Islamic Religious Year

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ISLAMIC RELIGIOUS YEAR . The Islamic religious year is highlighted by two major events that are enjoined by the Qurʾān and that are celebrated all over the Muslim world. These are the pilgrimage, or ājj, which culminates in the ʿĪd al-Aā (Feast of Sacrifice), in the last lunar month, and Ramaān, the month of fasting, which ends with the celebration of the ʿĪd al-Fir (Feast of Fast Breaking) on the first day of the next month, Shawwāl. Because the twelve-month calendar of Islam is based on a purely lunar year of 354 days, these events have no fixed relation to the seasons of the 365-day solar year. Over the course of years, they may occur in spring, summer, autumn, and winter. Thus, no connection with pre-Islamic solar feasts can be made, nor can any tradition of agricultural cults be traced. (Celebrations of the solar seasons do occur in various parts of the Muslim world, but they are not based on the Qurʾān or on adīth.)

The beginning of each month of the Muslim calendar is reckoned from the appearance of the new moon, which must, according to tradition, be reported by at least two trustworthy witnesses. Because religious leaders in some Muslim countries do, in fact, rely on astronomical calculation of the first appearance of the crescent while others continue to follow the Qurʾanic prescription of actually seeing the moon, differences of one day in reckoning the beginning or end of a month are common. The date may also vary according to local weather conditions.

Certain days of the week are considered to be endowed with good or bad qualities, as can be understood from relevant collections of adīth. Friday, the day of communal prayer at noon, is always regarded as auspicious, and Monday and Thursday carry positive aspects, as do the "white nights" before and after a full moon.

The year begins with the month of Muarram. Its tenth day, ʿshūrāʾ, was suggested as a fast day by the Prophet but subsequently became associated with the death of Muammad's grandson, usayn ibn ʿAlī, who was killed in the Battle of Karbala on 10 Muarram 81 / October 10, 680. Although this day is a time of mourning for all Muslims, it is the Shīʿah, the "party" of ʿAlī, who have attached very special significance to usayn's martyrdom and to the entire month of Muarram. Thus, Sunnī Muslims do not subscribe to the elaborate celebrations developed in later centuries, particularly in Iran and India, where commemorations extend through the first ten days of the month. During this period women wear subdued colors, preferably black, with no jewelry. Men and women hold separate gatherings (majālis ) during which a male or female preacher reminds the audience of the suffering of usayn and the other imams. The preacher recounts legends of the events at Karbala; singers recite threnodies; and those present beat their breasts, call blessings upon the Prophet, and profusely shed tears. "Weeping for usayn opens the door to Paradise," it is said, and the tears themselves are collected for future use as a panacea.

During the first ten days of Muarram, special craftsmen prepare taʿziyah s, or tābūt s, tall, domed, wooden structures (up to thirty feet high) that represent the tombs of the imams. Beautifully carved and gilded or painted, they are carried in the ʿshūrāʾ processions along with colorful standards lofted in memory of usayn's standard-bearer, Jaʿfar. A lavishly caparisoned white horse is led as a symbol of usayn's mount, Dhū al-Janā, and of the white horse on which the Hidden Imam is expected to ride when he finally reappears. During these processions many people flagellate themselves with chains from which hang small knives (wounds thus inflicted never become septic), and fire walking is sometimes performed. In some areas, such as the Deccan, ʿshūrāʾ processions at times assumed almost carnivalistic aspects, as eighteenth-century miniatures show. Late in the day the small taʿziyah s are buried in a place designated as "Karbala," while the more precious ones are stored, along with other implements, in ʿāshūrā-khānah s or imām-bārah s, large buildings for the meetings of the Shīʿī community. A special dish with numerous ingredients is cooked in remembrance of the mixed food in Karbala, prepared from whatever happened to be in the heroes' bags. In Turkey, sharing this aure with neighbors is a custom among both Sunnī and Shīʿī families.

