Meet the Muslims Who Fast for 21 Hours During Ramadan

LONGFORM

Sociology


Concluding a month of heightened religious piety

While the Islamic tradition of fasting during the month of Ramadan has been practiced for two millennia, no two 'Ramadans' are ever the same.

 The National Mosque of Malaysia (in Kuala Lumpur) was built with an ambitious modernist style

The National Mosque of Malaysia (in Kuala Lumpur) was built with an ambitious modernist style

Beginning tomorrow (or tonight if the moon is sighted), Muslims around the world will mark the end of the month of Ramadan. From Ramadan prayers to the daily Iftar, the end of the holy month (a day known as Eid al-Fitr) also marks an end to a period of heightened religious piety where many unique religious traditions take place. Indeed, it is believed that many of the core teachings and scriptures of Islam were promulgated during the months of Ramadan, just in different years.

During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims around the world fast as part of fulfilling one of the Five Pillars of Islam. But why do Muslims fast (sawm)? Well, this practice is a symbolic one as Muslims embark on a month long period of spiritual reflection commemorating the first time the Quran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. It is also an act of sympathy for the less fortunate in society, and a way to encourage generosity during zakat, another core pillar of Islam.

The breaking of the fast during Iftar usually begins with the consumption of dates as (according to tradition) the Prophet Muhammad broke his fasts by eating three dates. Following this, Muslims usually engage in prayers before heading for the main meal that is done in a communal style. In addition to this, Muslims communities around the world have their own Ramadan traditions that have been influenced by unique cultural practices. For example, in Indonesia, which is also the country with the most Muslims in the world, adherents know to break the fast (buka puasa) upon hearing the sound of bedug drums being struck. These signals are carried out alongside loud speakers blaring out calls to worship.

From sunrise to sunset, Muslims refrain from consuming any beverage or food. For most Muslims, this means fasting between 7 am and 7 pm, only being allowed to eat and drink once the sun is down. At sunset, Muslims proceed to break the Ramadan fast. The end of the whole month of Ramadan is determined by the rules governing the progression of the Islamic calendar. 

Because Ramadan is the 9th month in the Islamic Calendar and the Islamic Calendar counts dates differently compared to the Gregorian calendar used globally by the Western world, the time of Ramadan varies by year. For example, Ramadan in 1970 began on 1 Nov, but in 2018, it started on 16 May.

The Islamic Calendar throughout history has exerted a strong influence on Islamic civilisation and culture. The Islamic calendar is just like many other 'traditional calendars', organising days and months according to sightings of the moon. In contrast, the Gregorian Calendar tracks time according to the Sun instead. According to Islamic tradition, the start of each month occurs when a crescent moon (hilal) is spotted shortly after sunset. If the crescent moon is not observed, due to weather conditions and the like, the following day is declared as the 30th day of the month. It is only the day after that a new month then begins. 

 The total amount of hours in a day Muslims around the world have to fast for,  photo from HuffPost

The total amount of hours in a day Muslims around the world have to fast for, photo from HuffPost

Considering that the ability to eat/drink is determined based on whether the sun is up or not from the individual’s perspective, the unique geography of the Earth means that Muslims in some countries will inevitably fast longer (or shorter) than others. Thus, Muslims in countries of extremely high latitudes like Iceland and New Zealand face unique challenges. 

As this year’s Ramadan falls within the Summer Solstice, this means that Muslims in the northern parts of the globe have to fast for pretty much the entire day as the Sun will be up for 21 hours in some territories. For example, the day before Eid al-Fitr, the day when Ramadan is finished, Muslims in Iceland can only eat between 2357 hrs on 13 Jun and 0258 hrs on 14 Jun. This means that Muslims in Iceland undergo one of the ‘longest’ Ramadan and fasting hours anywhere else in the world.

By contrast, the sun in Christchurch is only up for 9 hours. If Ramadan were to occur during the Winter solstice, however, Muslims in cities like Christchurch and Reykjavik would trade experiences as they did in 1966, 1998, and will do in 2031.

As one moves further north past the Arctic Circle (or south past the Antarctic), there are places which experience 24 continuous hours of daylight or darkness such as Nunavut in Canada or Svalbard in Norway. While there are differing opinions based on region and school of thought, most Islamic scholars have settled on allowing adherents to follow either the fasting timings of Mecca, or of a nearby city that has distinguishable daylight hours.

Here in Singapore, the number of hours the sun is up pretty much remains the same throughout the year by virtue of our close proximity to the Equator. The sun is up for 12 hours.

Despite this, no two ‘Ramadans’ are equal even within the same country or city. For example, those working and living at the top of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai literally have to fast for 2 minutes longer because their higher altitude means that they can still see the sun even if the sun has already set for those on the ground.

The long fasting hours for Muslims in the Scandinavian countries (along with Finland and Iceland) however, do not deter observant muslims.

 

In these countries, Muslims see the extended fasts as an important mark of their religious identity. While some scholars have issued fatwas (or Islamic rulings) for Muslims living in these countries allowing them to observe more reasonable fasting hours, especially in places with no sunrise or sunset, observance naturally varies depending on the individual and community. Some feel personally uncomfortable breaking fast when the sun is still up, and would rather follow the rigorous fasting schedule according to local time.

Muslims (in significant numbers) first arrived in Scandinavian countries after a wave of migration in the 1970s and after the recent refugee crisis in the Middle East. Apart from this, some ethnic Icelanders or Swedes converted to Islam after eye opening trips to countries in the Middle East.

By contrast, the history of the Muslim community in Singapore dates back to a time even before the founding of the city in 1819 by the British. Sitting at the confluence of the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea, Singapore (and the wider region) was a convenient meeting point for Arab and Asian traders. Inevitably, religion spread with commerce.

Modern Singapore is a multi-ethnic and religious city state with the month of Ramadan being observed amongst the local Muslim community. Apart from religious piety, various bazaars across the island open during the month selling snacks and food as a celebration of Malay and Muslim culture. 

Despite this, Ramadan isn’t just about the annual Geylang Serai Bazaar or even the act of fasting itself. It is rather a tale of human perseverance and conditioning, one that allows us to preserve some of the values we hold dear even if that means fasting for 22 hours straight. And that’s something new about Ramadan you perhaps wouldn’t have known.

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