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07/25/2014 04:17 PM

The Muslims of Tromsø

Ramadan in the Land of the Midnight Sun

By Dennis Betzholz  in Tromsø, Norway

During Ramadan, Muslims fast until the sun goes down. But what if you live in a place where there is no sunset? The believers in Tromsø, Norway spent years searching for a solution to that conundrum. Now that they have found one, new problems have arisen.

The seagulls are screeching and the boss is asleep in his camper van when Ahmed Hammadan, working at the market stall set up nearby wonders aloud: Who is going to buy a Norwegian sweater on a day like today? It is a rare warm day in Tromsø, located 344 kilometers (214 miles) north of the Arctic Circle -- a day when shoppers are more likely to buy an ice cream than a wool sweater.

But Ahmed is troubled by a different, much more important question: When will the boss finally wake up? Again and again he glances through the open door into the ramshackle van, but the boss is still sleeping. Ahmed bounces from one foot to the other. He begins speaking faster, his sentences become shorter. He is eager for his shift to come to an end. In eight minutes, the afternoon prayer begins, the Asr, and it takes three minutes to get to the mosque. During Ramadan, praying is just as important as fasting, a meticulously prescribed obligation, no matter what.

It is 3:35 p.m. In two-and-a-half hours, the sun will go down in Mecca. In Istanbul the sun sets in four hours, in Marrakesh, six.

A 46-year-old from Morocco, Ahmed is wearing sweat pants, athletic shoes and the kind of wool cap favored by surfers. But his casual dress belies his rigorous approach to the fasting period. "It has to hurt, only then is it good," he says. The rules of Ramadan hold that the faithful may not eat or drink until the sun goes down. It is sometimes painful, and many Muslims like Ahmed believe it should be. But for the Muslims in Tromsø, it ultimately became too painful.

There are roughly 900 of them living in the city in Norway's far north, and they have a problem for which the Koran provides no guidance. Traditionally, the fast lasts from sunrise, when "the white thread of dawn appears to you distinct from the black thread" (Surah 2, Verse 187), until sunset. But here, in the northernmost university city in the world, the sun never goes down in the summer. For two months of the year, there is daylight around the clock. For tourists, the midnight sun is a natural phenomenon, something to experience. But for Muslims, it is a nightmare when Ramadan comes at exactly this time of year. Like this year. It is a nightmare that the Prophet Mohammed could not have been aware of, 1,400 years ago in the Middle East.

Attuned to the Conflict

It marks a difficult new chapter in the history of the world religion of Islam. It raises the question as to whether fasting, in a capitalist world governed by the laws of the economy, has to play the same role as it did in the 7th century, when the religion was born.

It is a question that preoccupies -- and unsettles -- many Muslims now that Islam, whether via war, trade or globalization, has spread to every corner of the globe. Work schedules now stand in direct conflict with the schedules mandated by the religion. Meetings, deadlines, travel and training on the one hand. Fasting, praying and breaking fast on the other.

In the far north, like in Norway, the faithful are particularly attuned to the conflict. In the Norwegian capital of Oslo, the daylight fast lasts for 20 hours. But in Tromsø, not far from the North Pole, it is always daylight -- and this year, questions as to how to approach the problem have become more pressing than ever, says Sandra Maryam Moe in Tromsø's Alnor Mosque.

When Moe and her Australian husband converted to Islam 17 years ago, there were immigrants in Norway, but not many. The country had long been content to exist on the fringes of world events. When it began drilling for oil and natural gas in the 1970s, it began recruiting a modest number of workers from the Maghreb, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq. Still, when Moe and her husband joined them, the few Muslims among Tromsø's 70,000 residents all knew each other by name. There was only a single mosque. And Ramadan fell mostly during the winter.

