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Canada’s geographic quirks pose challenges for fasting Muslims

Inuvik engineer Ahmad Alkhalaf leaves the Midnight Sun Mosque following the afternoon prayer service.

Terry Halifax

When Amier Suliman first arrived in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, in the summer of 1995, he was in for quite the surprise.

"I didn't know the sun was going to be out all the time," said Mr. Suliman, a businessman and government contractor. "No one had told me this before I got there."

Mr. Suliman learned quickly, of course, that the sun wasn't going to set for a very long time.

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And soon after his arrival in the Far North from Toronto, Ramadan began, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. It is a time when devout Muslims such as Mr. Suliman abstain from food, drink and other pleasures in daylight hours to commemorate the revelation of the Koran to Mohammed.

With perpetual daylight, this posed a challenge: Was it at all realistic, or even possible, to fast for an entire month?

Muslim Canadians, many of whom began observing this year's Ramadan at sundown Thursday, have long been forced to deal with the peculiarities of Canadian geography.

Islamic scholars have ruled that in Far North places such as Inuvik, Muslims can go by the time of cities in the south. So for Mr. Suliman and the roughly 100 observant Muslims in Inuvik, when the sun sets in Winnipeg it also sets in Inuvik, at least for the purposes of Ramadan. Otherwise, Muslims in the North would be fasting non-stop for an entire month.

"Ramadan is about self-purification," Mr. Suliman said. "It doesn't matter if the light is on or if the light is off. This is about spiritual healing."

Ahmad Alkhalaf, an engineer who also lives in Inuvik, says observing Ramadan in the North still requires a bit of an adjustment, even though he has lived there for 11 years.

"You're supposed to break your fast when it's dusk and we eat when the sun is out. So it's psychologically tough for the first couple of days," he said. "But we follow time, more than what we're seeing outside. Otherwise we wouldn't be able to do this. It's an abnormal situation."

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Even following Winnipeg time can be a test. "We will be fasting for about 18 hours," Mr. Alkhalaf said. "And 18 hours for anybody to not eat or drink is where the main challenge can come in."

Many Muslims have come to Canada from places much closer to the equator, where days are considerably shorter. Even in Canada's most southerly cities, such as Toronto and Vancouver, there is still around 15 hours of sunlight.

In Egypt, Muslims are getting less than 14 hours a day. In Yemen, they're barely getting more than 12.

But the physical demands of fasting in extended daylight in Canada go beyond the potential of extended hunger. Zafar Bangash, director of the Islamic Society of York Region, just north of Toronto, says exhaustion is also a factor.

"Most people have to get up at 3:30 a.m. to get their morning breakfast," Mr. Bangash said. "Then we break fast close to nine at night. But that's not the end of the day because we have the nightly prayers that go until midnight."

Every year, Ramadan moves back about 10 days. So next year, days will be even longer. In 2015, Ramadan will begin on June 18, meaning that observant Muslims will have to fast during the summer solstice, the longest day of the year.

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"Naturally it's hard, but that's the whole idea of Ramadan: To teach us patience and perseverance, and to make us aware of the fact that there are millions of people that are less fortunate than ourselves," Mr. Bangash said.

Four years ago, Syed Asif Ali, director of the Islamic Society of Nunavut, decided to fast according to local time in Iqaluit, translating to about a 20-hour-a-day fast. He says it was no problem.

"When you have strong beliefs, it becomes absolutely easy," Mr. Ali said from his office in Iqaluit. "Fasting is not just keeping yourself hungry; fasting is about not cheating, not lying. It's about control."

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About the Author
News reporter

Daniel Bitonti is a Vancouver-based reporter with The Globe and Mail. Before joining the bureau, Daniel spent six months on the copy desk in the Globe’s Toronto newsroom after completing a journalism degree at Carleton University. More


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