Five prayers a day are compulsory in Islam. However, in the extreme Polar Regions a day or a night lasts six months each, in the sense that the sun is always visible or always invisible. So, how does one pray there?
This objection has often been raised by anti-religious and atheistic people to question the universality of Islam. They seek to argue that whilst Islam claims acceptance as a world-wide or universal religion its rules (for example, for fasting or the obligatory prayers) are not practicable in the extreme polar regions.
From the outset, it must be understood that no system, for example in economics or finance, has ever reached the universality Islam has attained and continues to sustain. Today we have a diverse range of systems which are so riddled with defects that one is ashamed to describe them as true or universal. Amongst them, many were revised during the lifetime of their founder. To take an example, the Marxist economic system was revised by Marx himself with the aid of Engels and at each subsequent ‘International’ it was further modified and each time took on a different guise, until it has completely collapsed.
What is true of the economic systems we have today is also true of all man-made systems whatever. The obvious reason for their defects, and failure, is that they are man-made.
But what percentage of the world’s population actually lives in the extreme Polar Regions? Can it be right to criticize Islam for failing to be practicable by, at most, one-fifth of one percent of the population of the world? The norms and the rules of Islam are practicable by the overwhelming majority of mankind: that is a justifiable ground for claiming universality for those norms and rules. To use the extreme, exceptional case to criticize the rule instead of (as the well-known saying tells us to do) understanding that the exception proves the rule, shows that those who raise these doubts do so out of motives which cannot be reconciled with either sincerity or a truly scientific curiosity. The question asked is an abstract, hypothetical one, Do Muslims actually reside in those remote, Polar Regions? Is the question asked because there are Muslims who really face the problem of establishing regular prayer in such regions?
But let those who do ask this question in a sincere spirit be assured that Islam has not left Muslims without the means to resolve such matters. In fact, this question was settled in the earliest periods of Islam. A certain conversation took place between the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace, and his Companions, which is recorded in the Sahih of Imam Bukhari and Ahmad bin Hanbal’s Musnad. In this hadith, the Prophet, upon him be peace, said: When people turn away from religion Dajjal appears. Another tradition goes on to say: Dajjal comes out of the east and travels the whole world, from beginning to end, in forty days. One of his days is equal to your one year. Another of his day is one of your months, and yet another of his days is one of your weeks, and the others are like your days. And the Companions asked: Will the five occasions of prayer suffice for a day that is one year long? And the Prophet answered: No! but you reckon and calculate at that time (Tirmidhi, Fitan, 57; Majma’ al-Zawa’id, 7,351). The meaning is that you must divide those months which are a day and night long into sections and pray accordingly.
When Islamic jurists give consideration to these issues, they can be resolved; the problem is eased and the question no longer seems so difficult. From Imam Shafi’i’s Al-Umm, to the Minhaj of the Shafi’i school, to the books of the Hanafi school, and in the Commentary of al-Tahtawi in all of them this matter is dealt with and resolved unanimously. The judgement of these great scholars of Islam can be found in their chapters on prayers and their timing. We touch upon only a couple of points they raise, which are relevant to our question.
Just as it is necessary and natural to wake up in the morning, eat, drink, etc., and sleep at night, it is also natural to perform prayers within the given periods of time. For our physical needs we follow innate laws even in regions where the sun never sets or rises for months. So also, we follow harmoniously the laws of religion in praying, fasting, and pilgrimage.
In short, it is certain that Islam has not failed to anticipate the question raised here for whatever motive, it was raised. Islam has established the principle of following and obeying the timetable of the closest region for which a timetable has been duly established.
It is appropriate here to dwell upon another issue. Some people have argued that if the period for prayer does not happen then the prayer is not compulsory. In this argument, time is considered as a cause or condition for prayer. But the real cause for prayer is that God commands it. Therefore, even though time periods do not occur to, as it were, prompt a prayer, that prayer must be performed at the nearest times available. That is another application of the mode of reasoning which was applied in the question of if and how to pray in the extreme Polar Regions.