By Mustafa Akyol
May 14, 2018
This year, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan
begins on Tuesday. That means a big portion of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims,
my coreligionists, will be fasting for 30 days, which is really no easy task.
Every day, from dawn till dusk, they will neither eat any food nor drink a drop
of water. They will be hungry and thirsty but will wait patiently between the
pre-dawn Sahur meal and the Iftar dinner at night — just for the sake of God.
It is a great experience of self-discipline, devotion and piety. It is also a
good opportunity, Islamic scholars often say, for reflecting about and
developing empathy with those who starve because they are destitute.
For some of the world’s most far-flung
Muslims, Ramadan will be even more difficult. These are the Muslims who live in
the high latitudes, where “dawn till dusk” can equal almost the entire 24-hour
day. In Reykjavik, Iceland, for example, which is now home to nearly 1,000
Muslims, the sun will set at midnight, only to come back in about two hours.
That means the fasting time will be as long as 22 hours, allowing for only one
meal a day.
No wonder this challenge has become a major
point of discussion among Muslim scholars in the past few decades, particularly
as increasing numbers of Muslims have migrated to northern countries like
Norway and Sweden. Were the believers among these migrants supposed to follow
the traditional Quranic timetable? Or could there be some gracious adjustment?
Answers varied. Saudi scholars, who
typically represent the most literal and strict interpretation of Sunni Islam,
ruled that no adjustment should be made. In a fatwa, or religious ruling, they
declared that Islamic law is “universal and applies to all people in all
countries.” Perhaps they could not empathize enough with their northern
co-religionists, accustomed as the Saudis are to the mild fasting times in the
Arabian Peninsula, where days are pretty standard in length throughout the year
and fasting never exceeds 15 hours. Muslims nearer to the North Pole,
accordingly, would just have to deal with their bad luck.
Fortunately, other Sunni jurists, such as
those at Al-Azhar University in Egypt, have been a bit more amenable. Two
compromises have been offered: Muslims in extremely high latitudes could ignore
the natural day in their location and follow the timetables in Mecca or the
nearest Muslim-majority country. This has allowed some Icelandic Muslims, for
example, to follow the time in Turkey and fast for 18 hours instead of 22,
allowing for a breakfast and a dinner during the waxing and waning hours of
This practical solution to a problem of
jurisprudence must be welcome in the high latitudes. But it also raises a more
complex, two-part theoretical question that is often ignored by Islam’s jurists
but that deserves to be probed because it’s at the tip of a theological
iceberg: How historical is the Quran’s language? And how literally should it be
This is a question raised by modern Muslim
theologians like Fazlur Rahman Malik, who died in 1988; his reformist ideas led
to his exile from his home country, Pakistan, and then to a safe haven at the
University of Chicago. Like every Muslim worthy of the name, Dr. Rahman
believed that the Quran is the word of God revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.
Yet, in Dr. Rahman’s opinion, God had not
spoken in a vacuum. He had instead spoken to a specific community, the Arabs,
and at a specific time, the early seventh century. This context, Dr. Rahman
argued, played a role in the composition of the Quran’s text. And when new
contexts arose, the injunctions of the Quran had to be reinterpreted in the
light of the moral intentions behind the text.
The discussion over fasting is, in fact, a
minor case of the need for such reinterpretations. Some more important issues
include corporal punishments, which create some of the most controversial
perceptions of Islam in the modern world. The Quran, in fact, is free of some
of the harsh corporal punishments commonly associated with Islamic law — such
as stoning of adulterers — but it does include others. “As for the thieves,” it
decrees, “amputate their hands in recompense for what they committed.”
The Saudis take that Quranic injunction
literally and carry it out without any doubt. So do the Iranians and the
Sudanese. They see it is a commandment from God that must be obeyed as is.
Yet there is also a contextual way of
understanding God’s commandments. As explained by another proponent of reform
within Islam, the Moroccan scholar Mohammed Abed al-Jabri, who died in 2010,
there were simply no prisons in early-seventh-century Arabia, where the Quran
was revealed. There was no state bureaucracy to run jails in a society that
lived in tents and huts, so detaining and feeding someone within strong walls
were neither possible nor feasible. As a result, all punishments had to be
immediate, and corporal.
No wonder pre-Islamic Arabs also punished
theft with the amputation of hands, as we learn from Islamic literature itself;
the Quran simply affirmed this tradition. Therefore, in Dr. Jabri’s view, the
Quran’s verdict on theft was that it is a crime that should be punished by
Today, these means can be fines or prison
sentences — a step forward that the Ottoman Empire, the very seat of the
caliphate, had already taken in its Penal Code of 1858, which was influenced by
French legal norms.
Conservative Muslims may find this
interpretive take on the Quran too permissive. But even they do not take
literally the Quran’s call to build self-defence by raising “war horses.”
Instead, the call is interpreted to mean that the mounts are a reference to
And while the Saudi clerics may insist on
taking the Quran literally on fasting for 22 hours from dawn till dusk, a
future Muslim colony right at the North Pole, which gets only darkness at the
winter solstice and only daylight at the arrival of summer — or, more
radically, on Mars — would force even them to change their minds.
The heart of the matter is that Islam is
facing a challenge that Jews and Christians have also faced in the past few
centuries: There are new realities in the world, and we should figure out how
much of our religious tradition is meant to be preserved as it was at its
genesis. It is easy to say that God has already given us all the answers. But
it may be more prudent to say that he also gave us the reason to think, rethink
and reinterpret the meaning of his words.
Mustafa Akyol, a contributing opinion writer, is the author, most
recently, of “The Islamic Jesus.”