Should Muslims in the North Adopt Makkah Fasting Times Due to Hardship?

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
الحمد لله رب العالمين، والصلاة والسلام على سيد الأنبياء والمرسلين واله وأصحابه أجمعين أما بعد

I remember many years ago, a traditional scholar and teacher of mine noted, wryly: “in the upcoming years as Ramadan coincides with the long days of the summer, expect fatawa [Islamic juristic rulings] to emerge to alleviate the Muslims from those fasts”.

                Of course, not to simplify an actual issue here in the UK and nearby high latitude countries, the discourse of the dawn phenomenon in Ramadan has been ongoing since the 1980s when the first Muslim communities were witnesses to the phenomenon of persisting twilight in Ramadan. This blog reflects upon the recent article of Dr Jasser Auda on the issue of long fasts in the higher latitudes (specifically, 48.5 degrees and above. As a reference, the UK spreads over 51 degrees latitude, approximately).1

                Auda is a distinguished scholar of the Islamic Sciences, in particular, the study of maqāṣid al-shariah or the higher purposes of the Shariah – the Islamic legal framework. However, the article radically contrasts the scholarly expertise with which he engaged the reader in his 2008 treatise on maqāsid and seems to be more of a reflection than a work of research.2

                The article begins by introducing the topic; this Ramadhan (2019), “tens of millions of Muslims” in the northern-most countries will experience “excessively long fasts of around 18-23 hours which has led to many asking the question, what do we do? We simply cannot fast that long.”3

                Auda proposes that Muslims in the higher latitudes adopt the fatwa of Abduh (d. 1905), i.e., implement Makkah timings for sunset and sunrise and this is justified with the discussion of necessity and hardship as is ubiquitous in the maslaha-cum-maqasid discourse.4

                At the outset of his seminal work, al-Taftazani expounds the scope of epistemology as being tri-fold; empirical data from sense perception, rational or derivative from a priori axioms, and external reliable sources such as the Qur’an.5 This enables us to frame the issue in light of the categorization of data itself, for the issue in question is a compound of all of the aforementioned. Given that the issue revolves around the actual duration of the fast itself, it would therefore call for empirical data based on exactness and specificity. An 18-23 hour day would effectively cover the polar regions at its extreme end, and therefore, unless there are fasting Muslims on a polar expedition during Ramadan, we can safely assume that the issue here is for the general Muslim communities, as is visible in Table 1.

                Secondly, the definition and delineation of fajr – the morning twilight – since the first generation of Muslims, has been differed upon until today,6 with even the earliest Muslims related to have eaten until “nearly sunrise”.7 Islamic scholars and astronomers over the centuries have come to align the time of fajr with a solar depression angle of 15 to 20 degrees, with 18 being most favourable.8 However, in many countries during high summer, a lack of even 12 degrees has presented problems for which many contemporary and traditional scholars have proposed taqdir9 – estimations, such as – aqrab al ayyam,10 aqrab al-bilad,11 sab’u layl,12 and isfar,13 amongst others, as viable options for calculation. These were also some of the solutions offered by the ECFR in 1986.14

                Interestingly, alluded to in Auda’s article but not discussed when he mentioned incorrectly that Ibn Abidin dealt only with the issue of a “lack of sunset or sunrise”, the case in question in the latter’s Radd al-Muhtar actually concerned the kingdom of Bulghar, modern day Tatarstan, which sits close to Iceland’s latitude and does not experience 12 degrees solar depression during high summer. The discussions that followed as a result, identified primarily that the illah of the prayer times were not their timings, but rather, the scriptural obligation itself. This is paramount as can be drawn from Abduh’s fatwa that is able to override the visual phenomena of sunset and allow people to eat during the day in line with the sunset of Makkah. However, classical scholars had already dealt with the issue of a day lacking visible phenomena as per the famous Dajjal hadith.

                With this in mind, I present a summary table of the fast lengths (in bold) as an example of the times experienced during the most recent Ramadan, with different options for calculation as comparison.

Table 1. Fast durations of northern-most cities in Ramadan 1441 – 5th May 201915.

What is quickly discernible is the lack of 23 hours. Granted, the fasts of 2019 have been shorter than the ones that have preceded, that millions have been able to keep those fasts is relevant to the discussion of being able to do so in the future. More so, the wide ranging options available do not require one to adopt Makkah times which would be based on al-qiyas ma’a al-fariq, or a detracting analogy.16 Hence, one can argue, what is to prevent one from adopting the timings of Dhaka?

                On the other hand, where does one draw the line in determining that a certain number of hours is “too long”? Would 17 hours and 59 minutes be acceptable, but not 18 hours and 2 minutes? This ambiguity is why Uthmani argues in his Usul al-Ifta that necessity should be restricted to the individual, whereas “needs that reach the level of necessity” would require a scripturally mandated dispensation such as utilising earth for tayammum – dry ablution.17 Ease is not a source of divine legislation, but instead, a consideration to move from a primary ruling, such as 18°, to a facilitative one (rukhsa) such as 12°.18

                ‘Abd al-Wahhab Khallaf, in a famous textbook on Sacred Law, defines hardship in the following words:

                “From the condition that an act must be within the individual’s capacity before he can be held accountable for it, one should not jump to the conclusion that this implies there will not be any hardship whatsoever for the individual in the act. There is no contradiction between an act’s being within one’s capacity and its being hard. Nothing a person is responsible for is completely free of hardship, since moral responsibility is being obliged to do that in which there is something to bear with, and some type of difficulty.

