(1) Discovering Islam: Significance and uniqueness of the Islamic calendar

"Verily the number of months with Allah is twelve months in the year, so was it ordained by Allah on the Day when He created the heavens and the earth...." (Qur'an 9:36)

“Verily the number of months with Allah is twelve months in the year, so was it ordained by Allah on the Day when He created the heavens and the earth….” (Qur’an 9:36)

Significance and uniqueness of the Islamic calendar

Muslims all over the world are fasting now, and are into the second week of the fasting month, Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. They are fasting from before sunrise to after sunset the whole of the month.

The history of the Islamic calendar is interesting.  Why the calendar was initiated and how it works are equally informative.

For all Islamic events and festivals, Muslims follow the Islamic calendar, called the Hijrah calendar. The Hijrah calendar dates from the event called Hijrah (migration) –  the migration of Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina, a significant episode in Islamic history.  The Prophet was 53 years old when he left Mecca.  Why did he leave Mecca?

Like most prophets, including Jesus Christ, Prophet Muhammad was persecuted in the place where he was born, bred and preached – Mecca.

The pagan Meccans who had loved him because of his superb character, calling him “Al-Amin” (the trustworthy) and “As-Saadiq” (the truthful) before he received his prophethood from God at the age of 40, began to dislike him when he preached Islam, saying he was destroying their lifestyle.

The pagans were worshipping numerous gods; Prophet Muhammad preached the worship of the One God.  The pagans were used to burying baby girls alive; he banned infanticide.  The pagan women were treated like chattels and could be bought and sold; he gave women their rights. The Prophet prohibited intoxicants, condemned superstition and banned slavery.  All these and other positive changes made the pagans feel that their culture and traditions were being destroyed by his teachings.

Having failed to stop his preaching, the pagans approached the Prophet’s uncle and guardian, Abu Talib, and urged him to force his nephew to stop his act and were willing to offer the Prophet wealth and status in return. When his uncle told this to the Prophet, he replied: “O Uncle, if they could place the moon on my left hand and the sun on my right, I would still not give up the mission entrusted upon me by Allah.”  (From Hadith)

Thus, the persecution of those who had embraced Islam intensified. Many were tortured; many were killed.

For 13 years, the Prophet carried on with his mission patiently, bearing all the agony and hardship of the persecution.

One day, in the year 621, some traders from Yathrib, an oasis town some 450km north of Mecca, came to the city.  Having listened to the Prophet’s preaching, they embraced the religion. The following year, these same Yathribites returned, bringing another group of their fellow citizens. All pledged their loyalty to the Prophet. When they left, the Prophet sent with them one of his Companions to teach their fellow citizens back home the fundamentals of Islam. As a result, the Islamic teachings spread in Yathrib.

The pagan Arabs became even more furious when they learned about the spread of Islam in Yathrib. They now threatened to kill the Prophet and his followers in Mecca.  On the appointed night when the assassins burst into the Prophet’s room to kill him, they realised that the Prophet had already left his home unseen by anyone.  Accompanied by his closest Companion, Abu Bakar, their destination was Yathrib.

Horsemen were despatched immediately to hunt down the Prophet. Rewards were offered for his capture, dead or alive. Bounty hunters eagerly searched the deserts.

At the time the enemies combed the deserts around Mecca, the Prophet and Abu Bakar were hiding in a cave in Jabal Thaur, a mountain some 6 km from Mecca. They hid there for several days. Then, with the help of a camel guide, the Prophet and Abu Bakar started on the long and arduous journey across the burning, hostile desert, to Yathrib.

The people of Yathrib welcomed him, singing an lively nasheed (religious song) using tambourines. This historic journey to a friendly and welcoming place was called the Hijrah (Migration).

[The ever-famous beautiful song, Tala al-Badru Alayna (O the white moon rose over us), has been sung throughout the ages by children and adults. You may listen to the beautiful lyrics of the song sung by the famous former pop-singer, Cat Steven, who converted to Islam and goes by the name, Yusuf Islam.  Go to:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z5HiXM9JGJQ ]

[A Hollywood movie, The Message, staring Anthony Quinn as Hamzah, the Prophet’s uncle who openly sided his nephew’s mission, depicted the early mission of Prophet Muhammad who, in the movie, is not seen but whose presence was felt as Muslims do not depict him even with an actor.  No images of the Prophet is made in Islamic culture with the concern that depicting him will lead to idolatry and that less-informed over-zealous Muslims would worship him instead of God.  The 1976 film, directed by Mustaffa Akkad, was cleared by Cairo’s famous Al-Azhar University for accuracy before release.]

