Sunday, 19 August 2012

Philosophical Investigations: The Limits and Importance of Locality

The BBC has an interesting story about Ramadan. In Northern Finland, the hours of daylight are at present extensive:

Practising Muslims across the world are observing Ramadan. For one month, they are fasting between first light and sunset. But what do Muslims do in a town where the sun never really goes down?

The town of Rovaniemi in Finland lies in a land of extremes. At 66 degrees north it straddles the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland. During midwinter it is cloaked in total darkness. But in the summer it is bathed in daylight. The long days pose a particular problem for fasting Muslims like Shah Jalal Miah Masud.  The 28-year-old moved to Rovaniemi - 830km (515 mile) north of the capital, Helsinki - from Bangladesh five years ago to study IT. He has not had any food or water for 21 hours. And he laughs: "It doesn't get dark. It always looks like the same, the sun is always on the horizon and it's quite difficult to get what the time is actually right now," he says. (1)

But there are ways to avoid the problems with "the land of the midnight sun", to mark the duration of fasting hours by the rising and setting of the sun in countries far to the south of Finland.

Dr Abdul Mannan - a local Imam and president of the Islam Society of Northern Finland - says there are two schools of thought. "The Egyptian scholars say that if the days are long - more than 18 hours - then you can follow the Mecca time or Medina time, or the nearest Muslim country time," says Dr Mannan. "The other (point of view) from the Saudi scholars says whatever the day is - long or short - you have to follow the local time." Dr Mannan says the majority of Muslims in northern Finland observe either Mecca's fasting hours or Turkish time because it is the nearest Muslim country to Finland. (1)

But the way in which doubts creep in can be seen with Nafisa Yeasmin, a researcher at the University of Lapland; for her, choosing when to fast has not been an easy decision. "It was very difficult to follow because in Bangladesh we are used to 12 hours' daytime and 12 hours' night-time," she says. "Then I thought, not any more. I have to follow Mecca's timetable. But I'm a little bit worried whether Allah will accept it or not."

It shows how localised geographical customs can cause problems because they were not originally created with universal practice in mind, in a world where geography can effect how they are practiced.

The problem is not one just for Islam - Wicca, and Neopagan revival traditions which follow the "Wheel of the Year", have reverse their practice in the Southern Hemisphere. Celebration of Samhain, which takes place on 31 October, the secular Halloween, has been swapped with Beltane, on the grounds that it precedes the winter solstice, which takes place in Australia and New Zealand in the Northern hemisphere's summer. That of course has its own problems - the equatorial regions do not have a solstice, so presumably any Wiccans living in Africa (if there are any!) would follow a Northern or Southern pattern, much like the adaptation of Islam.

But what of space? The International Space Station has its own rhythms of day and night, and certainly doesn't have a solstice in the traditional sense. If there were moonbases, or even settlements in the future on Mars, how would they adapt to the new geography, and where would Muslims turn to face Mecca? It's hard to bow down when the line of sight might be overhead.

In contrast, Christianity is not time bound to locality, but has its own circular time mapped onto calendar months. That's all very well, but in a possible world, travel towards near light speeds would cause "slippage", and which time basis would be used then? On the earth calendar, the parallel earth seasons would slip by in days or even hours.

That's not to say that local customs don't have their place. The celebration of geographical custom, in a particular locality, undoubtedly has a strong effect in binding people to the rhythms of the seasons. This still persists even in secular society with folk customs - in Jersey, cider making in the autumn, black butter making on dark nights as winter begins, all bring community together. That's one function of both shared customs and rituals. If we forget the seasonal aspects of life, as urban industrial civilisation is prone to do, we are both poorer for that, and the detachment from the roots in the land and its seasons can lead to a dismissive attitude towards ecology and the environment, or one which fails to grasp the bigger picture - buying carbon credits as an offset to produce a large carbon footprint means there is no engagement with the issues at hand.

But we should treat locality lightly. To be worried if Allah will accept a custom or not shows what can happen if there's too rigid an adherence. The Egyptian scholars take a more pragmatic view. The Saudi scholars have a much rigid line. And it is the rigid lines that bring about fear, and the purpose of the ritual can be destroyed by anxiety. Neopagans often have a much more relaxed attitude to ritual - if something doesn't go quite according to plan, just carry on, don't worry. Any ritual, any custom, religious or secular, should be life enhancing, and also help us to engage with the world.

And tonight, there's the blessing of the waters at St Aubin's harbour; a reminder that engagement towards those go out in all weathers to bring the harvests of the sea, and those who risk life and limb in the lifeboats to rescue anyone calling for help:

All those
comfortable swabs
who sit at home
in their beam-ends
reveling in the luxuries
that seamen risk their lives
to bring to them...
and despising
the poor devils
if they so much as touch
a drop of rum, and--
and even sneering at people
who try to do them some good
like you and me.
(The Ghost and Mrs Muir)


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