In nineteenth-century Lucknow, taʿziyah rites were continued until the tenth day of the following month of afar, thus marking forty days of mourning from the start of Muarram. Among the Shīʿah, no weddings are celebrated in Muarram, and the month has always been a time when communal or sectarian feelings run high. Not infrequently, rioting results. The Ismāʿīlī community, at least since the time of Aga Khan III (r. 18851957), does not participate in Muarram because it has a az̤ir imām ("present imam") in the Aga Khan and need not look back to usayn's death.

Various literary and dramatic genres have also developed around the events at Karbala. The genre of maqtal usayn, poetry or prose telling of usayn's suffering, has been known since the early Middle Ages, and the marthiyah, or threnody, began to be developed by Indian poets about the beginning of the seventeenth century. This latter genre, which originated in the Deccan and spread to northern India, found its finest expression at the Shīʿī court of Lucknow in the nineteenth century. In Iran, and to a lesser degree in Iraq and Lebanon, the martyrdom of usayn came to be re-created in taʿziyah plays interweaving numerous mythical elements to establish the martyrdom as the central event in the history of the universe.

In the month of afar, which follows Muarram, a sad mood used to prevail among Muslims because the Prophet once fell ill during this period. The last Wednesday of the month, when the Prophet felt better, was a day of rejoicing.

Rabīʿ al-Awwal ("first Rabīʿ"), the third lunar month, is marked by the Mawlid al-Nabī ("birthday of the Prophet") on the twelfth. The day is celebrated as the date of the Prophet's birth (mīlād) although it was actually the date of his death and is also widely commemorated in that connection. Nonetheless, the joyful celebration of Muammad's birthday began comparatively early; it was introduced on a larger scale in Fatimid Egypt, where the rulers, descendants of Muammad's daughter Fāimah, remembered the birthday of their ancestor by inviting scholars and by distributing sweets and money, a feature that has remained common. Ever since, the pious have felt that celebrations of the Mawlid have a special blessing power (barakah ).

The first major celebration of the MawlĪd al-Nabī is described for the year ah 604/1207 ce in Arbalāʾ (modern Irbil, in northern Iraq), where the ūfīs participated actively. The Mawlid became increasingly popular first in the western and then in the central Islamic lands. A special genre of poetry known as mawlūd developed in almost all Islamic languages. In Turkey the mevlûd by Süleyman Çelebi (d. 1409), telling in simple verse the miracles connected with the birth of the Prophet and describing his life, is still sung. In many countries, candles are litin Turkey the day is still called Mevlûd Kandili (Lamp Feast of the Birth)and the Mawlid provides an occasion for donning festive clothes, burning incense, and distributing sweets. Orthodox circles have traditionally taken issue with the use of candles because of the similarity to Christmas celebrations; likewise they have disallowed musical performances and deemed that only the recitation of the Qurʾān seems permissible on a day that also marks the Prophet's death. The stories that have been traditionally recited reflect the people's love and veneration of the Prophet, whose birth, according to some eighteenth-century writers, was "more important than the Laylat al-Qadr," the night when the Qurʾān was first revealed, for it meant the arrival of "mercy for the worlds" (sūrah 21:107). Lately, however, there is a growing tendency to demythologize the contents of Mawlid literature; the speeches and poems offered on that day, and throughout the month in many countries, are meant to remind people of the ethical and social role of the Prophet, the "beautiful model" (sūrah 33:21) of his community. Newspapers and television publicize this attitude.

The following month, Rabīʿ al-Thānī ("second Rabīʿ"), has no ritual justified by the Qurʾān or adīth. However, in many areas, especially in India and Pakistan, the eleventh marks the anniversary of ʿAbd al-Qādir al-Jīlānī, whose ūfī order, the Qadiriyah, is the most widespread fraternity. The month is therefore called simply Yārhīñ, meaning "eleven" in Sindhi. As on other saints' days, flags are flown, meetings are convened to recite eulogies for the saint, and food is cooked and distributed in his name.