Today, the faithful have to rent a gymnasium in order to celebrate the end of Ramadan. Fully 15 percent of the Norwegian population now has an immigration background, with many poverty and war refugees from Asia, Africa and the Middle East choosing liberal Scandinavia as their sanctuary. Now, there is a second, larger mosque, a wooden building with a flat roof that used to house a dance studio. And Ramadan falls in the summertime. The lunar calendar, which the world's 1.5 billion Muslims use, is 11 days shorter than the solar calendar. The result is that Ramadan begins a bit earlier every year.

'Ramadan Isn't Just for the Strong'

It is a Saturday morning and the mosque is still empty when Moe pulls her mobile phone out of her pocket. Modern Muslims no longer carry a pocket calendar. Rather, they consult a smart-phone app for prayer times. She begins reading: morning prayer, Fajr, 4:34 a.m.; Sunrise, 5:43 a.m.; midday prayer, Zuhr, 12:25 p.m.

"We have an hour to talk," she calculates. No more than that.

Moe, 49, wears a mint-green hijab and is the director of Alnor. She is a patient woman, knowing that it takes some time for outsiders, for non-Muslims, to understand the dilemma facing the faithful of Tromsø.

On the one hand, there are the health concerns. "Nobody should fast for more than 20 hours a day for 29 days," she says. "Ramadan isn't just for the strong among us, rather it is for all Muslims."

But there are also religious concerns. "Despite our extreme situation, we can't just make up our own rules." She expresses both points of view as though she is speaking about incontrovertible laws.

In Islam, those who do a good deed which is then furthered by others, rather than merely being gratefully received, will be rewarded doubly in the afterlife. The same holds true for bad deeds, with the originator being punished doubly if others follow him. That is what Moe and the Muslims of Tromsø are afraid of.

Noon passes quickly and before long, the imam begins crooning the first Arabic prayers. "It's time," Moe says. And leaves. The women pray in a separate room that is connected to the mosque's main sanctuary by an opening in the wall. A white, opaque curtain hangs in front of it.

Almost seven hours later, Ahmed Hammadan sits next to his boss on a pillow in the mosque's common room. He managed to sell three sweaters today, not bad considering. And he made it to prayer on time.

Their mosque, known officially as the Alnor Senter, is located in a side-street that is only partially paved. Identified only by a simple sign over the entryway, white curtains prevent the curious from peering inside. It is inconspicuous, yet everyone in Tromsø knows where the Muslims go to pray. Muslims near the North Pole are a curiosity for Norwegians too.

But the believers prefer to remain mostly among themselves in the warm light of the prayer room, where five chandeliers remove some of the chill from the bare, pale-yellow walls. It is a place where 60 to 70 men gather shoulder-to-shoulder for Friday prayers. It is also where they break the fast together on evenings during Ramadan.

Time, Money and Patience

On the tables before Ahmed Hammadan and the others are melons, dates, rice and other goodies. Here is where the men eat -- there are six of them on this particular Saturday. In the next room, five women and their children have gathered. It is, however, still broad daylight outside, and the fact that they are allowed to eat nonetheless is the product of huge amounts of time, money and patience.

As the Ramadan nights got shorter year after year -- and the thirst correspondingly greater during the day -- the uncertainty drove Tromsø Muslims to seek out Dr. Abdullah Bin Abd al-Asis al-Muslih. The Saudi sheikh has never been to northern Norway, but he is a highly respected Muslim scholar whose word carries authority. His resume shows that he is the general director of a body that focuses on the Koran's relationship to science and research. Indeed, it isn't just the Catholic Church that must address the conflict between science and miracles.

Six years ago, Sandra Maryam Moe and the sheikh spent months exchanging emails. Is it allowed to eat and drink even though it isn't yet dark outside, Moe wanted to know? And if it is, when does the daily fasting period begin and end? When are the prayer times? Moe described in detail the dilemma facing her community and the sheikh sent her question after question. He too was wary of becoming the originator of a new practice.

But finally, he issued a fatwa, an Islamic legal opinion that may only be issued by a qualified jurist. It was, however, far from conclusive and he shied away from proposing a clear solution. After quoting a few verses from the Koran, he gave the Muslims of Tromsø three options: They could adopt the fasting schedule used in Mecca; they could adopt the fasting schedule used in the nearest city where the sun actually set; or they simply establish their own practice binding on everyone in Tromsø.

