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

January 11, 2022 By Luke Campopiano ArticleClimate and EnvironmentSociety and Culture

A person is entering a blue mosque with snow all around

The Nord Kamal Mosque in Norilsk, Russia is the northernmost mosque in the world. Photo: Igor Sobolev

“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.

Islamic Travellers and Latitudinal Challenges

In 921, Ibn Fadlan, an envoy sent by the Abbasid Caliph, left from Baghdad for the lands of the Volga Bulghars (located near modern-day Kazan, Russia). The leader of the Volga Bulghars had recently converted to Islam and requested assistance from the Caliph in Islamic instruction and the construction of a mosque and fortress. Ibn Fadlan was chosen to be the religious advisor to the Bulghars.5) While Ibn Fadlan’s travel narrative is most famous for its description of a Viking funeral, it also contains an early and fascinating account of “Prayer times during the white nights”:6)

“Day was breaking. I asked the muezzin [man who calls Muslims to prayer]:

‘To which prayer have you called us?’

‘The dawn prayer,’ he said.

‘And the evening prayer?’

‘We say it with the sunset prayer.’

‘And during the night?’‘The night is as you see. They have been even shorter than now, for already they are beginning to lengthen.’”7)

Ibn Fadlan further writes that in the land of the Bulghars, “the days are very long and remain so for a certain part of the year and the nights are short. Then the nights lengthen and the days shorten.”8) Ibn Fadlan is keenly aware of the difficulty of conforming to Islamic practices in such high latitudes, especially given the novelty of the religion to the Bulghars. Although the Bulghars were new to Islam, their leader was cognizant of the political connotations of the mechanics of Islamic practice. The Bulghar king ordered the muezzin to repeat certain phrases of the call to prayer twice, which was discouraged by Ibn Fadlan because it was characteristic of a rival Islamic legal school and thus its use by the Bulghar king “was seen by Ibn Fadlan to be asserting his independence of the Abbasid caliphate” of which Ibn Fadlan was a representative.9) 

Although for Ibn Fadlan the mechanics of Islamic practice were especially important, the importance of the latitudinal challenge declined into a bit of remarkable trivia about a remote and obscure region for later travellers and geographers. In 943, Al-Mas’udi wrote that “[i]n the land of the Bulghars the nights are extremely short during part of the year. They even say that between nightfall and dawn a man barely has time to bring his cooking pot to the boil.”10) In 951, Istakhri wrote that in the city of the Bulghars “the night there is so short in summer that a man cannot travel more than a farsakh [3 to 4 miles or 5 to 6 kilometers].11) In the winter the day is short and the night long, to the point that the day in winter is like the summer nights.”12) A work by Marwazi from around 1130 contained similar information.13) Two centuries later, Al-Umari wrote that, in Bulghar, “the shortest night lasts 4 ½ hours,” while a town “twenty days’ march” to the north had a shortest night of 3 ½ hours.14)

Likely the most famous Muslim traveler to comment on the latitudinal problem was Ibn Battuta, who has gained widespread acclaim for his worldwide wandering from North Africa to places as far afield as India, China, and Eastern Europe from 1325 to 1354.15) Ibn Battuta wrote of the city of the Bulghars that “I reached it during the month of Ramadan, and when we had prayed the sunset prayer we broke our fast; the call to the night prayer was made during our eating of this meal, and by the time that we had prayed the dawn broke.”16) This description, while evocative and even faintly humorous, is regarded with suspicion by later scholars. Tim Mackintosh-Smith argues that Ibn Battuta’s trip to Bulghar is “impossible in the time stated” and “may well be an interpolation by his editor.”17) Similarly, Stephen Janicsek writes that “the trip to and from Bulghar which Ibn Battuta claims to have undertaken is the only narrative in the whole record of his wanderings which seems to be, beyond all doubt, a falsification.”18) Janicsek suggests that Ibn Battuta was familiar with Ibn Fadlan and other writers who had visited the high North and used their accounts to fabricate his visit. In fact, Janicsek goes so far as to suggest that “we may assume with certainty that the alternation of long and short days and nights during the summer and winter at the city of Bulghar was widely known in all the lands of Islam in the Middle Ages.”19)

Thus, we can be confident that the latitudinal problem was widely known in the Islamic medieval period. However, with the exception of Ibn Fadlan, the importance of Islamic practice in such regions was of minimal significance to Muslim thinkers. They considered the population of the northern ‘seventh clime’ to be barbarous at best and apocalyptic at worst. The concept of the climes, inherited by Muslim thinkers from Claudius Ptolemy, described “latitudinal bands…indicative of a place’s distance from the sun which, in turn, determined the relative degree of its hotness or coldness.”20) These climes produced either civilization or barbarism because “[a]n excess of either heat or cold was thought to corrupt a person’s humours, and this had a number of corollary, and unfavourable, effects on appearance, behaviour, habits and ability to think rationally.”21) This environmental approach coincided with eschatological descriptions of the tribes of Gog and Magog breaking free from the northern Land of Darkness and bringing the Apocalypse.22) While the northern regions were important in a cosmological sense, the practical consequences of their latitude for Islamic practice were largely ignored.

