Islamic New Year: To celebrate, or not to celebrate?

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Now whether it’s the migration of the Prophet Muhammad or the martyrdom of his grandson, both events are not suited to celebration. If, however, we stick to the original time of the emigration of Prophet Muhammad, it took place in the month of Rabi ul Awwal, which means the beginning of spring, not the month of Muharram.

Since the introduction of social media, events, politics and many more subjects are discussed openly which is generally good for awareness. But, most of us, unfortunately, do not bother to discover the facts, but believe in whatever is posted on social media, instead.

On Twitter, I find a majority of people retweeting articles without reading them and, the most annoying part is, questions are asked referring to the same piece of information. Since the beginning of Muharram, people have been discussing and criticising each other for wishing or not wishing the Islamic New Year. I was wondering, are we actually receding backwards in this modern age of information and technology? Our current generation is simply not bothered to find out who we are. I managed to pull together some facts which may help some who are confused on this topic, and wonder whether it is right to celebrate the Islamic New Year, or to observe it with respect by not offending fellow Muslims who mourn during the month of Muharram, a month that is sacred for a majority of Muslims all over the World.

A Short History of Celebrating the New Year

Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq, introduced the concept of celebrating the New Year in 2000 BC, which was then celebrated around the time of the vernal equinox, in mid-March. The early Roman calendar designated March 1st as the New Year. The calendar had just ten months, beginning with March.

The first time the New Year was celebrated on January 1st was in Rome in 153 BC. In fact, the month of January did not exist until around 700 BC, when the second king of Rome added the months of January and February. The New Year was thence moved from March to January, because that was the beginning of the civil year, the month in which the two newly elected Roman consuls – the highest officials in the Roman republic – began their one-year tenure. But this date for the beginning of the New Year was not always strictly and widely observed, and the event was still sometimes observed on March 1st.

In 567 AD, the Council of Tours abolished January 1st as the start of the year. At various times and in diverse places throughout medieval Christian Europe, the New Year was celebrated on December 25th, the birth of Jesus; March 1st; March 25th, the Feast of the Annunciation; and on Easter.

The Orthodox Church, the Anglican Church, and the Lutheran Church celebrates the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ on January 1st , based on the belief that if Jesus was born on December 25th , then, according to Hebrew custom, his circumcision would have taken place on the eighth day of his life.

The Equinox

What is an equinox? According to Wikipedia:

“An equinox is an astronomical event in which the plane of Earth’s equator passes through the middle of the Sun, which occurs twice each year, around March 23rd and September 23rd.

“On an equinox, day and night are of roughly equal duration all over the planet. They are not precisely equal, however, due to the angular size of the sun and atmospheric refraction.

“The March equinox or Northward equinox is the equinox on the Earth when the Sun appears to leave the southern hemisphere and cross the celestial equator, heading north as seen from earth. In the Gregorian calendar the Northward equinox can occur as early as March 19th or as late as March 21st.”

In cultures which traditionally or currently use calendars other than the Gregorian, New Year’s Day is often also an important festivity:

– Enkutatash is the celebration of the Ethiopian New Year. It is celebrated on September 11th.

– Cambodian New Year is celebrated on April 13th or April 14th.

– Chinese New Year is celebrated on the first day of the lunar calendar and is adjusted for the solar every three years.

– Nowruz marks the inaugural day of spring and the beginning of the year in the Persian calendar. It is celebrated on the day of the astronomical vernal equinox, which normally occurs on March 21st or the previous/following day depending on where it is observed. Nowruz has been renowned for over 3,000 years by the related cultural continent

– Hindu calendar, the first Shukla paksha refers to the bright lunar fortnight or waxing moon in the Hindu calendar and the first day. This usually comes around March 23rd or 24th. The New Year is celebrated by paying respect to seniors in the family and by seeking their blessings.

– In the Middle East the first day of the year is observed on the first day of Muharram, the first month in the Islamic calendar.

History of the Islamic Calendar

The first year in the Islamic Calendar was the year beginning in AD 622 during which the emigration of Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina, known as the Hijra, occurred. The actual events of the emigration of Prophet Muhammad happened during the month of Safar and Rabi ul Awwal, not in Muharram.

According to Abu Rayhan al Biruni, the first ten years of the Hijra were not counted, but were named after events in the life of Prophet Muhammad, because in pre-Islamic Arabia, it was customary to identify a year after a major event which took place in it.

In 17 AH, Abu Musa Ashaari, one of the officials of the Caliph Umar ibn Khattab in Basrah, complained about the absence of any years on the correspondence he received from Umar Ibn Khattab, making it difficult for him to determine which instructions were most recent. This report convinced Umar Ibn Khattab of the need to introduce an era for Muslims. After debating the issue with his counsellors, he decided that the first year should begin with the date of Prophet Muhammad’s arrival at Medina. Uthman ibn Affan then suggested that the months begin with Muharram, in line with the established tradition of the Arabs at that time. The years of the Islamic calendar thus began with the month of Muharram in the year of Prophet Muhammad’s arrival at the urban centre of Medina, even though the actual emigration took place in Safar and Rabi ul Awwal. Because of the Hijra, the calendar was named the Hijra calendar. The first day of the first month of the Islamic calendar 1st Muharram 1 AH was set to the first new moon after the day the Prophet moved from Quba’ to Medina originally 26 Rabi ul Awwal on the pre-Islamic calendar i.e. Friday, 16 July AD 622.

The forbidden months were the four months during which fighting is forbidden, listed as Rajab and the three months around the pilgrimage season, Zee-Qa‘ad, Zil -Hajj, and Muharram. The Qur’an links the four forbidden months with Nasi, a word that literally means “postponement”. These months were considered forbidden both within the new Islamic calendar and within the old pagan Meccan calendar.

According to historical narrations the most important event in the history of Islam during the month of Muharram is the day of Ashura which is marked by Muslims as a whole, but for Shia Muslims it is a major religious commemoration of the martyrdom at Karbala of Hussein Ibn e Ali and his family along with his supporters, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.

Women and children were shackled and brought to Damascus from Karbala as prisoners of war. For Shia Muslims Ashura is a solemn day of mourning the martyrdom of Hussein in 680 AD at Karbala in modern-day Iraq.

Or a voluntary day of fasting for Sunni Muslims which commemorates the day Noah left the Ark, and the day that Moses was saved from the Egyptians by God.

Now whether it’s the migration of the Prophet Muhammad or the martyrdom of his grandson, both events are not suited to celebration. If, however, we stick to the original time of the emigration of Prophet Muhammad, it took place in the month of Rabi ul Awwal, which means the beginning of spring, not the month of Muharram.

I would now like to leave it to the readers whether they would like to respect, observe, mourn or celebrate the month of Muharram – the first month of Islamic calendar

Syed Hussain
Syed Hussain is a traveller, philanthropist , freelance writer based in the UK. He can be reached at husains50@yahoo.com. Follow him on Twitter

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