Is Islam Universal?! Prayer Ordained Where the Sun Never Sets!

Question and answer details
Islam is said to be universal. Unlike previous religions, Islam is meant for all people, at any time, any place, and under all circumstances. My question is, how do people living in upper Canada, Scandinavia and other northern places perform their five daily prayers when there are months when the sun never sets (a phenomenon known as the midnight sun)? Or during others when darkness stays for months? Someone living there will probably find Islam's daily prayers irrelevant to his living conditions (and yes, of course, there were people living there 1400 years ago too). Well, I know that today, in cities like Yellowknife in upper Canada, they simply follow the prayer times of another city south of Canada where the phenomenon doesn't occur (in this case, Edmonton). I guess the real question is: how could a universal religion ask people to follow something which doesn't occur on the whole planet?
Jasser Auda
Salam Dear Brother,

Thank you for your question and for contacting Ask About Islam.

The example that you are mentioning here as something that is at odds with the universality of the message of Islam, is the very same example that could be used to argue otherwise.

In fact, the whole reasoning process in the Islamic law (referred to as 'ijtihad'), is based on the 'universality' feature of the Islamic law. The following aims at providing an outline of how this feature of universality works in the system of Islamic law.

Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was sent as a human example to all mankind. But because of the very fact that he was 'human', Muhammad gave as that example in a specific geographical location (Arabia) and in a specific point in history (7th century CE). There is no possible human way by which the example of the Prophet could be introduced free from the dimensions of space and time.

The Muslim scholar, Al-Tahir Ibn Ashur wrote a chapter of a book on a purpose and a high principle of Islamic law, which he called, 'The Universality of the Islamic Law.' In this chapter, Ibn Ashur considered the effect of the Arabic dimensions of history, geography, and customs on the Islamic scripts themselves. The following is a summary of Ibn Ashur's argument.

First, Ibn Ashur explained that it is necessary for the Islamic law to be a universal law, since it claims to be "applicable to all humankind everywhere on earth and at all times," as per a number of Quranic verses and hadith that he cited.

Ibn Ashur mentioned, for example:

{Now as for you, O Mohammad, We have not sent you otherwise than to mankind at large.} (Sabaa 34:28)

{Say [O Mohammad]: "O mankind! Verily, I am an Apostle to all of you."} (Al-Aaraf 7:158)

and the hadith: "An apostle used to be sent specifically to his own people, while I have been sent to all of mankind." (Al-Bukhari)

Then, Ibn Ashur elaborated on the wisdoms behind choosing the Prophet from amongst Arabs, such as the Arabs' isolation from civilization, which prepared them, "to mix and associate openly with other nations with whom they had no hostilities, in contrast to Persians, Byzantines, and Copts." (Ibn Ashur, Maqasid Al-Shariah Al-Islamiyah, ed. Mohamed El-Tahir El-Mesawi, Kuala Lumpur: Al-Fajr, 1999.p. 234.)

Yet, for the Islamic law to be universal, "its rules and commands should apply equally to all human beings as much as possible," as Ibn Ashur confirmed. That is why, he wrote, "God had based the Islamic law on wisdoms and reasons that can be perceived by the mind and which do not change according to nations and custom."

Thus, Ibn Ashur provided explanation as to why the Prophet forbade his companions to write down what he says, "lest particular cases be taken as universal rules." Ibn Ashur began applying his ideas to a number of narrations, in an attempt to filter out the Arabic dimension from Islamic rulings. He wrote:

Therefore, Islamic law does not concern itself with determining what kind of dress, house, or mount people should use ... Accordingly, we can establish that the customs and mores of a particular people have no right, as such, to be imposed on other people as legislation, not even the people who originated them ...

This method of interpretation has removed much confusion that faced scholars in understanding the reasons why the law prohibited certain practices… such as the prohibition for women to add hair extensions, to cleave their teeth, or to tattoo themselves...

The correct meaning of this, in my view... is that these practices mentioned in Hadith were, according to Arabs, signs of a woman's lack of chastity. Therefore, prohibiting these practices was actually aimed at certain evil motives … Similarly, we read: ... {believing women should draw over themselves some of their outer garments'} (Al-Ahzab 33:59)… This is a legislation that took into consideration an Arab tradition, and therefore does not necessarily apply to women who do not wear this style of dress… Ibn Ashur, Maqasid Al-Shariah Al-Islamiyah, p.236)

Therefore, based on the purpose of 'universality' of the Islamic law, Ibn Ashur suggested a method of interpreting narrations through understanding their underlying Arabic historical and geographical context, rather than treating them as absolute and unqualified rules.

Now, to answer your specific question, I would say that the timings of the Islamic regular five daily prayers are not set in stone and are not only subject to the 'signs' shown by the sun in the middle parts of earth.

The five prayers do indeed apply in the other remote parts of earth but require some 'ijtihad', or free thinking, in order to decide about prayer times in light of our understanding of the wisdoms and purposes behind the five prayers.

The purpose of prayers is to face God and pray for him in a certain way regularly over every 24 hours. Thus, the opinions that asked Muslims to either pray according to the nearest major city with regular timings, or according to an even distribution of prayers over 5 intervals regardless of the light/darkness, are all valid opinions. They only show the flexibility of the Islamic law.

I hope this answers your question. Please keep in touch.


Useful Links:

Islam, Universalism, and Relativism

Universality and Humanism

On the Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence

Renewal of Islamic Law

Islamic Law, Fatwas, and Muslim Scholars Today