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Ramadan in Estonia - how do Muslims fast when the sun barely sets?

Currently millions of Muslims throughout the world are celebrating the month of Ramadan, fasting from sunrise to sunset. But how to Estonian Muslims cope when they only have four hours or darkness each day?

ERR News spoke to Samih Farag, accountant at the Estonian Islamic Cultural Center in Tallinn, about how Muslims in Estonia cope with the differences.

The 54-year-old, who is originally from Egypt but has lived in Europe for more than 20 years, moved to Tallinn in 2007 and said: “The first day of Ramadan is always difficult for all Muslims even in Islamic countries, and then becomes normal. It gets easier to not think about food but we feel thirsty on hot days.”

Ramadan is a holy month of fasting, introspection and prayer and is the ninth month of the lunar Islamic calendar. Muslims cannot eat or drink – not even water – during daylight hours, and break their fast only when the sun sets. They are also supposed to avoid smoking, thinking impure thoughts or bad behaviour.

In Islamic countries fasting typically lasts around 12 to 15 hours from dawn till dusk, but there are no set rules about fasting in places further north. Some Muslims can choose to observe Mecca time or the timings of their own original countries, but not all. Or if the sun does not set, then the time of the nearest county where there is a sunset and sunrise.

So this year Estonian Muslims are typically fasting for approximately 20.5 hours each day. Some people are exempt, such as children, travellers or anyone who is ill, as well as women who are menstruating or pregnant.

After the sun sets Farag said Muslims gather every evening at the Estonian Islamic center to share a meal called Iftar. Starting with milk or water and dates, they then pray, share a meal and finish with sweets and tea.

In Tallinn people take it in turns to cook each night, sometimes sharing a traditional meal where they are from. There are around 200 people at the center taking part in Ramadan this year from countries including Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, as well as Arabian and African nations. Farag estimated there are about 2,000 Muslims in Estonia.

''The Estonian Muslim brothers and sisters do the same like us,'' he said. ''And they understand the great meaning of fasting in Ramadan too.''

But he said because the community was so small, many people do not know a lot about Ramadan. He added: “The non-Muslims have not got much information about what is the meaning of Ramadan and why we are fasting. But this is so not only in Estonia but in all Europe, unless they have Muslims friends or if they are interested in the religious. But we invite also non-Muslim friends to have Iftar with us.”

Despite not many people knowing about the ins-and-outs of the holy month, Farag said that he has never faced any difficulties with Estonians: “The people are kind and smart,” he said.

But the biggest difference he had found celebrating Ramadan in Europe, he said, was the lack of atmosphere: “It is a different feeling. Here we have this feeling only in the mosque but in my country it is everywhere, in the office, in the shops… You can feel it in the streets. But here, and in most of Europe, you only feel that with other Muslims.”

This year the month of Ramadan ends on July 16 – it began on June 18, with the citing of the new moon – which will then be followed by the three-day festival of Eid al-Fitr, which means the feast of the breaking of the fast.

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