The Islamic New Year & The Significance of Muharram
By Hafiz Abdullah Muhammad
Use of the Lunar Calendar
The Islamic Calendar is based on the Lunar Calendar consisting of 354-355 days annually and is 10-11 days shorter than the western Solar Calendar. The Lunar month is based on the time it takes the moon to complete a single orbit around the earth and it is just over 29.5 days. There are many advantages to the Lunar Calendar. For example, the various dates in the Islamic Calendar such as Ramadan and Hajj rotate every year and are not fixed like the Solar Year. People, therefore, will perform acts of worship in various climatic conditions and in different length of hours in submission to the will of Allah where human imagination plays no part. The new moon marks the beginning of each new lunar month and it is easy for people to see the new moon and know that a new month has begun. This probably explains why most ancient civilizations such as the Babylonians, the Jews, the Greeks and the Egyptians in the Middle East, the Aztecs and the Incas of the West, and the Hindus and the Chinese of the East used this system. Interestingly, the English word ‘month’ is derived from the word ‘moon’. The Islamic New Year 1435 AH began on 5 November 2013.
Origin and Significance of the Hijri Calendar
The Islamic Calendar was started by the second Caliph Umar in 16 AH/ 637 CE [Al-Tabari: Tarikh Al- Rusul 5/22 & Ibn Sa‘d: Tabaqat Al- Kubra 3/281]. The event of the Hijrah, the migration of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) from Makkah to Madinah in 622 CE, was chosen to begin the Islamic Calendar because it was the first major sacrifice made by the whole Ummah for the preservation of Islam in its formative period. Ibn Hajar, in his Fath Al-Bari, records that the Caliph Umar is reported to have remarked: “The Hijrah has separated truth from falsehood, therefore, let it become the Epoch of the Era”. The Hijrah year reminds Muslims every year of the sacrifices made by the first Muslims and should prepare them to do the same. The constant use of the Hijri Calendar for acts of worship and as a frame of reference to major historical events will help Muslims keep links with their roots and further enhance their knowledge of their religion and history.
Months of the Islamic Calendar
There are twelve months in the Islamic Calendar as the Qur’an says: “Surely the number of months in the sight of Allah is twelve, in accordance with His decree from the day He created the heavens and the earth, out of which four are sacred” (9:36). These twelve months are Muharram, Safar, Rabi‘ al-Awwal, Rabi‘ al-Thani, Jumada al-Ula, Jumada al-Ukhra, Rajab, Sha‘ban, Ramadan, Shawwal, Dhul Qa‘dah and Dhul Hijjah. The four Sacred Months (al-Ashhur al-Hurum) are Rajab, Dhul Qa‘dah, Dhul Hijjah and Muharram [Bukhari]. The sanctity of these months was also accepted in the Pre-Islamic era when fighting was forbidden.
Determining Islamic Dates
Islamic dates are determined by the actual visibility of the moon as the Prophet (SAW) said: “Fast by seeing it (the moon) and end the fast by seeing it” [Bukhari & Muslim]. Muslim scholars have interpreted this Prophetic saying in two different ways. Some scholars, such as Al- Shafi’i, have held the view that each location has its own sighting of the moon (Ikhtilaf al-Mutali‘) [Sayyid Sabiq: Fiqhus Sunnah 3/112]. But most scholars from the other Schools of Law have taken the words “fast by seeing it” (sumu li ru’yatihi) as a general command to all Muslims and not individual sectors of the community. Hence they regard the sighting of the moon in one region as valid for people of another region, provided the news of sighting the moon reaches them through authentic means [Ibn Taymiyyah: Majmu‘ah Fatawa 5/111].
This is the first month of the Islamic Calendar and one of the four Sacred Months (al-Ashhur al- Hurum). It is recommended to fast during this month as there is a Hadith which says: “The best fast, after Ramadan, is in the month of Muharram” [Muslim]. This may be an indirect reference to ‘Ashura and not to Muharram in general because, according to Sayyidah Aishah, the Prophet (SAW) fasted most in Sha‘ban after Ramadan [Bukhari & Muslim].
The 10th day of Muharram, known as Yawm Al-‘Ashura, is the most significant day of this month. This year, it is likely to fall on 14 November 2013. The Prophet (SAW) said: “Fasting on the Day of ‘Ashura is an expiation of sins for the previous year”. Many events are attributed to this date such as that the Prophet Adam was born and his repentance was accepted on this day, the Prophet Abraham was saved from the fire, the Prophet Ishmael was delivered from the sacrifice, the Prophet Joseph was reunited with his father, the Prophet Job was cured of his illness and the Prophet Solomon was ordained as king. However, such assertions are not always backed by accurate historical evidences [Abdulhaqq Dehlawi: Ma Thabata bis Sunnah p.254].
Ibn Abbas relates that when Prophet Muhammad (SAW) migrated to Madinah, he found the Jews fasting on the Day of ‘Ashura. When asked for the reason of their fasting, they replied that it was the day when Allah Ta‘ala saved the Prophet Moses and the Children of Israil from their enemies.
Prophet Moses (pbuh) fasted to thank Almighty Allah and they fasted in emulation of him. So the Prophet (SAW) said “We have more of a right to Moses than you” and so he ordered the Muslims to fast on that day [Bukhari & Muslim]. Ibn Al-Qayyim, in his Zad Al-Ma‘ad, explains that the underlying wisdom behind the fast of ‘Ashura is to stress the affinity between the prophets who all came from Allah. This is also one instance where the Shari ‘ah given to Muhammad (SAW) preserved an earlier practice, though abrogating its obligation. However, in order not to follow the Jews, the Prophet encouraged Muslims by saying: “Observe the fast of ‘Ashura and differ from the Jews by fasting a day before it or after it” [Bayhaqi: Sunan Al-Kubra 4/287].
The Prophet’s younger grandson Imam Husayn was tragically martyred on 10th Muharram 61 AH/ 680 CE on the ‘Ashura day. The heroic martyrdom of Imam Husayn demonstrates to Muslims the need to uphold truth and justice and to fight against tyranny and evil and they should be prepared to give their lives in a similar cause if the need arises. Such situations are all too common in our own times when Muslims are being persecuted for their faith in many parts of the world.
Significance of the Hijrah for Muslims
Muharram heralds the beginning of the Islamic Calendar. The Hijrah of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) and his Companions (Sahabah) from Makkah to Madinah was much more than a simple migration. It was a turning point in the history of Islam. It was a revolution and complete transformation of society. The Muhajirun (emigrants) of Makkah gave up their family, property and homeland for the sake of religion and the Ansar (helpers) of Madinah welcomed them with great hospitality. Thus a unique brotherhood (mu’akhah) was created between them, hitherto unknown in human history.
By highlighting the Hijrah, Muslims will re-affirm their need to be in a state where they can practice their religion and make the necessary sacrifices to achieve that aim, including emigration. Hijrah also has a deep spiritual significance where Muslims commit themselves to leave the state of disbelief (kufr) and sin to enter that of Islam and piety. That is why the Prophet (SAW) said: “The best emigrant (Muhajir) is the one who leaves what Allah has forbidden” [Bukhari]
Although the practical usage of the Islamic Calendar is increasingly diminishing, nevertheless the foundation of many acts of worship such as Zakah, Sawm and Hajj revolve around this calendar and it is one of the hallmarks (shi‘ar) of Islam that differentiates Muslims from other communities. Undoubtedly, there is a great need for Muslims to reaffirm their cultural heritage by using the Islamic Calendar on a regular basis and not just during Ramadan and Eid.
Taken from Hafiz Abdullah Muhammad’s book “The Best of Times: Virtues and Significance of Important Days, Nights, Months & Festivals in Islam” (IPCI, 2002) which is available free from IPCI, 434 Coventry Road, Birmingham B10 0UG.