No religious events, other than local saints' days, are noted for the following two months, Jumādā al-Ūlā ("first Jumādā") and Jumādā al-khirah ("last Jumādā"), but the seventh lunar month, Rajab, is blessed by celebration of the Prophet's Miʿrāj, his heavenly journey, which took place on the night of the twenty-seventh. In Turkey, this is again a kandil, or "lamp feast," on which people fast during daytime. In other areas, such as Kashmir, it used to be celebrated for a whole week. Although the celebration of the Miʿrāj cannot vie in popularity with the Prophet's birthday, the mystery of the Prophet's heavenly journey has deeply impressed Muslim piety and poetry. Other events commemorated in Rajab include the first nights of the month, raghāʾib, celebrated in some areas (notably Turkey) as the time when minah conceived the Prophet, as well as ʿAlī's birthday, celebrated by all Shīʿī communities on 13 Rajab.

In the following month, Shaʿbān, a non-Qurʾanic but very popular feast is the Laylat al-Barāʾah (Pers., Shab-i Barāt), celebrated on the night of the full moon. Historically this is the night when the Prophet entered Mecca triumphantly, but in Muslim folklore it is considered to be the night when the "writing conferring immunity is written in heaven" or, more generally, the night during which the fates for the coming year are fixed. Therefore pious Muslims fast, pray, and keep vigils. On the whole, however, and especially in Indo-Pakistan, the night is celebrated with illuminations and fireworks. Orthodox critics object to such displays as symptoms of Hindu influence, even though the Shab-i Barāt is mentioned in a non-Indian environment as early as the twelfth century, in a poem by Sanāʾī of Ghaznah (d. 1131). The Shīʿī community celebrates the birthday of Imam Mahdi, the last of the twelve imams, on this day.

The month of Ramaān is the most demanding of the Islamic year, especially when it falls in the hot season. Each day, Muslims must fast from the moment there is enough light to distinguish white from black threads until the sun has completely set. The order to abstain from food, drink, smoking, sex, and even from injections or intake of fragrance requires a strong intention (nīyah ) of the fasting person. He or she will then break fast with an odd number of dates and some water before proceeding to the evening prayer. The problem of how to keep the fast in northern countries during the long summer days has aroused much controversy; one solution is to break fast at the time when the sun sets in the next Muslim country or on the forty-fifth degree of latitude. For every day that the fast is neglected, or cannot be performed because of illness, pregnancy, or menstruation, the observant Muslim is obliged to compensate either by fasting some other day or by feeding a number of the ever present poor.

The Laylat al-Qadr ("night of power"; sūrah 97), during which the first revelation of the Qurʾān took place, is one of the last odd-numbered nights in Ramaān, generally considered the twenty-seventh. In its honor people may spend the last ten days of Ramaān in seclusion, and those who do not fast otherwise will try to do it during that period. The pious hope for the vision of the light that fills the world during this blessed night. The Ismāʿīlīs pray all night in their Jamāʿāt-khānah. Many people perform the tarāwi prayers (a long sequence, including twenty to thirty-three rakʿah s of prayers and prostrations) after breaking the fast. Then they may enjoy the lighter side of life: The illumination of mosques and the activities of all kinds of entertainers that used to be a regular part of every Ramaān night. A second meal is taken before the first sign of dawn.

The ʿĪd al-Fir (Feast of Fast Breaking), which brings release from the month-long abstinence at daylight, is called the "lesser feast," but it is most eagerly awaited as a celebration of the return to normal life. Its Turkish name, Şeker Bayrami ("sugar feast"), points to the custom of distributing sweets. After the morning prayer of 1 Shawwāl in the spacious ʿīdgāh, it is customary to put on new clothes and to visit friends. The sigh that one has no new clothes for the feast is a touching topic in Islamic love poetry.

After the ʿĪd al-Fir there is no major feast in Shawwāl or in Dhū al-Qaʿdah. The later month is used for preparations for the pilgrimage (ājj ), which takes place in Dhū al-ijjah.