Hardship, however, is of two types. The first is that which people are accustomed to bear, which is within the limits of their strength, and were they to continue bearing it, it would not cause them harm or damage to their persons, possessions, or other concerns. The second is that which is beyond what people are accustomed to bear and impossible for them to continually endure because they would be cut off, unable to go on, and damage and harm would affect their persons, possessions, or one of their other concerns. Examples include fasting day after day without breaking it at night, a monastic life, fasting while standing in the sun, or making the pilgrimage on foot. It is a sin for someone to refuse to take a dispensation and insist on the stricter ruling when this will probably entail harm”.19

                Lastly, is the issue regarding physical wellbeing; Auda presents the discussion mentioning a lack of awareness of any studies on extended fasting and harm, even though a literature review returns over 1000 studies,20 none of which are determinant of mental, hormonal, cardiovascular, or physiological impairment that correlates with fasting duration.21 Furthermore, a survey of 2000 respondents carried out during Ramadan 2015 with 18-21 hour fasts concluded that 80% did not miss a single fast while those that had followed Makkah timings had kept 65%.22

                In conclusion, it is clear that there are ample juristic devices at the scholar’s discretion in times of hardship, and thus, arbitrary contentious contractions are not required in a field which has enjoyed much elasticity since the dawn of fajr itself.


Notes & Bibliography

  1. Jasser Auda, “Should Muslims in the North Fast 20 Hours a Day?”. https://www.jasserauda.net/portal/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Should-Muslims-in-the-North-Fast-20-Hours-a-Day.pdf, Last accessed December 19, 2019.
  2. Jasser Auda, Maqasid al-Shariah as Philosophy of Islamic Law: a Systems Approach (London: International Institute of Islamic Thought).
  3. Ibid.
  4. Muhammad Rashid Abduh, Tafsir al-Manar (Beirut: Dar al-Ma’rifah, 1947).
  5. Al-Taftazani, sharh al-aqa’id al-nasafiyya, 33.
  6. Muhammad Amin Ibn Umar Ibn Abideen, Radd al-muhtar al-hashiya ala durr al-mukhtar, 18 vols (Beirut: Dar al-Ma’rifah, 2014), vol 2, 482-483.
  7. Ahmad ibn Ali ibn Hajar al-Asqalani Fath al-Bari Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari (Cairo: Dār al-Bayān li-t-Turāt̲, 1986), vol. 4, 161
  8. Asim Yusuf, Shedding Light on The Dawn (London: Nur al-Habib Productions, 2017), 198.
  9. taqdir – refers to estimation – arbitrary fixation of time as explained by Yusuf, in Ibid., 155.
  10. aqrab al-ayyam – nearest day – refers to the last time that the signs of fajr had been observed – 15°.
  11. aqrab al-bilad – nearest city – refers to the closest city in which the occurrence of the signs of fajr is found – 15°. This was also discussed by Tahtawi in his hashiya. Ahmad ibn Muhammad Tahtawi, Ḥāshīyat al-Ṭaḥṭāwī ʻalá al-Durr al-mukhtār sharḥ Tanwīr al-abṣār fī madhhab Abī Ḥanīfah al-Nuʻmān (Cairo: n.d.)
  12. sab’u layl – literally one seventh – refers to an estimation whereby the night is divided into six parts with the seventh being the twilight phase, i.e., fajr time itself.
  13. isfar ­– is the spreading of the dawn, and some scholars have accepted this as the definition of fajr.
  14. Abdallah al-Mahfudh Ibn al-Bayyah, Sina’at al-fatwa (Beirut: Dar al-Minhaj, 2007), 330-333.
  15. Timings taken from Her Majesty’s Nautical Almanac Office (HMNAO), “Websurf 2.0”. Last accessed December 20, 2019. http://astro.ukho.gov.uk/psp/index_beta.html.
  16. Yusuf, Shedding Light, 169.
  17. An extended commentary on Ibn Abidin’s seminal sharh uqud rasm al-mufti. Muhammad Taqi Uthmani, Usul al-Ifta. 2014 (Dar al-Qalam).
  18. Yusuf, Shedding Light, 170.
  19. Abdul Khalaf, ‘Ilm usul al-fiqh, 133.
  20. Ibid., 167.
  21. Merali, S., G., Boden, C., Homko, C. A., Barrero, T. P., Stein, X., Chen, P., Cheung, C., Fecchio, and S., Koller. Science Transnational Medicine, 7, (2015):1–10.
  22. Yusuf, Shedding Light, 168.
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