“Oh people! A great month has come over you; a blessed month; a month in which a night is better than a thousand months; a month in which Allah has made it compulsory upon you to fast by day, and voluntary to pray by night,” describes an Islamic hadith (sayings of Prophet Muhammad) about the holy month of Ramadan.
Ramadan is a holy month of restraint observed every year by Muslims around the world, when they must refrain from eating, drinking and engaging in sexual activity between sunrise and sunset.
But since the Islamic calendar follows the lunar cycle, the month of Ramadan gets pushed back 11 days every year. Because of this, Ramadan is now shifting from the shorter winter days of fasting to the much longer and warmer summer days.
For Muslims living in European countries and closer to the Arctic circle, Ramadan is becoming more and more challenging every year. In countries like Finland and Norway, the sun sets for barely three hours. That means Muslims have to fast for more than 20 hours, after which they only have a few hours to eat, drink and prepare for another long stretch of fasting.
“The longer hours of fasting is a challenge for me in many ways,” said Yaser Javed, an electrical engineering student in Sweden. “As I am a student and a part-time worker, it gets hard for me to cook for myself, to study and to get my work done while I’m fasting till 9pm.”
Despite the challenges, Javed said he is still motivated to fast because the holy month of Ramadan only comes once a year and is a way for him to strengthen his religious beliefs.
Ibrahim Afridi, a student in Norway, feels the same. “I feel happy and good to see that I am really achieving the goal of self-restraint. What motivates me is that fasting is the only worship which is for Allah alone,” he said.
Some Muslims have raised concerns over whether any exceptions can be made to allow them to fast according to the time in Mecca, Islam’s holiest city in Saudi Arabia, where fasts are observed for around 13 hours.
But according to well-known Muslim scholar Imam Zaid Shakir, as long as there is visible sunrise and sunset then Muslims should fast according to the times of the country they are in living in. “The length of their day in the summer months will be compensated by the short fast they will experience in the winter months. The fasting is only 29 or 30 days so they can endure hardships, especially when these regions are generally cool during the summer months, “ he said.
Fasting long hours is especially challenging for Muslim athletes who have to undergo hours of training and who must pay special attention to their nutritional intake and diet. At the Olympic Games, there has been a lot of debate about whether Muslim athletes can be exempted from fasting.
The answer to this varies from scholar to scholar. For Dr.Abdal Hakim Murad, a Muslim scholar and Theology lecturer at Cambridge University, Muslim athletes should not fast so long as they pay the Fidya – feeding 60 needy people for every fasting day that was intentionally missed.
But Imam Shakir disagreed. “It is not permissable for a Muslim athlete to break his or her fast for reasons of athletic competition,” he said. He went on to give examples of America’s National Basketball Association (NBA) all-star players, Hakem Oulajowan (who talks about his experience with Ramadan here) and Mahmoud Abdul Rauf (Chris Jackson) who had their greatest games while fasting during Ramadan.
By 2015, Ramadan will fall in midsummer when many parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland won’t get dark at all. This will give rise to greater challenges for Muslims observing fasts in these countries.
For athletes and other Muslims alike, Imam Shakir poses a question to help them decide: “Who do you wish to please? Your Nafs (desires), your country or Allah?”
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