On 10 Dhū al-ijjah, the ʿĪd al-Aā, or ʿĪd al-Qurbān (Feast of Sacrifice), called the "major feast," is celebrated in the valley of Minā, near Mecca, with thousands, and now millions, of Muslims ritually slaughtering sheep or larger animals and thus reenacting the substitution of a ram for Ismāʿīl, whom Abraham was willing to sacrifice (sūrah 37:102). Because this is the only feast in which the community celebrates the memory of a mythical event, every Muslim is called upon to repeat the slaughter at home; theologians do not accept the substitution of money for the sacrificial animal, as some liberal Muslims have suggested. According to popular belief, the slaughtered animal will carry its owner across the irā Bridge to paradise. The meat of the animal sacrificed at home is distributed to the poor, and the hide is given to a charitable foundation. The Indo-Muslim designation of the feast as Baqar ʿĪd (Cow Feast) and the slaughtering of cows have often caused Hindu riots during these days. The return of the pilgrims is duly celebrated, as one can witness every year at the airports of Muslim countries. Later in the month, on 18 Dhū al-ijjah, the Shīʿī community celebrates the ʿĪd al-Ghadīr (Feast of the Pond), the day on which Muammad invested ʿAlī as his successor near the pond Khumm.

Every place in the Islamic world has special celebrations for commemorating local saints. Some of these festivities, called ʿurs (spiritual "wedding"), attract tens of thousands of people. Almost all of them follow the rhythm of the lunar year. The ʿurs of Amad al-Badawī in Tanta, Egypt, is celebrated, however, according to the solar year in early June, when the Nile is rising, and may be connected with pre-Islamic fertility rites. In Turkey, the anniversary of the birth of Mawlānā Rūmī is now celebrated on December 17. Likewise, Ismāʿīlīs celebrate the Aga Khan's birthday according to the common era.

Some Muslim festivals are connected with the solar year. The most important is Nawrūz, the Persian New Year, which occurs at the vernal equinox. It is celebrated in a joyous way wherever Persian culture spread, even in Egypt. It is customary that seven items have to be on the table (in Iran, the names of these seven must begin with the letter s ). Orthodox Muslims have often objected to the celebration of Nawrūz, but for most people the beginning of spring has always been too delightful to be neglected. The Bektashī order of ūfīs in Turkey have explained Nawrūz as ʿAlī's birthday and have thus Islamized it. Another Turkish celebration, Hidrellez, combines the feasts of the saint-prophet Khir and of Ilyās, associated with the biblical Elijah. The day falls on May 6 and is connected with a change of winds and weather.

An interesting way of depicting the sequence of the ritual year is found in a poetic genre of Indo-Pakistan called bārahmāsa ("twelve months"). It is derived from Hindu tradition and in its Islamized forms describes the twelve months through the words of a lovesick young woman who experiences in Muarram the pain of seeing her beloved slain, celebrates his birthday in Rabīʿ al-Awwal, and finally meets him in Dhū al-ijjah, when visiting either the Kaʿbah in Mecca or the Prophet's tomb in Medina.

Muslim mystics, as strictly as they might have adhered to ritual, have spiritualized the liturgical year. The Feast of Sacrificewhether it be named ʿĪd al-Aā, ʿĪd al-Qurbān, or ʿĪd al-Narhas meant, for them, to sacrifice themselves before the divine Beloved, and the true ʿīd has been to see the face of the Beloved whose very presence makes every day a feast for the lover.

See Also

ʿshūrāʾ; Mawlid; Nowrūz; Pilgrimage, article on Muslim Pilgrimage; awm; Worship and Devotional Life, article on Muslim Worship.


Gustave E. von Grunebaum's Muhammedan Festivals (New York, 1951) gives a general survey of the Islamic festivals, mainly based on classical sources. See also the article "Muslim Festivals" in Hava Lazarus-Yafeh's Some Religious Aspects of Islam (Leiden, 1981), pp. 3847. E. W. Lane's An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, 3 vols., 3d ed. (1846; reprint, New York, 1973) deals with the seasons as they were celebrated in early nineteenth-century Cairo, while Jaʿfar Sharif's Islam in India, or the Qanun-i-Islam, translated by G. A. Herklots and edited by William Crooke (1921; reprint, London, 1972), describes the Muslim year as celebrated in India, particularly in the Deccan. For the Muarram ceremonies, the best introduction is Taʿziyeh: Ritual and Drama in Iran, edited by Peter J. Chelkowski (New York, 1979), and the classic study of the ājj is still Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje's Het Mekkansche feest (Leiden, 1880).

Annemarie Schimmel (1987)

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Islamic Religious Year

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Islamic Religious Year