The Sultan Ahmed mosque in Istanbul (© Travis Reitter. Source: wikipedia.org)
MY mother used to tell us children that she was born on Awal Muharram, the Muslim New Year. This was a matter of trivial interest to us because we think of her birthday as falling on 12 July. That date happened to fall on the first day of Muharram in 1926 and probably not again ever since.
As some other observers have written, the Arabic calendar is an interesting one to know but not very useful because it moves. As it is a lunar calendar, it is shorter than the Gregorian calendar, resulting in the months moving approximately two weeks forward every year. This is why Hari Raya Puasa and Hari Raya Haji have no fixed dates but are approximately two weeks earlier each year.
In a way, this can be good because it means in some years Hari Raya can be on the same days as Chinese New Year, Deepavali, or Christmas. This gives rise to those hybrid festive slogans such as Kongsi Raya, DeepaRaya and whatever unwieldy portmanteau Christmas and Hari Raya make up. There are people who scoff at this but it does make for an atmosphere of sharing that doesn’t quite exist when all the festivals are separated. Kids get red and green ang pows, employees only take off for one long stretch instead of two and fashion houses turn out odd mongrel designs.
Still, until it is actually upon us, I can’t tell you when Awal Muharram is. Nor can I tell you when the prophet Muhammad’s birthday is. It’s hard to focus on moving targets. At least, in many minds, that is what the impractical Arabic calendar has made all these occasions and hence, also rendered them less important.
It has always struck me as odd that Hari Raya Puasa can be celebrated on different days in different countries. Hari Raya is the first day of the month of Syawal that comes after the fasting month of Ramadan. But unlike the first of, say, February, which this year was on a Friday and will be on a Sunday next year because 2008 was a leap year, the first of Syawal can be different days in different countries.
In Malaysia and countries around us, it was on a Wednesday in 2008 but in some Middle Eastern countries it was on a Tuesday and even on a Thursday. It makes no sense to me; does that mean everyone will have different calendars?
It is perhaps for this reason that apart from Hari Raya Puasa and Hari Raya Haji, the other Muslim festivals don’t mean much to anyone apart from religious officials and politicians. For the rest of us, it is another welcomed day off. Do we understand the significance of these days? Not really that much.
(© Ayhan Yildiz / sxc.hu)
With moving dates like these, it is hard to plan very far ahead. How many of us take note of a whole year’s holidays at the beginning of the year in order to know when there are long weekends and other breaks long enough to plan for? Undoubtedly Chinese New Year can also be a moving target but tends to hover around the same time — the end of January or early February. In Japan, the New Year is celebrated on 1 Jan with many of the ancient traditions, making it as Japanese as any other festival. Given the difficulty of putting on a kimono, it is just as well that one knows how many times one needs to wear it.
Forgive us our shopping
But the end of the year is the end of the year, when everyone and everything starts to wind down. The kids are on holiday, the sales are on to suck all our bonuses from us and Christmas and New Year parties are a great excuse to forget diets. Crawling through the sale traffic jams around our malls, a foreigner might be forgiven for thinking that everybody celebrates Christmas in this country. The truth is we simply celebrate shopping and every holiday is another reason to wander round our shopping centres. And we do have plenty of them.
Apparently 25 Dec is also an arbitrary date for Christmas. After all, the Orthodox Church acknowledges the birth of Christ on a totally different date. So we shouldn’t feel too bad about not knowing when Awal Muharram is. It’s fine to know that it’s the first day of the Muslim calendar year. And for me, to know that 82 years ago, it was the day my mother was born.
Merry Christmas, and happy (Muslim and Gregorian) New Year everyone!
See also: Hijrah reflections
Marina Mahathir is an activist, writer, and blogger who constantly needs more outlets to vent because there is never a shortage of issues to vent about.