The Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from sun up until sun down, is drawing to a close. Since Islam follows the lunar calendar, the dates of the fast change every year. This time around, it falls on the longest days of summer in Alaska, when the sun hardly sets. But for some local Muslims, that’s not the obstacle they worry about.
As soon as the call to prayer begins at the masjid, or mosque, in Anchorage, Faten Najjar offers me a plate of dates.
“What we keep doing, the first thing, we keep eating dates,” she explains. “And then we drink water, and then we pray.”
We chew on our fruit then head into the small room where the women pray. This evening, Najjar, her daughter, and I are alone. They face a TV screen that shows what the religious leader is doing in the men’s room. In Islam, men and women pray separately.
After a few minutes, it’s time to really eat. The table is filled with large dishes of fish, meats, and rice, many of which Najjar cooked to share. This is a time of joy for her.
“When I fast, I feel… like rest between me and God. I feel what I’m doing now, cooking, I feel happiness with this.”
We settle down to eat, but here’s the catch. It’s only a little after 7 pm, and the sun is still up. Youssef Barbour, one of the masjid’s religious leaders, explains that for communities in the far north, with extreme daylight hours, Muslim scholars decided it was okay to follow the sunlight clock for Mecca, Islam’s holiest city. That means fasting for about 15 hours, not 19.
“We like to follow the Prophet Muhammad’s laws [peace be upon him] and everything he does,” he says. “So we find ourselves here in Alaska, in a place that we know that the Prophet Muhammad has never been in such a place, and so to fast until sunset, according to the sun and not according the tradition is really a guess. What would the Prophet Mohammed do if he really was in such a place?”
Barbour says some people follow local time and others follow Mecca; it depends on what feels right to each person. He says the timing isn’t as important as the fast itself, which helps people become more conscientious of God. And when people fast together as a community during Ramadan, which is also a season of blessing and forgiveness, they are supported through the struggle.
This is Aisha Jackson’s first fast. She just converted to Islam four months ago. “It’s going good. I’m very, very happy. I feel great. Alhamdulillah. Let’s just say it was hard at first, but now I’m okay.”
This year, Jackson decided to fast by Mecca time, but she doesn’t think she will in the future. “I just feel that this, this is good, but I think Allah put you where you are supposed to be and you should be going with where you’re supposed to be but he knows where you are so he wouldn’t do anything too hard for you. So, I think, insha’Allah [God willing], I’ll do Alaska, or local time.”
For Jackson, her biggest challenge isn’t the fast. It’s working up the courage to wear her hijab, or headscarf, in public.
“Yeah, with everything that’s in the world you know…It makes me a little fearful. Insha’Allah, God will make it right.”
Najjar expresses similar concerns. She doesn’t wear her hijab to work because people look at her differently, and she’s scared that she could be fired. Her friends have similar fears and have been harassed for covering their hair. She says she already hears many negative comments about Islam and violence, especially in the wake of the Orlando attack.
“Always ‘Muslim, Muslim, Muslim.’ ‘Muslim bad.’ What can I do?” she sighs. “I get quite. I get hurt feeling.”
Islam does not condone violence, especially against innocent people.
Another family, who follows local time for the fast, decided not to be part of this story because they also feared community backlash against Muslims.
Despite these feelings of unease in public, Najjar still comes to the masjid every night to break the fast and pray with others.
“I will be so sad when Ramadan over. Because this is the month that God [grants] forgiveness. This is the month that God will give more hasana, more good blessing to the person.”
For Najjar and others, it’s a time for community and connection, when a long summertime fast isn’t a burden, but a blessing.