The Length of the Fasting Day of Ramadan


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.

Copyright © 2012 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved.


4 thoughts on “The Length of the Fasting Day of Ramadan

  1. Glad that someone is thinking along these lines…In UK, 18 hours fast in itself is very long. there is very less time to get ready for the next fast

  2. May be rather than changing how long we’ll be fasting and tampering with the clear Quran commandments. Knowing that God has created the universe and he surely knows that this among other things will cause arguments between people. That’s why I believe it’s a test of faith. Because a healthy Muslim can plan to conquer the long day. Breaking fast with soups,a light meal and lots of fluids and saving the full meal for Sahour(meal before dawn) can be effective.I live in Canada, I tried it and it works! Old time Muslims not only fasted in hot weather (without AC in the car, in the house,..etc) they also led wars and conquered! Fasting builds our inner strength. Sick people, travelers and any person whom fasting could cause a risk to their well being have God’s forgiveness and allowance when they choose not to fast. We don’t need to defend Islam’s rulings against harsh comments. We need to stick to it. Those who know little about the greatness of Islam are judgmental. Wiser people will learn before they speak.

  3. Dear Pansy,

    Thank you for your comment.

    The specific rulings in the Qur’an are not be absolute and applicable under all circumstances. In order to understand why they are the way they are in the Qur’an, we need to understand their objectives. This is a whole science called “maqasid al-Shari’a” or the “objective of Shariah.” It is not good enough nor wise to take a Qur’anic ruling and apply it blindly everywhere, everytime, and for everyone.

    Also, what can be possible for one person may not be so for another. Many people would not be able to fast, say, 21 hours. Trying to force themselves to do that is unwise and does not serve the purpose of fasting. They can harm themselves seriously. They may not already be ill but a very long fasting day for a whole month can make them ill. If someone can fast that lone, then that is fine. But to say that this is how it should be done by all is not in line with the reasoning of the Qur’anic law. 

    Any attempt to treat Qur’anic rulings literally and without considering their purpose would lead to all kinds of absurd conclusions such as we should not commute but on the back of a camel or horse or use herbs only to treat ourselves.

    Maybe have a look at my article on Fasting Ramadan when the Day is Extremely Long or Short and the Moderation of Islam.


  4. Your article worth reading ! Jazakallah Khair.

    Quran and Hadith explained most of the things based on the primary audience and the native of the prophet. Rule of Zakath, traveling to Hajj (by Camel).. same way prayer time and fasting time is explained. Allah gave us commonsense and Quran keep asking to think. So, it is our duty to derive the rule from the base. We need not give wheat as Zakathul Fitr. We can go by flight for Hajj. There are places we cannot observe moon at all so we can calculate when we are matured with astronomy. There places where the sun never sets or sun never rise this will not contradict with the Quran but rather we should apply our logic.

    Regarding prayer time and fasting time calculation those are NOT two things. Prayer time will control the daily activities of a Muslim so never mess it up our sleeping, and other life schedule it is NOT a strive. Allah never intent to pray Magrib, Isha and Fajr in a raw in 3 hours. Some people make the Islam harden by following literal meaning. We live in a time where intelligent people are being silenced so that stupid people won’t be offended.

    The noon time can be calculated from anywhere on the earth. It is the point where the sun is at the Zenith. That is the only correct point we get from the sun from earth irrespective of the location, whether the person is inside a well or he is on top of Burj Khaleefa. So, noon time must not be changed , it should be be moved based on Makkah or any other stable country. So, from the point of noon (N), we can calculate back and forth. From noon to sunset the duration never can be above 7 hours, if we take all over Saudi Arabia. If we check the Makkah. The Maximum is 6.42. We can use the following calculation for prayer time.

    Max_half_day = 7
    Min_half_day = 5

    Dhuhr : N, where N is the noon time.

    X = sunset – N

    If x > Max_half_day
    X = Max_half_day
    Else if x Max_half_day
    Y = Max_half_day
    Else if Y < Min_half_day
    Y = Min_half_day

    Fajr end time = N – Y

    Fajr start and Isha time also should be explained from sunrise time and from Magrib time respectively.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *