[This presentation was made at a New Year Festival of Faiths event organized by the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago on September 20, 2015.]
This seems to be the “season of New Years” of several faiths: Rosh Hashanah of Jewish faith was Sept 13, Muharram 1 of Islamic faith will be October 14 and Diwali of the Hindu faith will be November 11. Every faith celebrates the New Year differently. Islam, actually, makes no special celebration of the New Year
The Islamic year is called the “Hijri”, or After Hijrah (AH) year, which relates to the migration of Prophet Muhammad (peace by upon him) from Makka to Madina. The second Caliph Omar started the count of Islamic years from the year of migration, as the migration of the Prophet was the most significant event in Islam as it led to the formation and development of Islamic community and State. So, October 14, 2015 will be Muharram 1, 1437 AH, and will mark the beginning of the New Year.
There are several significant Islamic events associated with the month of Muharram that Muslims observe which, however, are unrelated to it being the first month of the year. For example, it is reported that in Madina, Prophet Muhammad came to know that Jews observed a day of fasting on the tenth day of Muharram (known as Ashura) as that was the day the Israelites were freed from Pharaoh. He advised Muslims also to fast that day plus either the day before or the day after. Ashura is also the day attributed to the first day of Adam on earth and the day when Prophet Abraham started to build the Ka’ba in Makka.
Ashura is also the day when a great tragic incident happened since the time of Muhammad (S). His grandson Hussain was martyred at the battle of Karbala by the army of Yazid. Hussain had taken up arms to oppose the inheritance of Muslim leadership when Yazid was appointed the leader by his father. Both Sunni and Shia sects of Islam equally consider the martyrdom of Hussain a great tragedy. However, Shiites have made it a tradition to recall the tragedy every year in great detail and express sorrow publicly, even by self-flagellating.Thus the differences in the practices of Sunnis and Shias are very prominent and public in the first ten days of Muharram.
The Quran provides two bases for the Islamic calendar: The Islamic months are determined by the appearance of the new moon, hilal in Arabic. [Basis – Quran 2:189] and an Islamic year contains twelve months [Quran 9:36]. These bases make the Islamic calendar a purely lunar calendar. Since a lunar cycle is about 29.5 days, some of the months are 29 days long and some are 30 days. The entire 12-month year contains 354 days.
The other calendar that is commonly used in the world is the Gregorian calendar, which is based on the earth completing an orbit around the Sun. Months in this year are not based on any natural cycle. This is a solar calendar that is 365.1/4 days long (the quarter day being adjusted every fourth year by adding a day to the month of February). It coincides with the changing of the seasons. Thus Islamic year is about 11 days shorter than the solar year. This results in Islamic holidays moving through the entire solar year, or through all seasons.
There are other faiths that also use lunar months, such as Judaism and Hinduism. They, however, synchronize their calendars with the seasons of the year by adding a month every two or three years. (In Judaism Adar I is added before Adar.) These calendars are also called luni-solar calendars.
Changing of the time, which results in changing of the months and years, is all set in motion by God Almighty. The moon orbits around the earth once every 29.5 days, the earth orbits around the sun every 365.25 days and rotates around its own axis every 24 hours, with its axis of rotation being at an angle other than 90 degrees, which is crucial to changing of the seasons (see a simplified sketch of these orbits below).Our lives would be hard to imagine if there was no changing of the time and no changing of the seasons. The Quran recognizes this as a sign of God’s creation.
[The presentation concluded with a beautiful recitation of the following Quranic verses by a 13-year old MEC Academy student Ali Siddiqui.]
And they have a sign [of Our power to create and to resurrect] in the lifeless earth which We make alive, and out of which We bring forth grain, whereof they may eat; and [how] We make gardens of date-palms and vines [grow] thereon, and cause springs to gush [forth] within it, so that they may eat of the fruit thereof, though it was not their hands that made it. Will they not, then, be grateful? Limitless in His glory is He who has created opposites in whatever the earth produces, and in men’s own selves, and in that of which [as yet] they have no knowledge.-[Quran: 36:33-36]