It was an expert opinion that left all options open. It could have come as a relief to Moe and the others, but it wasn't. After all, no one wants to be the author of a bad deed.

The Alnor Mosque faithful decided they had no other choice than to reach a consensus among themselves, knowing full well that others in northern parts of Norway, Scandinavia and even further afield, might follow them.

Envy for the North

First, they met with all the Muslims in town; most are refugees from Somalia, Sudan and Eritrea but there are a number of Moroccans as well along with a handful of converts. Later, in long conferences and heated debates, they consulted with around 20 other Muslim communities in northern Norway. The talks lasted about three years before they finally agreed -- with the exception of a small Moroccan minority -- to adopt the Mecca schedule. But they were hardly satisfied with their solution, and it created new problems.

Now, the Muslims of Tromsø must avoid food and water for 15 hours each day during Ramadan, not much for a country like Norway. In Oslo, Muslims continue fasting for 20 hours, meaning that some from the southern part of the country have become envious of those in the north.

Ahmed Hammadan and his boss, Mohammed Haddoüme, normally live in Oslo. Haddoüme isn't really Hammadan's boss, they are friends and it is just a nickname. Six days ago they left Oslo, only to arrive the day before yesterday. The day after his arrival, Ahmed got a text message from an Oslo friend: "If you want to do Ramadan right, come back." It doesn't hurt enough in Tromsø; that was the message.

Now, though, Ahmed is sitting and eating rice with chicken in the light of day shortly after 7 p.m. Across from him is Mansoor Waizy, a 37-year-old Afghan who is part of the mosque leadership. He wears his beard bushy and his head shaved, he has bright, brown eyes. "There is already a Ramadan tour," he says.

Waizy speaks fluent German. His wife of 14 years, Yvonne, a convert to Islam, comes from Erfurt and the couple lived in Cologne for a long time. Now, though, they and their children call Tromsø home because Waizy, a nursing home caregiver, decided he could no longer work in retirement homes in Germany with a clear conscience. It is a "humanitarian disaster," he says.

Ramadan Tours

It is 7:21 p.m. and the sun set more than an hour ago in Mecca. In Istanbul, sunset isn't for another eight minutes and in Marrakesh, it won't set for two hours.

There are many reasons why Muslims live way up here in Norway's north and many more to take a vacation here: the snowcapped mountains and the clean air, for example, not to mention the northern lights. The waters are a dream for fishermen and students enjoy the Scandinavian cosmopolitanism. Safaris, Waizy says, are quite popular here, with travel agents offering all manner of midnight sun tours. Now, though, there is a new kind of safari on offer, Waizy says -- for those seeking to move from unbearable fasting conditions to the more comfortable ones in Tromsø. He says he has heard of lots of people who plan to take the long journey north, particularly now that school vacation has started. But it's nothing more than a trick, he says. And tricks, he adds, run counter to a serious approach to religious duty.

Ahmed Hammadan doesn't want to be accused of belonging to the "Safarists." He originally comes from Morocco where he even fasted during major heat waves. He was in Oslo when Ramadan began and fasted 21 hours a day for several days. He describes it as if it were a physical accomplishment, like a mountain climber might speak of peaks he has conquered. That local fasting rules make Ramadan more comfortable had no bearing on his travel plans, he says. But, he adds, "I'm happy to be here."

Mohammed Haddoüme, his companion, is 51 but looks even older. He's unshaven, his eyes look tired and he has wrinkles on his cheeks. He sleeps a lot these days. He also offers convincing reasons to argue that he's not on a safari. He's ill and has to undergo dialysis every two days to clean his blood. He also suffers from serious diabetes. The rules of Ramadan stipulate that people who are ill, pregnant or have jobs requiring tough physical labor are exempted from the fasting tradition.

