Q. In some parts of the world, the sun either never sets during the summer months or just sets for a very short time. Some scholars suggest using the time of the nearest location where the sun sets as a guide, but that can still result in 18 to 20 hours of fasting during Ramadan. What should the limit be on the number of hours for observing the fast in places way above or below the equator even where the sun sets, but where the days can be extremely long during the summer months?
A. There are several opinions on the issue, all the obvious result of ijtihad, since the Qur'an, in the view of most, says nothing on the issue. The Qur'an does give us a guide which is general in all affairs, but rather significantly, occurs in the very verses on fasting. In 2:185, the Qur'an says: "Indeed God wants that which is easy for you, not that which is overbearing." How does one approach the concept of fasting in the northern or southern countries then? One opinion is that we take the day/night durations of Mecca or Medina and apply them to these regions. This is based on the premise that Mecca/Medina is where the Prophet (s) lived and the Qur'an was revealed there. The Qur'an is also in Arabic, and therefore it would seem appropriate to take Arab norms, language, geography, climate, etc. as its standard. This opinion, however, seems to force an Arabism on Islam that detracts from the religion's universality.
Another opinion is that the timing of the nearest region that has sunset be taken, but that too also leads to unusually long periods. Another opinion is to try to calculate an average earth day, i.e. by taking the shortest/longest day on both sides of the equator, and then dividing the sum of both sides by two to get an average number of hours. Yet another opinion is to take the average day of the region itself by measuring the sunrise/sunset over a 365-day period, and using that as the standard. If such an average is within 12-14 hours, then it seems within the capability of most people. If it is longer and results in the 18-20 hours mentioned in your question, there is a problem. The Qur'an, in addition to the verse already mentioned, underlines God's mercy by telling us that: "Allah does not tax any being over its capability…"Q2:286. Fasting is not meant to induce starvation and health risk, but to teach TAQWA -- conscientiousness and awareness of the Divine.
Once could measure the shortest and longest days in the region and divide the combined number of hours by two and use that as an average day for fasting during the summer months. One could also take the longest day of the winter months as that which is workable, or one could take the average of the day in the winter months. Of course the question could arise as to why one could not take the shortest day. In this case, one has to resort to some sort of ratiocination and realize that whereas the outward aspect of fasting may seem to be achieved over a 4-hour period, certainly the "feeling" does not occur.
Solely on the basis of istihsaan, my suggestion is -- and this is only a recommendation as the Muslim authorities in those applicable regions are presumably well aware of the principles that are allowed in Islamic law for arriving at their decision -- that the fasting day be based on the "earth day" calculation. Based on our research, an average earth day equates to roughly 12 hours of sunlight, so given this average then, and with the Qur'anic goal in mind, I would assume that a person in the northern or southern region, taking into consideration the normal commencement of the work day, etc., could start the fast at approximately 6:00am and end it at 6:00pm. One may opt to fast a little longer depending on one's capability. I realize that there are some Muslims who for whatever reason (be it stamina, strict adherence to the tradition, etc.) will view my suggestion as heresy and stick to the dawn and sunset times in their regions regardless of the extremely long summer days. My recommendation is for those Muslims who concur that Allah does not want the fast to be overly burdensome on us. And Allah knows best.
Webmaster's Note: In Alaska, the sun barely sets during the summer months and there is about three hours of daylight during the winter months. Since posting this Q&A, we've read that a Muslim community in Alaska decided to fast 12 hours daily during Ramadan regardless of the time of year. We feel that this decision is in line with our view and also the spirit of the Qur'an as outlined in the answer above. (April 9, 2011)
June 30, 2014: The graphic below shows the vast difference in the length of the daily fast during Ramadan depending on one's location and the time of year.
November 10, 2002