By Adis Duderija, New Age Islam
First a disclaimer. What follows below is not meant to be an exhaustive or academic treatment of the issue at hand but more or less haphazard reflections and “thinking aloud’ on behalf of the author.
Islam, not unlike other universalist-claiming faiths, faces a number of challenges in the contemporary world ranging from bioethics (eg. Human cloning) to that of politics (relationship between religion, state and society) socio-economic development and education.
Much has been and will be written about these issues, including by this author. This piece of writing will tackle a question that is not as ‘grande’ as those mentioned above which, however, has been just as much debated and contested. The question relates to the issue of fasting, in particular, finding a solution to the question of fasting in geographical areas very close to the earth’s two poles. While this at first, might be considered a very marginal issue, especially compared to those mentioned above, hopefully the merit of discussing this issue and the author’s proposal will be disclosed as the reader reads on. This is so because some of the reasons why this issue is worthy of examination opens the door to other bigger questions pertaining to the Islamic tradition and the shaping of its future contours
Some years ago in the late 1990s I followed some of the discussions of this issue on a number of Muslim forums and websites and to the best of my knowledge two solutions were proposed in relation to the dilemma posed above in relation to fasting:
1. Following the fasting times in Makkah.
2. Having breakfast and dinner as one would normally have if it was not a fasting month.
While I personally do not have problems with any of the two solutions offered above and believe that the question of fasting is a personal matter a following idea (that some other people might have thought of before but I am not aware of): Why not fix the fasting month to that of the month of September when the autumn equinox takes place? Before I address possible objections to this let me elaborate first on, from my point of view, proposal’s benefits.
1.) Unlike the other two solutions this proposal would be closer to the spirit and the letter of the Qur’anic beginning and ending the fasting day cycle because one would be able to commence and end the fast in accordance with the actual sun setting and sun-rising(or dawn braking) times.
2.) The fluctuations in the duration of night and day all around the world is minimised.
3.) The temperatures in both hemispheres are as similar as they can possibly be
4.) More people would be willing to take up the fast
5.) Just like in the lunar calendar the month of fasting would fall be in the same month as it is in the lunar calendar (the ninth month –Ramadan)
Points two and three are particularly important because as all of us who have fasted understand that fasting can be a very demanding task both spiritually and physically often impacting considerably on one’s ability to fulfil one’s responsibilities and duties on a daily basis . (I remember several years ago fasting in Australia’s summer with temperatures constantly in the high thirties to low forties and the daily fasting period exceeding 16 hours’ –fortunately I was a student at the time so was able to complete the fast without major problems but think about the less fortunate people who are exposed to and at the mercy of the weather elements!) . This has important implications in terms of one’s productivity at work and in the case of Muslim majority nations economic performance. ( Now ,please don’t think that I am writing this as an ‘excuse’ for myself for not to fast or to make it easier for me to fast - As a university researcher I am effected much, much less by the harshness of climate than most other people-although I must admit that my productivity does go down somewhat ). It could also potentially have implications for one’s health and well being. Namely, many devout and conscientious Muslims would often fast in conditions under which their health and well-being is put at risk based on their strong desire to please their Lord.
Now, my proposal would to a large extent mitigate the effects of extra long daylight cycles and the harsh climate which would impact upon both the collective and individual productivity and well-being of the people.
Again I would like to stress that this proposal should not be seen as a means of ‘coping out’ because even fasting in the month of September can certainly be demanding in a number of real-life contexts.
I also am not suggesting that fasting, as we are being constantly reminded in khutbas and bayans, is all about refraining from drinking and eating but ,nevertheless, a major component of it is!
Now to possible objections
Probably the first one would relate to switching from the lunar to that of the solar calendar. Now if one considers that many pre-Qur’anic Hijazi practices and customs were incorporated into the budding Qur’anic worldview and the prophet’s Sunnah ranging from cultural mores and norms pertaining to gender relations, modesty and virtues to that of law ( e.g. unilateral right of divorce for males only ,talaq) , war ( women and children taken as war bounty, the prohibited months of fighting) and societal practices ( such as slavery and day of communal weekly day congregation jawm al juma’ah falling on day when people were gathering traditionally in the markets or even the Arabic names of the lunar months themselves) that are often ( mistakenly) considered as an integral part of Islam as an ethico-religious and law system , the proposed new change , I hope , would be seen in a different light and thus more acceptable.
Perhaps the coming about of the institution of the lunar based Hijri calendar is also a pertinent consideration. Hijri calendar was introduced and instituted by the second caliph ‘Umar and thus ought not to be seen as an Qur’ano-Sunnahic practice per se. As such adhering to it is not a question of doctrine or faith.
The second objection would probably relate to the issue of loss of identity and imitating the ‘West’. Now while this certainly has some merit it ought to be evaluated in the broader context. Firstly, regardless whether we like it or not the common era solar Gregorian calendar is, based on the ‘west’s economic ,cultural and political dominance, the internationally accepted civil calendar by which most Muslim conduct their lives in any case. It would have the benefit of non-Muslims (as well as Muslims) knowing exactly when the fasting month starts and ends (like Christmas) in order to foster and facilitate inter-faith sensitivities with the exchange of greeting cards etc . In respect to this I would add that Muslims could also make it a custom to celebrate a life of Jesus Christ ( as some of them already do) in theologically acceptable ways with their Christian friends and neighbours (or the New Year with their humanist secular friends and neighbours-New Year Eve celebrations have lost their religious significance in most places ) in order to foster inter-religious harmony ( here a possible objection would become from a series of isolated ahad and therefore not legally or culturally binding ahadith which stress the importance of distinctiveness of Muslims in relation to customs, festivals and dress that have been abused by many a narrow –minded and semi-informed Muslim and mistakenly interpreted in a decontextualist, a historical and universalist manner . As I have shown elsewhere in a more academic treatment of this subject these and similar ahadith have no place in a holistic and systematic methodology of interpretation of Qur’ano-Sunnahic teachings)
Lastly, related to the last point, the proposal would, even in a small but significant way, move us away from the history of mutual antagonistic identity construction that has been prevalent and in some cases still exists between the ‘Muslim’ and “Western civilisations’( which in actual fact are mere constructions of the Self and the other rather then reflecting actual historical circumstances which point strongly in direction of hybridism and inter-connectivity).
That is it. I am rather pessimistic about this proposal of mine ever taking effect but my aim would have been achieved if I have persuaded the reader to at least consider my proposal seriously and the broader questions relating to the Islamic tradition mentioned above.
Dr. Adis Duderija is a research associate at the University of Melbourne, Islamic Studies. He recently published a book: Constructing a Religiously Ideal "Believer" and "Woman" in Islam: Neo-traditional Salafi and Progressive Muslims' Methods of Interpretation (Palgrave Series in Islamic Theology, Law, and History.