The Muslims of Tromsø: Ramadan in the Land of the Midnight Sun

By Dennis Betzholz  in Tromsø, Norway

Photo Gallery: Ramadan in the Far North Photos
Thomas Grabka/ DER SPIEGEL

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.

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6 total posts
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1. Religious tradition and dogma.
rajhiker 07/26/2014
The relation between a man and his creator is a very personal one. As a white, Christian Protestant (Methodist) and an old one, any religious group can suggest to me how to worship, but I will not tolerate anyone telling me how to worship. Go to Washington, D.C. the Jefferson Memorial, and read what is carved in stone on the ceiling there. That is America's stand on religion, politics, government and most everything else. Islam seems particularly durable over the ages. Catholics long ago stopped requiring only fish on Friday. I pray when I feel the need for it, not by some rigorous schedule, which has now tangled with the land of the midnight sun. Nevertheless, I grant you the right to worship as you please. I expect the same from you in return. Tennessee hillbilly.
2. Tromsø
broremann 07/26/2014
I know this is a serious problem, but it has a comedy ring about it-
3.
kim87 07/27/2014
This article contains a flat out lie, and I am surprised that Spiegel would publish an article without checking some basics facts beforehand. The sentence; “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”. That never happened, Norway has never ever recruited workers from those countries, immigrants from Maghreb and Pakistan started to show up at their own desire at the end of the 1960s, and they came at their own volition, they were not invited, nor was immigrants from those countries mentioned in any way related to the oil or the gas industry as most of them came to work in low educated professions. I expect that Spiegel will remove that sentence from the article, and actually use articles from people who have actually does some research before writing a article.
4.
Rubayat 07/28/2014
This was a fascinating read. I just thought I'd mention a few other points for Non-Muslim readers; the article mentions that Muslims will be allowed to engage in sexual relations after the Ramadan has concluded. While this is true, Muslims are also permitted to have sexual relations with their spouses during the nights of Ramadan, simply because the exemption is only made when the fast is being kept, which would be day time. Secondly, the author also mentioned earlier during the piece how Muslims were exempt from fasting if ill; that would mean the man mentioned at the end, Mansoor Waizy, could have skipped his fast for that day if he really had been ill. Either way, this was a fascinating insight into the lives of Muslims in parts of the world where traditional rules simply don't seem to fit in. Keep up the good work.
5. Arctic Ramadan
johnmburt1960 08/01/2014
This situation reminds me of science fiction stories in which people try to determine when Samhain falls on an alien planet or whether Rigellian Swampworms are kosher.
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