasting days with a different system, such as following the length of the day in Mecca or Medina or considering the day and night each to be 12 hours.
Unlike this rigid and discrepant view, the 19th century Egyptian reformer Muhammad ‘Abduh has a very sensible view on this subject. He first notes the following about the verse “As for anyone who witnesses the crescent moon (of Ramadan), he must fast it” (2.185):
He used this expression and did not say “you all must fast it” for the same wise reason that the Qur’an did not specify the times of prayer. The Qur’an is Allah’s general speech for all people, and He knows that there are geographical locations that have no lunar crescents or ordinary days but the whole year may be day or night, like the polar places. When it is night in the north pole, it is day in the south pole, and vice versa. The day and night may be longer or shorter depending on how far or close the place is to the pole, and they are of equal length at the equator, which is the middle of the earth.
He then goes on to say:
The One who revealed the Qur’an, who knows the unseen and is the creator of the earth and heavenly bodies, spoke to all people about what they can follow. He issues the command to observe the prayer, the times of which were clarified by the Prophet for “buldān mu‘tadila (moderate lands)”, which make up most of the earth. When Islam reached the people of the lands that we referred to (where the night and day are extremely long or short), they could estimate the times of the prayers using their personal reasoning (ijtihād), guided by analogy from the Prophet’s interpretation of God’s absolute commandment.
The same applies to fasting. He made fasting obligatory only the person who witnesses the lunar crescent or was present at the time. Those who do not have a similar lunar crescent it is easy for them to make an estimate for it. Some jurists talked about the issue of estimation after they learned about lands where the night is short and day is long and lands where the night is long and day is short. They differed as to which land they use for their estimates. It has been suggested to use the moderate lands in which the legistlation took place, like Mecca and Medina. Others have suggested using the nearest moderate land to them. Both of these are valid, as this is a matter of personal reasoning (ijtihād) that is not covered by a divine text.
This approach has been adopted by many other distinguished scholars. For instance, Maḥmūd Shaltūt, who was the Grand Imām of al-Azhar Mosque in 1958–1963, ruled that when living in an extreme location, the Muslim should choose to follow a nearby city that would have “enough time in the night and day for the obligations of fasting and praying in a way that fulfills the wisdom behind the obligation without causing too much hardship or fatique.”
Note ‘Abduh’s reference to earlier jurists, so he was not the first to adopt this view. The broader idea, that details mentioned in the Qur’an or Sunna are for “moderate lands” and exceptional lands have their own rulings, has a long history that goes back to the earliest jurists. For instance, the 14th century scholar Ibn Taimiyya had the following to say:
The times that Gabriel (peace be upon him) taught the Prophet (prayer and peace be upon him), and the Prophet (prayer and peace be upon him) taught his nation, when he explained the times of prayer, which the scholars mention in their books, are for moderate days. As for the day that the Prophet (prayer and peace be upon him) described as “a day that is as long as a year,” they have said “make estimates for it,” because it has a different ruling.
Islam is a religion of reason and calls for reasonable rulings. This has underlined the work of jurists and scholars over the centuries. Reading the Qur’an and Sunna in a completely rigid and literal way, as in the case of the view of Ibn Baz and Ibn al-Uthaymeen, fails to understand the spirit of the text and objectives of Islamic law (maqāṣid al-Shari’a). It is also bound to be internally incoherent and contradict other aspects of the law. Also, Islam is a religion of moderation, so any view that leads to extreme results must be based on flawed thinking.
 Badr al-Din Ibn Taimiyya, Mukhtaṣar al-Fatāwa al-Miṣriyya, Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyya, p. 38.
 Muḥammad Rashīd Riḍā, Tafsīr al-Manār. Cairo: Dār al-Manār, 1947, volume 2, 162.
 Maḥmūd Shaltūt, Al-Fatāwā. Cairo: Dār al-Shuruq, 2004, 126.
Tafsīr al-Manār, volume 2, p. 163