Ramadan in St Petersburg – the city where the sun doesn’t set

Muslim authorities in northern Russia say wait of up to 22 hours to break fast is simply an extra challenge to faith

By Alec Luhn 

When Ramadan starts on Thursday, the faithful in St Petersburg and elsewhere in northern Russia will face an obstacle that the prophet surely didn’t envision: in June, the sun never truly sets.

These are the celebrated “white nights”, the period lasting from roughly late May to early July when a few hours of twilight is the closest it gets to true night. Although they are observed across the far north, white nights have the strongest association with St Petersburg, the northernmost city with a population of more than 1 million and Russia’s unofficial cultural capital.

For the city’s Muslim population, it’s an exacting time. The Qur’an makes exceptions to the Ramadan fast for people suffering from illness, travellers and women who are menstruating or pregnant. But it does not give explicit instructions on observing the fast in the far north.

According to some St Petersburg Muslim authorities, the long-lasting daylight in the city at this time of year is simply an extra challenge to their faith.

“In St Petersburg, Muslims see this as a test. In the time that is now starting they will observe the fast,” said an employee of the St Petersburg and Northwest Regional Muslim Spiritual Centre, who declined to give his name. “Those Muslims who are observing the fast will wait 21-22 hours to break the fast, they will eat for only three hours.”

When asked about the difficulty of keeping to this strict schedule, he said it was no burden for the faithful. “Islam is a way of life,” he said. “For us, fasting is the same as getting up in the morning and brushing your teeth.”

Yelizaveta Izmailova, an administrator at a local school who is originally from the largely Muslim region of Ingushetia, said her parents, brother, sister and husband all observed the Ramadan fast with her, following a schedule handed out each week at the central mosque.

“This month, the time for breaking the fast is really late. We don’t eat or drink from the morning prayer, at about two in the morning, until the sun goes down at around 10pm,” Izmailova said, explaining that twilight typically arrived as late as 10.30pm in June. “Of course, this is a heavy burden for the human body, but every Muslim makes this choice consciously.”

Although there are no exact figures on how many Muslims live in St Petersburg, last year’s Eid al-Fitr festivities, which mark the end of Ramadan fasting, drew 42,000 worshippers to the city’s two main mosques, according to the interior ministry. As often happens on major holidays, most could not fit inside and had to take part from the street.

Some Muslim scholars have written that residents of northern regions can forgo the fasting ritual, which is meant as a way to strengthen the will and rule over desires.

“According to the instructions of the Holy Qur’an, fasting in regions [near the poles] is never obligatory, for it is established as such only for a set amount of days, that is, in those places where night and day are comparable in length,” Russian Tatar scholar Musa Bigiev wrote in a text on fasting.

Other religious literature suggests that Muslims living in the far north can observe the Ramadan fast according to the time of sunrise and sunset in Mecca or the nearest Muslim city.

In many cases, those performing hard manual labour don’t fast for safety reasons. Many of the Muslims in St Petersburg are migrants from former Soviet republics in central Asia and the Caucasus working in construction and other low-wage industries. The labour ministry approved a quota of 164,000 migrant workers in St Petersburg in 2014, but the actual number is likely to be much higher.

Shakir, a metal-worker originally from Tajikistan, said generally only the elderly and those without work followed the fast in St Petersburg.

“I have a hard job, I can’t observe it,” he said. “The day is long, and you can’t drink water or eat before the sunset. For that reason not everyone observes it … There aren’t any white nights where [most] Muslims live.”

This article was originally published in the Guardian.

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