On 2 July of the year 622, the Prophet stepped onto the soil of Yathrib. This oasis town henceforth became known as Madinatul Nabi (City of the Prophet) or simply Medina (Madinah).  The Islamic or the Hijrah calendar begins from this triumphant event, a date that changed the history of the world.

Thus, the Hijrah was selected as the start of the Muslim calendar because the event denoted the success, triumph and progress of Islam in Medina and from there throughout Arabia.

Instituted by the second caliph, Umar Al-Khattab, in the year 638, the Hijrah calendar is an Islamic lunar calendar.  The Muslim year this year is 1435H (“H” for Hijrah). In other words, the Hijrah took place 1435 lunar years ago, or 1392 years ago on the Gregorian calendar.

The Islamic calendar is based on the movement of the moon, and has 354 or 355 days, making it 10 or 11 days shorter than the 365-day Gregorian calendar which is solar-based.  Each lunar month is based on the time it takes the moon to complete a single orbit around the earth and it is just over 29½ days, hence, each of the 12 Hijrah months contains either 29 or 30 days.

The Islamic calendar contains no intercalation, like having a leap of several days in the Chinese calendar so to keep the Chinese New Year within January and February in order to “contain” the New Year festivities in an auspices season in China.  Thus, without any intercalation, all Muslim events and festivals, including Ramadan, go through all the seasons of the year.

Taking recent-year starting point of Ramadan as an illustration, last year, Ramadan started on 10 July; this year it was 29 Jun, and next year it will be on 18 June.  Such advancement by about 11 days a year would take Ramadan through all the months of the English calendar.

It takes about 33 years for each of the Hijrah months to make a complete rotation through the seasons, thus Muslim events and holidays do not fall within the same solar months or seasons each year.

The table below shows, as an illustration, the start of Ramadan from the year 2004 to 2023.  The actual and estimated start dates were and are as follows:


Common year       Hijrah year          Start of   Ramadan

2004                          1425                        17 October

2010                          1431                        11 August

2011                          1432                        01 August

2012                          1433                       20 July

2013                          1435                       09 July

2014                          1435                       29 June

2015                          1436                       18 June

2016                          1437                       07 June

2017                          1438                       27 May

2020                         1441                       24 April


In this 33-year cycle, Ramadan falls on all the months of the solar calendar.  Likewise, for example, Eid ul-Fitri (Festival of Charity), commonly referred to as Hari Raya, which is celebrated a day after Ramadan, on 1 Shawal, goes through the cycle, making it a ‘visiting’ link to many non-Muslim religious and cultural festivals and commemorative events.

For example, in 1997 and 1998, Chinese New Year fell on 8 February and 28 January and Eid ul-Fitri fell a day later on 9 February and 29 January respectively.  As the two major festivals were celebrated back to back with long holidays, the double celebration was billed as Gongxi-Raya.

In the year 2000, Eid ul-Fitri “visited” Christmas when it fell on 27 December, and in 2005 it “visited” Deepavali (on 1 November) when it fell on 3 November, billing the stretch of the two occasions as Deep-Raya celebrations.

There are obvious advantages to the Islamic calendar. For example, the various Muslim festival and commemoratives dates in the Islamic calendar, such as the fasting month of Ramadan and the Haj season “migrate” over the solar year.  This facility enables Muslims perform acts of worship like fasting and Haj in various climatic conditions and in different length of hours.   For example, when a Muslim in Russia fasts in Ramadan during winter, some 15 years later, he will have the experience of fasting in summer. Thus, the Hijrah calendar eliminates monotony and provides variety to Muslims living in any part of the world as any Islamic festival or event takes place in every season of the solar calendar, never in the same season year in and year out.

Well-known Islamic scholar Dr Zakir Naik said: “If the Islamic months were based on the solar calendar where the seasons were fixed, then people living in certain parts of the world would have Ramadhan in summer while in other parts of the world it would be winter. Some Muslims would have to fast for a longer period of time where the days are long while other Muslims would have to fast for shorter period of time where the days are short. If the seasons did not change, then Muslims living in some parts of the world may feel that they are at a disadvantage throughout their lives. By following the lunar calendar, every Muslim has a taste of fasting in different seasons and for a different time period, in a span of about 33 years of his life.”

The Hijrah year reminds Muslims every year of the sacrifices made by the first Muslims during the Prophet’s time and so they ought to be as good as them in their iman (faith in Allah) and taqwa (consciousness of God and following His Commands).  In Islam, it is belief in God and do righteousness; faith alone is not enough to ensure entry into Paradise.

By: Shaik Kadir


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