Kiruna, Sweden – During this year’s holy month of Ramadan, when consumption of food and water is prohibited between dawn and dusk, how do Muslims observing the fast manage in the far north of Scandinavia, where the sun never sets?
An estimated 700 Muslims are spending Ramadan in the mining town of Kiruna, located 145km north of the Arctic Circle and surrounded by snowcapped mountains throughout the summer. Many of them are recent asylum seekers, sent to Kiruna while their claims are processed.
The sun stays up around the clock from May 28-July 16, which constitutes half of the fasting period this year.
“I started Ramadan by having suhoor with the sun shining in my eyes at 3:30 in the morning,” said Ghassan Alankar from Syria, referring to the meal just before dawn.
“I put double curtains in my room and still, there’s light when I’m going to sleep.”
Since there is no central authority in Sunni Islam that could issue a definite religious ruling, or fatwa, Muslims in the north are using at least four different timetables to break the fast.
Alankar sticks to Mecca time, Saudi Arabia, “because it’s the birthplace of Islam”. But he is worried about whether his fast will be accepted by God.
“I’m not sure I’m doing the right thing,” said Alankar, who arrived in Kiruna seven months ago after a hazardous journey via Lebanon, Turkey, and Greece. “Only when I’m in God’s house, if I make it to heaven, I will know.”
No dusk, no dawn
The start of Ramadan is determined by the sighting of the new moon, which moves about 11 days back in the Gregorian calendar each year. About every 33 years, Ramadan falls at the same time.
A majority of those who fast in Kiruna follow the timings of the capital Stockholm, 1,240km further south, after being advised by the European Council of Fatwa and Research (ECFR), a Dublin-based private foundation composed of Islamic clerics.
Zero, 15, 25 or 45 hours, it doesn't matter as long as you believe in what you're doing.
“In Stockholm, there’s day and night,” Hussein Halawa, secretary-general of the council, told Al Jazeera, explaining the decision. He was personally invited to northern Sweden from Dublin this year to experience the lengthy daylight and give advice.
Idris Abdulwhab, from Eritrea, follows the ECFR fatwa, which means his longest period of fasting will be 20 hours.
“Zero, 15, 25 or 45 hours, it doesn’t matter as long as you believe in what you’re doing,” he said. “But we’re human beings; of course it’s hard sometimes.”
One of those who has chosen to fast according to the local prayer times listed online is Fatima Kaniz. In a homely apartment overlooking mountains and mining facilities, she prepares a Pakistani fast-breaking dinner, or Iftar, for 8:30pm as the persistent sun penetrates the window blinds. Oil sizzles in a pan as she drops in pakoras, a vegetable snack made with chickpea flour.
She recalls her first day in Kiruna five years ago, in June.
“I waited for the sun to go down so I could pray maghreb,” she said, referring to the sunset prayer. “I waited until 3am, until my Chinese roommate at the asylum centre found me and explained it was pointless to wait. I thought, ‘What kind of strange place is this?'”
The fare of the day consists of the Pakistani Ramadan staples chapati and pakoras served with raita, with the addition of Swedish fish fingers and lentil stew.
During two-thirds of Ramadan, following the Kiruna prayer times means that Kaniz fasts for about 18 hours. But due to the sun’s movements, she will fast for a whole 23 hours during one of those days.
“I live in Kiruna, and I pray according to Kiruna time all year round. Why should I change this during Ramadan and suddenly follow Stockholm?” she asked.
She followed the same system during four previous Ramadans – the last one also at the height of summer.
“Sometimes I got tired and took the bus home from work instead of walking, but otherwise, I felt fine,” she said. “But I looked at the clock many times.”
The weather in Kiruna varies widely during the summer months. Within a day, 25 degrees Celsius and sunshine can turn into 10 degrees and pouring rain.
December Ramadan: Perpetual darkness
When Ramadan falls in December, however, Muslims will face the opposite of midnight sun: polar night. For two weeks, the sun does not rise above the horizon.
Muslim prayer times also follow the sun – which means that during winter, all five prayers can fall within a time span of two hours.
Abdulnasser Mohammed, of Somali origin, was new to Sweden and Kiruna the last time Ramadan fell under the Midwinter night, in 2000.
“There was no really established Islamic organisation at the time, or information on the internet. I had to make up my own rules”, he said. “I fasted for about five hours.”
Mohammed, who is now the chairman of the Islamic association in Kiruna, follows the fasting times of Istanbul in the summer, since Turkey is the Muslim country closest to Sweden.
But he explains, in his view, everyone is free to choose.
“Islam isn’t rigorous,” he said. “Ramadan is not about starvation or about inflicting injury on yourself. People must choose what works for them.”
Apart from the Syrians, who have fled the war in their homeland, Eritreans form the largest Muslim community in Kiruna.
Hawa Fidel and Alia Hassen host a plentiful Iftar at Stockholm’s fast-breaking time, 10:10pm, in the apartment they share. They have prepared seating on the floor and filled trays with sponge-like injera flatbread, spicy beef stew, pastries, and other traditional Eritrean food.
The men chatting in the living room are already planning their next communal meal. They have set up a system to share the costs fairly, with participants paying different amounts depending on their incomes. Some have jobs. Others, whose applications for asylum have been rejected, get by on a monthly $200 grant provided by the government.
“Eating together with friends remind me of Eritrea,” said Fidel, who is still waiting for permanent residency after living in Kiruna for three years. But she misses going to a mosque for tarawih, the special prayers at night during which long portions of the Quran are recited.
The Muslim community in Kiruna is using a hall in an apartment block as a mosque, but so far it is only open for Friday prayers.
On the first Friday of Ramadan, as the rain trickled down, about 40 men and four women, including Fidel, gathered there at Stockholm’s dhuhr prayer time.
Safwaan al-Taieb, who used to do the call to prayer in his neighbourhood mosque in Syria’s Deraa before he fled the country last year, recited a melodious adhan.
Al-Taieb’s sister came with him to Sweden, but because she fasts according to Mecca timings and he Stockholm, they do not eat together.
Besides the rest of the family, he said the social nature of Syrian society is what he misses the most – during Ramadan and the rest of the year.
“In Syria, you don’t eat only with your family. Everyone is welcome, we bring plates of food to our neighbours, we invite others. If you do that with Swedish people, they think you’re crazy.”
“Next Ramadan, God willing, I’ll be back in Syria.”