Muslim New Year - Dr Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib

Muslims do not generally observe the new year in a huge way. Hence, new year celebration has never been a key feature of Muslim communal observances, including in the Malay world. In fact, there is a glaring absence of grand celebrations for the Muslim new year.

Muslim Hijri Calendar

The Muslim calendar is a lunar-based system that was instituted by Umar ibn al-Khattab (d. 644), the second caliph who reigned from 634-644 CE. In consultation with the other Companions of the Prophet, four events were deliberated as the starting point of the calendar: the birth of the Prophet, the occasion of the first Revelation to the Prophet, the Prophet’s hijrah (migration) from Mecca to Medina to avoid persecution, and the death of the Prophet. Umar eventually decided on the hijrah, but only because the Companions were not clear on the exact date of the birth and occasion of Revelation, while the Prophet’s death was a sad occasion to mark a new calendar. Hijrah, on the other hand, symbolised a new beginning for the Muslims and allowed the nascent Muslim community to rally together under a new polity. Hence, the Muslim calendar is known as the Hijri calendar.

The Qur’an –– which is the principle sacred text by which Muslims derive their religious views and formulate laws on Islamic matters –– contains references by which the Hijri calendar adheres to. Firstly, there must be twelve months in a lunar year: “The number of months in the sight of Allah is twelve (in a year) – so ordained by Him the day He created the heavens and the earth.” (Q. 9:36) Secondly, the Qur’an mentions that each month begins with the appearance of a new moon: “They ask you concerning the new moons. Say: They are but signs to mark fixed periods of time in (the affairs of) men, and for Pilgrimage.” (Q. 2:189) The Prophet had formally adopted the lunar system during his last pilgrimage (known as the Farewell Hajj) in 632 CE, which effectively led to the abandonment of the Arab’s lunisolar system of the pre-Islamic period.

Contested Month of Muharram

The first month of the Hijri calendar is called Muharram, which means “forbidden”. This is believed to be the second holiest month of the year, apart from the tenth month, Ramadan. In Muharram, it is forbidden to engage in warfare. It is unclear why the notion of truce came to be associated with the month of Muharram. Its root may be pre-Islamic and meant to protect trade within the sanctuary of Mecca. In the post-Islamic period, non-fighting in Muharram could be evoked by the painful memory of the Battle of Karbala that took place on the tenth day of Muharram. In fact, Muharram is often associated with this day, also known as ‘Ashura (literally ‘tenth day’).

The Malay Heritage of Muharram

In Malay society, ‘Ashura is often commemorated with a special delicacy known as bubur ‘Ashura. Bubur is Malay porridge and bubur ‘Ashura is usually prepared with slices of egg, fish and shrimp.

Conclusion

Although the Muslim calendar begins with the Prophet’s migration to Medina and escape from persecution in Mecca – hence, symbolising a new beginning –, the first month of Muharram is marked by contested meanings. This was due to the sectarian conflict that emerged a few decades after the death of the Prophet and culminated in the Battle of Karbala that saw the Prophet’s grandson and his supporters being massacred.

One aspect that all Muslims can agree on is the devotional element of the month in which piety is renewed and contemplation acted on to truly uphold the name ‘Muharram’ or ‘forbidden (to engage in warfare and fighting)’. It is a month of reconciliation, rather than division – if only we can draw lessons from history.

To read a complete version of Dr Imran's paper, click here.

To view video recording of Dr Imran's speech, click here.

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