13 September 2018
In this image from August, Muslim pilgrims touch Kaaba's wall and pray at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. (photo: CNS/Sedat Suna, EPA)
In countries where CNEWA serves, there are sizable—often majority—Muslim communities. And, of course, in the Holy Land, there is a majority Jewish community.
But in a rare coincidence, both Islam and Judaism are observing their respective New Years this week.
On 10 September, Jews around the world celebrated Rosh Hashanah, literally “the head of the year,” and the following day Muslims observed the first of Muharram, the New Year in the Muslim calendar. Although Muslims and Jews (to some extent also Christians) follow a lunar calendar of twenty-nine days, Jews and Christians in different ways “correct” the lunar calendar to keep it in line with the 365-day solar calendar. Muslims, however, do not and the Muslim calendar year is 10-11 days shorter than the “corrected” calendar used by Jews and Christians. As a result, festivals like Ramadan, the Breaking of the Fast and New Year move “backwards” through the calendar commonly used. Thus 1 Muharram fell on 14 October in 2015 and will fall on 10 August in 2021. It is unusual, therefore, that 1 Muharram and Rosh Hashanah occur so close to each other.
There is some interesting history behind all this. The Islamic calendar — and hence, New Year — is calculated from the Hijra or emigration/flight of Muhammad and the Muslim community in 622 from a hostile Mecca to Medina where the community would thrive. After enduring more than a decade of often violent persecution in Mecca, Muhammad and his community were invited by the people of Medina, an oasis city over 200 miles north of Mecca, to move there and for Muhammad to govern the city. The story of the Hijra is tense and thrilling. As the Muslims were leaving the city, Ali ibn Abi Talib, the Prophet’s son-in-law, disguised himself as Muhammad in the Prophet’s bed to throw off those who were trying to kill him. Muhammad and his faithful companion Abu Bakr hid from the pursuers in a cave for three days before finally beginning the trip and arriving safely in Medina.
It is important to understand the relationship between the Hijra and the Muslim New Year. It is estimated that the Hijra took place in June of 622. The 1 Muharram after the Hijra is the beginning of the Muslim calendar, which is abbreviated AH (anno hegira). One of the four “sacred months” in the Muslim calendar, Muharram is second in holiness only to the month of Ramadan. Muharram is traditionally a time of non-violence. War, fighting and even hunting is forbidden during the sacred month.
The 10th day of Muharram is Ashura, which for Shi’ite Muslims is a day of great mourning, recalling the murder of Hussein ibn Ali, the Prophet’s grandson, in 680. Ashura is extremely important for Shi’ites who observe the martyrdom of Hussein with re-enactments of his death and mourning rituals. Sunnis do not observe Ashura in this way and in some parts of the world this leads to conflict between the Shi’ite and Sunni communities.
Both Judaism and Islam observe their particular New Years in different ways, with different ceremonies, with rich and varied meanings for those communities. However, the New Year is always a time for looking back and looking forwards — the Roman god Janus, for whom January is named, is portrayed with two faces, one looking forward, the other backwards.
It is a time for remembering the past and correcting what needs to be corrected and a time for looking forward in faith and hope for the year to come.
Tags: Muslim Islam Jews