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The Muharram dilemma

The Sultan Ahmed mosque in Istanbul (© Travis Reitter. Source:

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.

Moving dates

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 /

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.

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5 Responses to “The Muharram dilemma”

  1. sambal muncha says:

    Welcome to The Nut Graph, Marina.

    I have missed so much of your reading lately during the “silly” season.

    According to the mystics, the Islamic (lunar) calendar has certain spiritual significance in its four-weekly cycle; but I do tend to agree that there has to be some uniformity in dates. Personally, working across different time zones and being away from family often requires planning ahead but it’s impossible with the unpredictability of Hari Raya days.

  2. David says:

    “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.”

    This is only true if you are referring to the Gregorian calender, but if you understand Chinese culture and look at the Chinese lunar calender, every festival is already predetermined many years ahead, normally in 60-year cycles.

    We don’t need to wait for some holy men to pronounce the date for the next Chinese New Year, and we all celebrate CNY on the same day of the Chinese lunar calender.

  3. benzaini says:

    Compare this to the writing by a Jesuit priest on the meaning of Hijrah. It is pity that Marina has lost the significance of this solemn occasion in the Islamic calendar and instead has made a mockery of it.

  4. Razwan says:

    It depends on which interpretation we want to follow, because Islam never emphasises on uniformity other than tawhid. That is why we have four different fiqh mazhabs. If that not enough you can follow Shia Ja’afari, too. And within each there are differing opinions, as well.

    Certain countries like Turkey decided to rely on calculation (hisab) alone because they think it is the most accurate method. With this, they predict everything long before the actual date.

    Certain other countries like Malaysia do not just depend on hisab, but use moonsighting (rukyah) to confirm the hisab. You cannot just dismiss this practice. After all, this “obsession on moonsighting” contributed to the advances in the field of optics and astronomy in the first place.

    The differing opinions to me are not odd at all. If you read the many hadith compilations, you may discover that the prophet himself has different answers on somewhat same subjects when asked in different circumstances.

    What strikes me as odd is recent attempts even in Malaysia to “make everything uniform”, which does not represent the majority opinion of the ummah, even from the earliest days of Islam, but rather certain extreme groups like the Wahabbi.

    So, to answer the questions about unpredictability, one just has to make the effort. The method of calculation is well established and that’s why we have the calendar in the first place. Go Google and surely you can find a good calendar to tell you what date is today in the Islamic and Gregorian calendars and when a certain Islamic festival falls in both calendars.

  5. Rozaimi says:

    Assalamualaikum Marina,

    First of all, allow me to clarify that there is no such thing as Arabic calendar as mentioned by you in your article. However, if indeed there exist an Arabic calendar (perhaps I am not aware of), the Arabic calendar referred to in your article is actually the Islamic calendar or also known as Hijrah calendar. That is why Awal Muharram (which means “the first day in the month of Muharram”) is also known as “Ma’al Hijrah”.

    Ma’al Hijrah means “moving together”, which is in conjunction with the historic journey of the great Prophet Muhammad pbuh with his followers from the city of Mecca to the city of Medina 1430 years ago.

    It is too much for you to say that Hijrah calendar is “not very useful” because the Hijrah calendar is very important in our life as Muslims. Our life is based on the circle of the Hijrah calendar. As Muslims, we fast, pray, perform pilgrimage, etc and all these are based on the Hijrah calendar. So, the fact that Gregorian calendar is being used in the world does not make the Hijrah calendar less important and “not very useful”.

    It does happen where Eidul Fitri is celebrated on different days in different countries in the world. However, please bear in mind that among the factors that cause such a thing to happen are the earth’s movement and that the Hijrah Calendar is based on the movement of the moon and by falak. So, if the crescent (for Syawal) is not seen in Malaysia but can be seen in other countries, then other countries will celebrate Eidul Fitri one day earlier than Malaysia and vice versa. It is as simple as that.

    You also mentioned that until it is actually upon us, you can’t tell when Awal Muharram is. The same goes for the Prophet’s birthday and because of that, you deem the Hijrah calendar as impractical, which makes these events less important. Once again, I would like to mention here that it is too much for you to make such an unwarranted statement. Have not you thought what will happen to the Gregorian calendar new year and Christmas if the people in the world were using the Hijrah Calendar instead of Gregorian calendar? In which case, it is Christmas and the new year that would not be static. Are you then going to say that the Gregorian calendar is not relevant?

    In Islam, there are only 2 festivals i.e. Eidul Fitri and Eidul Adha. The other celebrations such as Ma’al Hijrah, Maulud Nabi (birthday of the Prophet), etc. are just a celebration in remembrance of events that took place on those particular days many years ago and it is not stated in the Quran. As such, it is only the Muslims’ own initiative to celebrate the events as a symbol of respect. Thus, the fact that the celebration for these occasions are not as merry as the two festivals have got nothing to do with the Hijrah calendar.

    Your statement at the end of your article is uncalled for when you are happily said that we as Muslims should not feel too bad not knowing when Awal Muharram falls, as the Orthodox Church is in disagreement on the Jesus Christ’s birthday. Why do we as Muslims need to use another religion as a benchmark? The movement of the Hijrah calendar and the disagreement over the birthday of Jesus Christ are not interrelated in any manner whatsoever and it is indeed an insult to Islam.

    By the way, I wonder what do you mean when you say that “we shouldn’t feel too bad about not knowing when Awal Muharram is”? Because I believe the majority of Muslims in the world know that Awal Muhraam falls on every first day of the month of Muharram.

    Please remember this, the Prophet pbuh said in his hadith, “Al-Islammu ya’lu wala yu’la ‘alaihi” which means, “Islam is high and nothing is higher than it (Islam)”.

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