Latitudinal Challenges and the Evolution of Islamic Theology

As was discussed in the previous section, Muslim scholars in the medieval period were largely uninterested in practical resolution of the latitudinal problem. As Karim Meziane and Nidhal Guessoum put it, “the problem of the disappearance of the celestial landmarks for some of the five daily prayers did not really pose itself for Muslims, except for the few adventurous travelers who did venture far enough north to experience those situations. This is why we find that only in modern times did such questions start to be posed by Muslims, that is, only after they found themselves living in such places.”23) For regions north of the Arctic circle, this statement is accurate. However, for more southerly areas, such as the former homeland of the Bulghars in modern day Kazan, Russia, the impetus for attempted resolution of the latitudinal problem was not the mere presence of Muslims but instead legal incorporation of their religious communities into a modern state.

The history of the Volga Bulghars was characterized by periods of prosperity brought on by far-reaching trade networks and times of devastation by warring groups. The two main opponents of the Bulghars were the Mongol Khanate and various Rus principalities. In 1431, the Volga Bulghars were finally vanquished, but the Khanate of Kazan arose in their place. By 1552, however, Kazan too had fallen to the Russians. From this point on, the Muslims in the region were under the control of a Christian government.24) According to Nathan Spannaus, “[a]fter the conquest of the khanate of Kazan in 1552 and the subsequent removal of most forms of Muslim political rule, the ulama became the focal point for the Muslim community.25) The ulama was composed of religious and legal leaders who were tasked with preserving the Muslim social order. Although Kazan was a conquered region, for a time the Russian government “operated at arm’s length, peripheral to the quotidian existence of the overwhelming majority of Muslims.”26) This policy of neglect shifted in the mid-1600s to one of persecution of the Muslim minority and attempted conversion.27) Beginning with the rule of Catherine the Great in the 1760s, this policy was again changed to one that “tacitly provided government sanction for Islamic institutions… [and] explicitly asserted the imperial administration’s exclusive right to oversee and regulate those institutions.”28)

Official state sanction led to a strengthening of legal and religious scholarship in the region.29) At the same time, however, the close links of the ulama to the Russian government provoked criticism of its insufficient independence. It was in this cultural context that the reformer Abu Nasr Qursawi (1776–1812) operated. Qursawi argued that “misguidance (ḍalala) is widespread, and people should study these matters, rather than relying on parents or teachers whose knowledge might be defective.”30) Not surprisingly, this viewpoint was unpopular with the regional ulama and Qursawi frequently found himself in intellectual conflict and even physical danger.31) One significant disagreement between Qursawi and the ulama was over the ‘isha prayer. According to most members of Russian ulama, the prayer should not be performed during the summer months when the proper solar conditions cannot be met. Qursawi, on the other hand, argued that the prayer must always be performed and “its timing in summer is a question to be answered through ijtihad.”32) Why was this conflict significant? As Spannaus argues, “[t]he controversy thus hinged upon different visions of who can make this determination: a contemporary scholar individually or the earlier generations of Hanafis collectively. By declaring it a matter for ijtihad, Qurṣawi implies that he, or any qualified scholar, has the authority to determine the time.”33)

Ijtihad is a term that provokes considerable controversy among scholars of Islamic thought. In medieval Islam, ijtihad meant mental exertion by a jurist to discover divine legal principles that were not explicit in the Qur’an. Many scholars have argued that by around 900, the “gate of ijtihad” had been closed and no further independent legal reasoning was necessary.34) This claim about the early end of ijtihad is further complicated by the suggestion that such an occurrence had resulted in Islamic backwardness vis-à-vis the Western world. In the mind of many reformers, “the term ijtihad gradually became separated from the field of Islamic law proper” and “ijtihad became equivalent to progress and rationalism.”35) The example of Qursawi, among many others, shows that the “gate of ijtihad” was never closed in the Islamic world.36)

Contemporary Islamic Practice

As was detailed above, the presence of Islam in the Arctic before the modern day was created by isolated travelers and mass conversions, such as that of the Bulghars. Today, however, most Muslim communities in the Arctic are composed almost entirely of migrants and lack the historical rootedness that characterized Bulghar and Kazan. As such, they have much in common with migrant Muslim communities outside of the Arctic, namely “growing multiethnicity, fight over the institutional control of communities, diverging ideological interpretations of Islam, and securitization trends.”37)

