Arctic Islam: the Midnight Sun, the ‘Isha Prayer, and Islamic Law and Practice

The Nord Kamal Mosque in Norilsk, Russia is the northernmost mosque in the world

“No major religion’s daily ritual observances are tied more closely to the movement of the Sun than Islam’s, so what do they do when the Sun never rises or sets?”1) This question provides an entry point for an analysis of the impact of the Arctic on Islamic law and practice. Universal religions, such as Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism, frequently reach geographic areas far removed from their region of origin in their search for new converts.2) Islam, for example, is prominent throughout Asia and North Africa, having spread far beyond its beginnings on the Arabian Peninsula. An important consequence of this aspect of universal religions is the necessity of adapting to widely divergent cultures and climates. One of the most complicated such adaptations is that of Islam to the Arctic.

This article will use the term “the latitudinal problem” to describe the difficulty of reconciling Islamic practice with Arctic conditions. I will explore the latitudinal problem through three different time periods: medieval, the nineteenth century, and the modern day. In the medieval period, Muslim travelers to the northern regions remarked on the starkness of Arctic solar conditions, but rarely considered the practical implications for Islamic practice. In the nineteenth century, Islamic reformists clashed with religious authorities on the possibility for ijtihad (independent legal reasoning) concerning the ‘isha prayer. In the contemporary world, Muslims in the Arctic must navigate global problems including skepticism of migrants, ethnic division, religious extremism, and securitization. Still, Arctic Islam retains an important distinctiveness due to the unique challenges posed by the climate and solar conditions. This article will show that far from being a remote region with little importance for Islamic thought and practice, the Arctic instead raises profound questions of religious evolution and legal authority that resonate through the entirety of the Islamic world and beyond.

Introduction to Islamic practices affected by the Arctic

All Muslims are required to fulfill the five pillars of Islam. Two of these pillars are affected by the latitudinal location of the practitioner. The first is fasting during the month of Ramadan. According to the Qur’an, Muslims must fast from dawn to sunset during Ramadan. The second relevant pillar of Islam are the five daily prayers: FajrDhuhr‘AsrMaghrib, and ‘IshaMaghrib and ‘Isha are undertaken at sunset and twilight respectively.3) Both Ramadan fasting and the daily prayers were developed in the Islamic homeland of the Arabian Peninsula. As such, the timing of such activities is based on the solar behavior of that region. In the Arctic, however, the conditions are quite different. In exceptionally high latitudes, 24-hour day or nights occur, removing any solar context for fasting or daily prayers. In lower latitudes, the timing of prayers will be affected and the length of Ramadan fasting will be either far more or far less demanding than was originally intended.4) Muslims, both religious scholars and lay practitioners, have grappled with the effects of latitude on Islamic practice for several centuries. The first to do so were travelers to then remote and largely unknown regions.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s