There are exceptions and compromises. Still, there are debates during Ramadan about all sectors and all areas of life, even football. The World Cup semifinal between Algeria and Germany took place during the month of fasting, and Islam is the national religion in Algeria. It's not uncommon there for a person to land in prison if found guilty of breaking the fast. Algerian religious leaders were divided over the World Cup. Sheikh Mohammed Mekerkeb of an association of Islamic scholars, said that "breaking the fast is not permitted. God is with those who are fasting." But representatives of the country's High Islamic Council said they felt an exception was justifiable. The members of the Algerian football team were silent on the issue. Whether they fasted or not remained their own secret. Either way, the team managed to find enough energy to force the Germans into extra time in the match.

It's 8:51 p.m.. The sun has long since gone down in Mecca and Istanbul, but there's still another hour of daylight left in Marrakesh.

A New Schedule for Polar Muslims

"To orient things around Mecca's time isn't the long-term solution," says Sandra Maryam Moe. She believes there's hope, too. There's new research, this time from a Turkish team seeking to finally come up with a common approach for all Muslims. Professor Abdülaziz Bayndr of the University of Istanbul is leading the mission. He traveled three times to Tromsø and Spitsbergen, the Arctic Ocean island, as part of his effort to determine when the night begins in a city where, for two months each summer, there is 24-hour daylight. He also considered what to do on polar winter days when there is essentially 24 hours of darkness, making daylight fasting impossible.

Bayndr has determined that the prayer times originally set weren't perfect. The mistake, he writes in his report, was that they were based on astronomical measurements and not on the incident angle of the sun. He argues that's the only reason that it has so far not been possible to fast and pray correctly in the polar region.

So are science and the wonderful world of faith coming together on the issue after all? Bayndr's research team developed a new schedule and recently presented the results at a conference in Tromsø. Accordingly, no fasting anywhere in the world would last for longer than 18 hours.

'Everyone Is Looking to Us'

The Muslims at the Alnor Mosque have praised the effort, calling it a good approach. But they haven't implemented Bayndr's plan. Moe says that it must be accepted by Muslims across the far north. And so far, she says, the majority have opposed it, arguing it is nothing more than a single researcher's opinion. She says that people will only accept the new fasting times if several researchers come to the area and confirm the findings or if an established religious scholar issues a fatwa. "Everyone is looking to us," Moe says. "It's a lot of responsibility." She wishes everyone good luck and then says, "We trust that further researchers will come." Moe, it seems, is a patient woman.

Mansoor Waizy is less so and is obviously irritated by the situation. After all, he says, he reads the Koran. Earlier, he says, the word sun took center stage. "But (the Koran) only mentions light and darkness, not night," he says. He supports the researcher's central thesis. It may only be a single opinion, he argues, but people should work on getting the community to accept this new approach.

On July 27, the darkness of night will again be visible in Tromsø, the same day Ramadan ends. That's when several hundred Muslims will come together to celebrate in the gymnasium, with plentiful food and drink for everyone. People will also be allowed to smoke and have sex again.

But now, in the middle of Ramadan, six men sit on pillows in a mosque in the far north and talk. Ahmed Hammadan tells of the time he spent living in the German city of Krefeld. The boss's eyes grow heavy. Mansoor Waizy, the thinker in the group, the caregiver, starts coughing. First once, then twice. His brown eyes glaze over and he starts to sniffle slightly.

When asked if he's sick, he responds, "Yes, a little. It's a cold."

So is he still required to fast?

"It's hard to say," he says before adding a number of explanatory sentences about faith and balance and he frequently mentions the Koran. In the end, though, he doesn't have a definitive answer. So Waizy continues to fast. It's better to be safe than sorry.

Now, though, he has to go work the night shift. It's 9:45 p.m. when he leaves the mosque -- by now, the sun has even gone down in Marrakesh.

But in Tromsø, it's still bright as day. And so it will remain.

Translated from the German by Charles Hawley and Daryl Lindsey

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