Modern Muslim migration began in Canada in the early twentieth century. Ali Ahmed Abouchadi came to Canada in 1905 from the Beqaa Valley in modern-day Lebanon in hopes of participating in the Klondike Gold Rush. By the time he had arrived, however, the Gold Rush had long since ended. Abouchadi stayed in Canada and became involved in the fur trade.38) He learned the Cree language and eventually settled in Lac La Biche, which would become a focal point for Muslim immigration to Canada in the first half of the twentieth century.39) By 1969, ten percent of the population of Lac La Biche was Muslim, likely the largest percentage of any North American town at the time.40)

Edmonton was another early destination for Muslim immigrants, many of whom came to Canada to avoid obligatory service in the Ottoman military. In 1938, the Muslim community in Edmonton hired the Ukrainian-Canadian builder, Mike Drewoth, to build the first mosque in Canada. The Al Rashid Mosque, noted for its remarkable architectural similarities to Eastern Orthodox churches, was moved to the living history museum of Fort Edmonton Park in 1992.41)

Writing on the subject of Muslims in Canada, Katherine Bullock argues that “[w]hile early and small communities were/are remarkable for their openness—often counting one’s ‘Muslimness’ above sectarian considerations—as a critical mass grew, congregations have segregated not only into sectarian-oriented buildings but also ethnically and ideologically.”42) In Russia, Muslim migrants to the Arctic have come primarily from the Caucuses and Central Asia. These different groups may bring ethnic and religious conflicts with them to Arctic cities. Marlene Laruelle and Sophie Hohmann note a conflict between Caucasians, who belong to the Shafi’i legal school, and other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups, who belong to the Hanafi legal school. Tajiks are “considered more religious than other Muslims and better-trained in Islamic theology.”43) Muslims also face external opposition from nationalist or right-wing groups that oppose migration and a visible Muslim presence such as mosques or women wearing Islamic style clothing.44) These issues can collide, for example, when concerns about radicalized members of Islamic communities result in the destruction of mosques or the prevention of new ones from being built.

While contemporary Muslim communities in the Arctic clearly have many issues in common with those of lower latitudes, they also have unique difficulties and benefits. As elaborated throughout this essay, the difference of Arctic solar conditions from Islamic heartland poses a consistent problem. Indeed, even today, “the solution to undoing, or at least mitigating, this confusion, has been perhaps the foremost faith-related challenge for Norway’s Arctic Islamic communities.”45) Beyond legal debates over the proper way to pray or fast during Ramadan is the simple fact that extraordinarily long days and nights generate a sense of “displacement” for those who grew up in Islamic communities at lower latitudes. Fadwa El Guindi speaks of “a unique rhythm that is characteristically Islamic – a rhythm that expresses and shapes the temporal and spatial worlds, interweaving private and public, secular and religious, ordinary and sacred, life and death. The rhythm never leaves the homeland.”46) Muslim communities in the Arctic must deal with the double dislocation of living apart from culturally and climatically Islamic regions.

The difficulties of the Arctic environment are not limited to sunlight. Mosques built in the Arctic must be adapted to cold temperatures and permafrost. Pre-prayer ablutions, usually performed outside of the mosque, must be moved inside and burials must be deeper than is prescribed in traditional Muslim practice.47) Despite these difficulties, Muslim communities in the Arctic also see significant upsides to their location. Many Arctic cities, especially in Russia, are less likely to have developed historical roots than more southerly cities. This means that Muslim migrants don’t stand out as much because “everybody is a migrant here.”48) Perceptions of the Arctic as pure and clean can also provide economic opportunities. Siberian berries, reindeer meat, and even ice water have been marketed as organic and halal to the broader Muslim market.49) Contemporary Muslim Arctic communities are engaging with many of the same issues that are present in the world at large, while their unique problems and resources grant them a remarkably dynamic position in the global Muslim community.


The history of Islam in the Arctic has a long and varied history, dating back over a millennium. From Ibn Fadlan to Ibn Battuta to Abu Nasr Qursawi to contemporary Arctic Muslims, Arctic Islam has captured the imagination and minds of the global Muslim community. Far from “Un Islam périphérique,” that is of little global importance, Arctic Islam is instead one of the most challenging, innovative, and dynamic regional components of any universal religion.50) Indeed, many of the most fundamental problems in Islamic thought find themselves posed in the practice of Arctic Islam. Is there room for individual legal reasoning? Who gets to decide if there is? Who gets to undertake such reasoning? What are the responsibilities of Muslims living in non-Muslim countries? All of these questions have been generated by Arctic Islam and their resolution has been integral to influential movements such as Islamic reformism or Salafism. Ultimately, we can generalize beyond Islam and the Arctic region to suggest that peripheral regions, borderlands, and other boundaries by their very nature pose profound questions of the core. There are exceptions, extremes, places and things that can only be dismissed as obscure for a while, for such peripheries have a pattern of becoming more important than anyone could have imagined.

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