The history of the ‘Hijri’ Lunar calendar

Each Hijri calendar month lasts from the first sighting of one crescent moon to the first sighting of the next. Though Muslim majority nations follow the Gregorian calendar, the lunar calendar is used to calculate the dates of religious feasts and important rituals such as the Haj pilgrimage

The evening of July 6 to the morning of July 7 was the dawn of Hijrah, the Islamic New Year. It was the first day of the Islamic lunar month of Muharram. The era begins with the journey of Prophet Mohammed and his followers from Mecca to Medina in 622 CE, where he established the first Muslim community. It is said ‘Hijrah does not signify merely a journey between two cities but the movement of the caravan of history’.

Umar I, the second Sunni caliph, instituted the Islamic calendar in 639 CE as an attempt to standardise and organise Muslim life and traditions. There is an Islamic account of how it came about.

Umar is reported to have said to assembled dignitaries among the men around the Prophet: “Our income is considerable. But what we have distributed has been without fixed dates. How can we remedy that?”

An answer came from a man called Al-Hurmuzan. He was the king of a place in Iran called Ahvaz. After his capture during the Arab conquest of Persia, he was  brought to Umar and became a Muslim. He said, “The Persians have a method of calculation that they call mahroz, which they ascribe to their Sassanid rulers”. The word mahroz was Arabicised as mu’arrakh, and the infinitive ta’rikh was formed from it (tarikh today is used in Urdu to mean both ‘calendar date’ and ‘history’). Al-Hurmuzan then explained how to use it. Umar reportedly said: “Give the people an era which they can use in business and which permits them an exact indication of the date in their mutual dealings.”

However, there was an objection that the Persian era had no fixed starting year and always began anew with the ascension of each new king. An agreement was reached to start the Muslim era with the Hijrah of the Prophet from Mecca to Medina.

The Hijrah took place on a Tuesday. According to calculations, it was the first day of the month of Muharram. The Caliph approved of this date and reportedly said, “Al-Muharram is the month of God. It is the beginning of the year. It will be used as the beginning of the era. In al-Muharram, the Kaaba is clothed, and money is coined. There is a day in al-Muharram on which repenting sinners are forgiven.”

The twelve months of the Islamic lunar calendar are Muharram, Safar, Rabi al-Awwal, Rabi al-Thani, Jumada al-Ula, Jumada al-Akhirah, Rajab, Shaban, Ramadan, Shawwal, Dhu al-Qada and Dhu al-Hijjah. Each of these lasts from the first sighting of one crescent moon to the first sighting of the next, approximately twenty-nine or thirty days.

Though Muslim majority countries follow the solar Gregorian calendar, the lunar calendar is used to calculate the dates of religious feasts and important rituals such as the Haj pilgrimage. Because the Hijri calendar relies on the movements of the moon, the Muslim calendar has just 354 or 355 days, making it about 11 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar.

More than 1,300 people died during Hajj, many of them after walking in the scorching heat

Back then, among the warring Arab tribes, the months of Rajab, Dhu al-Qada, Dhu al-Hijjah, and Muharram were regarded as holy months of peace. In Arabic, the word muharram means forbidden, indicating the month’s meaning. The Quran forbids warfare or fighting during Muharram and the three other holy months. Muslims around the world reportedly commemorate Muharram with prayer.

The Quran speaks of the calendar thus: “He it is who appointed the sun a splendour and the moon a light and measured for her stages, that ye might know the number of the years, and the reckoning,” (X:5) and “Lo! the number of the months with Allah is twelve months by Allah’s ordinance on the day that He created the heavens and the earth,” (IX:36).

However, Islam’s two largest sects observe the first month of the year differently. These differences go back to the martyrdom of the Prophet’s grandson, Husain Ibn Ali al-Hussein, aka Imam Husain, during the battle of Karbala in 680 CE. This marks the schism between Shia and Sunni Muslims since Shias adhere to the Prophet’s son-in-law Hazrat Ali and Imam Husain as his true successors, not the Sunni Caliphs. There is a famous saying attributed to the Prophet when at the pond of Khum: ‘Man kunto maula fa haza Ali un maula’, meaning ‘Whoever calls me master, Ali is his master, too’. This is widely sung in Sufiyana and you can hear it on YouTube.

As Muharram begins, Shia Muslims observe ten days of mourning, culminating in Ashura to mourn the death of Imam Husain. This year, Ashura occurs on July 17. Some Shia Muslims conduct mourning marches that day. I have seen their beautiful tazia (portable pavilions) and alam (flags) carried in procession. At a big Shia majlis I attended in Delhi, a banner proclaimed ‘Live like Ali, die like Husain’. As the sorrowful poems describing the martyrdom—shaam-e-gharibaan—were recited, the audience sobbed aloud. It was an intense, moving experience.

Other Shias, particularly young men, commit self-flagellation using their whips and chains as a way of recalling Imam Husain’s suffering. Though some Muslim scholars believe this practice is permissible, others object to it. Some Sunni Muslims observe Ashura with fasting and prayer, but in honour of a fast undertaken by the Prophet in Medina after he emigrated. However, there is apparently no agreement among Sunni scholars as to whether Ashura fasting is permissible or not.  

Muharram is also the time for special food, which includes saffron rice in Iran and doodh ka sharbat, a milky drink prepared in Hyderabad in memory of the thirst felt by Imam Husain and his followers during the fatal battle.

Renuka Narayanan

(Views are personal)


Related Stories

No stories found.

The New Indian Express