The Islamic Calendar

1. HISTORY AND MOTIVATION

The Islamic Calendar, which is based purely on lunar cycles, was first introduced in 638 C.E. by the close companion of the Prophet and the second Caliph, `Umar ibn Al-KHaTTab (592-644 C.E.). He did it in an attempt to rationalize the various, at times conflicting, dating systems used during his time. `Umar consulted with his advisors on the starting date of the new Muslim chronology. It was finally agreed that the most appropriate reference point for the Islamic calendar was the _Hijrah_. The actual starting date for the Calendar was chosen (on the basis of purely lunar years, counting backwards) to be the first day of the first month (1 MuHarram) of the year of the Hijrah. The Islamic (Hijri) calendar (with dates that fall within the Muslim Era) is usually abbreviated A.H. in Western languages from the latinized _Anno Hegirae_. MuHarram 1, 1 A.H. corresponds to July 16, 622 C.E.

The Hijrah, which chronicles the migration of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) from Makkah to Madinah in September 622 C.E., is the central historical event of early Islam. It led to the foundation of the first Muslim city-state, a turning point in Islamic and world history.

To Muslims, the Hijri calendar is not just a sentimental system of time reckoning and dating important religious events (e.g., Siyaam (fasting) and Hajj (pilgrimage to Makkah)). It has a much deeper religious and historical significance.

Muhammad Ilyes [Ilyes84] quotes Nadvi who wrote:

``It (the advent of the 15th century) is indeed, a unique occasion to ponder that the Islamic Era did not start with the victories of Islamic wars, nor with the birth or death of the prophet (PBUH), nor with the Revelation itself. It starts with Hijra, or the sacrifice for the cause of Truth and for the preservation of the Revelation.

It was a divinely inspired selection. God wanted to teach man that struggle between Truth and Evil is eternal. The Islamic year reminds Muslims every year not of the pomp and glory of Islam but of its sacrifice and prepares them to do the same.''

From a historical angle, Ilyes quotes Samiullah who writes:

``All the events of Islamic history, especially those which took place during the life of the Holy Prophet and afterwards are quoted in the Hijra calendar era. But our calculations in the Gregorian calendar keep us away from those events and happenings, which are pregnant of admonitory lessons and guiding instructions.

...And this chronological study is possible only by adopting the Hijri calendar to indicate the year and the lunar month in line with our cherished traditions.''

2. SPECIFICATION AND METHOD

The Islamic (Hijri) year consists of twelve (purely lunar) months.

They are:

  1. MuHarram
  2. Safar
  3. Raby` al-awal
  4. Raby` al-THaany
  5. Jumaada al-awal
  6. Jumaada al-THaany
  7. Rajab
  8. SHa`baan
  9. RamaDHaan
  10. SHawwal
  11. Thw al-Qi`dah
  12. Thw al-Hijjah

The most important dates in the Islamic (Hijri) year are:

1 MuHarram (Islamic new year); 27 Rajab (Isra & Miraj); 1 RamaDHaan (first day of fasting); 17 RamaDHan (Nuzul Al-Qur'an); Last 10 days of RamaDHaan which include Laylatu al-Qadar; 1 SHawwal (`iyd al-FiTr); 8-10 Thw al-Hijjah (the Hajj to Makkah); and 10 Thw al-Hijjah (`iyd al-'aDHHae).

It is considered a divine command to use a (Hijra) calendar with 12 (purely) lunar months without intercalation [Ilyes84], as evident from the following verses of the Holy Qur`an (Trans: A. Yusuf Ali):

They ask thee the New Moons Say: They are but signs To mark fixed periods of time In (the affairs of) men And for Pilgrimage. (II:189) 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; Of them four are sacred; That is the straight usage So wrong not yourselves Therein, and fight the Pagans. (IX: 36)

Verily the transposing (Of a prohibited month) Is an addition to Unbelief: The Unbelievers are led To wrong thereby: for they make it lawful one year, And forbidden another year, Of months forbidden by Allah And make such forbidden ones Lawful. The evil of their course Seems pleasing to them.

But Allah guideth not Those who reject Faith. (IX: 37)

Since the Islamic calendar is purely lunar, as apposed to solar or luni-solar,the Muslim (Hijri) year is shorter than the Gregorian year by about 11 days,and months in the Islamic (Hijri) year are not related to seasons, which are fundamentally related to the solar cycle. This means that important Muslim festivals, which always fall in the same Hijri month, may occur in different seasons. For example, the Hajj and RamDHaan can take place in the summer as well as the winter. It is only over a 33 year cycle that lunar months take a complete turn and fall during the same season.

For religious reasons, the beginning of a Hijri month is marked not by the start of a new moon, but by a physical (i.e., an actual human) sighting of the crescent moon at a given locale. From the Fiqhi standpoint, one may begin the fast in RamDHaan, for example, based on "local" sighting (IKHTILAF AL-MATALE') or based on sighting anywhere in the Muslim World (ITTEHAD

AL-MATALE'). Although different, both of these positions are valid Fiqhi positions.

Astronomically, some data are definitive and conclusive (i.e. the time of the BIRTH of a new moon). However, determining the VISIBILITY of the crescent is not as definitive or conclusive; rather it is dependent upon several factors, mostly optical in nature. This makes it difficult to produce (in advance) Islamic calendars that are reliable (in the sense that they are consistent with actual crescent visibility).

Efforts for obtaining an astronomical criterion for predicting the time of first lunar visibility go back the the Babylonian era, with significan improvements and work done later by Muslim and other scientists. These efforts have resulted in the development in a number of criteria for predicting first possible sighting of a crescent. However, there remains a measure of uncertainty associated with all criteria developed thus far.

Moreover, there has been little work in the area of estimating crescent visibility on global (as apposed to local) scale.

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