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Islamic New Year

Updated Friday, 3rd December 2010

Lecturer in Religious Studies Hugh Beattie writes about the Islamic New Year, which starts when the new moon is first sighted

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This year the Islamic New Year’s Day (Ras as-Sana al-Hijreya) falls on or around the 7th or 8th of December (it starts at sunset on the previous day and lasts until late afternoon). It is not possible to specify the exact date, because the day begins when the new moon is first sighted (rather than being worked out from astronomical calculations), and this obviously varies depending among other things on where people live. New Year’s Day is the first day of the month of Muharram, and of the year 1432 H (for ‘Hijra’) or AH (‘After Hijra’ or Latin anno hegirae - ‘in the year of the Hijra’).

New Year’s Day is a public holiday in many Muslim-majority countries. However it is a relatively low-key event compared to the major festivals of Eid ul-Fitr (at the end of Ramadan) and Eid-ul-Adha (during the Hajj pilgrimage). It is a time for reflection and prayer rather than the kinds of celebrations which mark the Western or Gregorian New Year in the UK. Muslims may gather in mosques to offer special prayers, and some may fast, and make New Year resolutions. In recent years, thanks to the influence of Western traditions, some have also begun to exchange New Year cards and gifts.

Critical event

On New Year’s Day Muslims particularly recall the Prophet Muhammad’s Hijra or Hegira (‘migration’ or ‘flight’), which took place in the year 622 of the Common Era (CE). Circumstances having become increasingly difficult in Mecca (his life was actually threatened), Muhammad and his followers moved to Medina, and formed a new community there based on faith rather than membership of a particular tribe. This was a critical event in the development of Islam, and its importance is signalled by the fact that the Muslim calendar (which is sometimes called the Hijri calendar) begins with the year in which it occurred. As this is a lunar calendar, a year is 354 days long, which means that every year it moves back about eleven days in relation to the solar year (which is why this coming year is 1432 rather than 1389). It also means that it is not linked to the seasons, and does not come back to the same point in the solar calendar for about thirty-three years.

As for Muharram, it is one of the four sacred months (see Qur’an 9:36). The name Muharram is related to the Arabic word haram, which means ‘forbidden’, and fighting should be avoided during these sacred months. The first ten days of Muharram are especially important for all Muslims who see it as a time for fasting, special prayers, charitable activities and seeking Allah’s forgiveness. On the tenth day Shi’a Muslims in particular commemorate the martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Husain, and members of his family, at Karbala in what is now southern Iraq in 680 CE.

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