The Ummah of Islam has its markers of distinction that separate it from others. These markers are not limited to our matters of belief and acts of worship, but extends to our very calendar. Just as every nation has its unique standard measure of time, the Ummah of Islam is no different; the Islamic (Hijrī) calendar is the standard measure of time in the Qur’an and Sunnah.
I begin with a verse of the Quran that I will return to and reflect on.. Allah says:
These twelve lunar months are:
1: Muḥarram: Literally meaning ‘forbidden’ (‘ḥarām’), it was given this name due to the prohibition of fighting during it. This is the first month of the Islamic calendar.
2. Ṣafar: It is derived from the word ‘ṣifr’, meaning empty, as pre-Islamic Arabs conducted raids during this time, leaving their homes ‘empty’.
3. Rabī’ al-awwal: The word rabī’ means ‘spring’, and al-awwal means ‘the first’, and was given this name as it coincided with the start of the spring season when its name was first given.
4. Rabī’al-thānī: Meaning ‘the second spring’, referring to the end of the spring season.
5. Jumāda al-awwal: The word jumāda is derived from the word ‘jamād’, which refers to something frozen. It was given this name due to sources of water being frozen due to cold temperatures at the time of the naming of this month.
6. Jumāda al-thānī: This has the same meaning as the previous month, but it marks the end of the period of freezing.
7. Rajab: This word is derived from the word ‘rajb’– which means ‘respect’, as it was respected by the Arabs in so far as it was one of the four sacred months.
8. Sha’ban: Meaning ‘scattered’ as marked the time of year when Arab tribes would disperse for war after they had paused combat in the month prior to it.
9. Ramaḍān: Derived from the root word ‘al-ramḍ’ which means ‘to burn’ in reference to the scorching heat at the time of the naming of the month.
10. Shawwāl: Derived from the word ‘al-shawl’, which denotes lifting, as crops had dried at the time of the naming of this month, as if they had been ‘lifted’ from the earth.
11. Dhū al-Qa’dah: This month literally translates to “the one of sitting/truce” because all fighting and travelling ceased during this month in that it is one of the four sacred months.
12. Dhū al-Ḥijjah: This month is called ‘the one of pilgrimage’ because it is the month in which Hajj is performed.
Each month is determined by the arrival of the new moon. The verse continues;
Al-Qurṭubī states that Allah determined these twelve months and established their names on the day He created the heavens and the earth, and that they were subsequently revealed to the prophets all throughout the ages in their books. The verse continues;
These four sacred months are the months of Rajab (the 7th month), and then three consecutive ones – Dhū al-Qa’dah (the 11th month), Dhū al-Ḥijjah (the 12th month), Muḥarram (the 1st month). The verse continues;
Notice how, in the verse above, the mentioning of the Islamic months is immediately connected to the statement of “that is the right religion”. As such, the scholars did not view the Islamic calendar merely as a tool to measure time, but also as a form of worship and an integral part of the religion. Far more than being a convenient way of dividing our days, months and years, it is sacred at its core and part of the divine order.
Over the years however, the role of the Islamic calendar has tragically been limited to the occasional religious seasons. As for its role as a marker of Islamic identity, this has waned over time to the point that many Muslims are oblivious to the current day, month and even year of the Hijrī system of dating.
Development of the Islamic Era
All throughout time, people have used notable events as starting points for establishing the beginnings of periods of time. The first of which was the descent of Adam, followed by Nūḥ’s rescuing from the flood, and then the cooling of the fire into which Ibrāhīm was thrown, as was mentioned by al-Sha’bī. Later on in time, an Eastern Roman monk Dionysius Exiguous (d. 544 CE), or Dennis the Little, introduced the Anno Domini (AD) (meaning “in the year of the Lord”) dating system used for the Gregorian calendar, which uses the birth of Jesus (peace be upon him) as a starting point for the counting of years.
The pre-Islamic Arabs did the same, using memorable events as reference points for epochs. For example, they used the death of Kaʿb ibn Luʾayy, the Year of the Elephant (ʿĀm al-Fīl), and Ḥarb al-Fijār as multiple epochs. So, they would say “so and so was born two years after the year of the elephant”, or “so and so died ten years after Ḥarb al-Fijār”, and so on.
During the reign of ‘Umar, the Islamic empire grew exponentially, causing them to encounter new challenges, on of which was the many important documents that were arriving into the Islamic state without complete dates. While the months and days of the calendar were well established, the Companions still faced the problem of properly chronicling events on a yearly basis seeing that it was unknown which year they were referring.
A legal document was delivered to ʿUmar which had the month of Shaʿbān written on it. ʿUmar asked: Is this the Shaʿbān of last year or this coming year? Then he said to the Companions: Let us determine an epoch for the people to use.” ʿUmar then gathered his advisors. Some of them suggested using the calendar of the Persians or Romans, but ‘Umar detested the idea. Some of them suggested using the birth of the Prophet as the starting point of the era. Others suggested basing it on the date of the first revelation that came to him, whilst others suggested his death. ‘Umar did not favour any of these opinions, particularly because their dates were not definitely known. When each had given their opinion, ‘Umar said:
Indeed, the migration was the ultimate turning point in the prophetic story, lifting persecution from the Muslims and granting them land from which they could gather themselves, conduct their affairs and form the very first state and army of Islam. As a result, the date of migration (‘ḥijrah’) became a matter of consensus amongst the Companions (hence it is called the ḥijrī calendar), which became a fixed point from which the first year of the calendar (1 AH) was determined.
Now that a starting point of the Islamic year was agreed upon, what remained was to decide on what month to begin the Islamic calendar with. Some suggested Ramaḍān while others suggested Muḥarram. They decided to go with the latter. Ibn Ḥajar said:
Furthermore, as most Muslims during that time would go to Ḥajj every year in Dhū al-Ḥijjah, the month of Muḥarram depicted a new beginning after having their sins erased. So, it made perfect sense to start the Islamic year with Muḥarram, signifying rebirth in the new year. It is key to note that the Gregorian calendar was yet to come into existence at the time of this assembly.
The redistribution of power
All throughout history, calendars have been used as a tool for manipulation and control by the elites. The Roman calendar, for example, contained a list of sanctioned dates on which governing and societal organizations would conduct business, dates that were kept hidden from the public. The intention was to give the aristocrats and religious clergy advantage over the commoners in matters of Roman life.
Similarly, in the Arabian Peninsula, the influential tribe of Kinānah were responsible for the reallocation of months during the Hajj season, headed by an individual with the title of Qalammas. He would be approached by Arabs who would say: “Delay Muḥarram and put Ṣafar in its place!” He would then switch the months, and those who had come to Makkah for the Ḥajj would go back to their homes and inform their families of the change.
When Islam came, it inherited the Arabic calendar; however, it purified it from the above pagan practices. The Prophet Muhammadﷺ in his final Hajj, announced the end of tampering with time (via what the Qur’an refers to as nasī’, or intercalation) and adopted a strictly lunar calendar (disconnected from the solar calendar) that we still use today.
With the Islamic practice of moon sighting, the tight grasp over the calendar which the tribe of Kinānah had enjoyed was taken away from them and instead redistributed the responsibility to the masses. Seeing that the moon is observable by all and cannot be hidden from the public, this redistribution acts as a natural system of checks and balances, closing the door of exploitation and monopolization. For this reason, the lunar calendar survived for centuries without the alterations that affected the Christian calendars. A basic scan of the history of the Gregorian calendar and how it shifted from the Roman calendar to the Julian calendar and finally to the Gregorian calendar, with all of its scientific, political, and religious alterations, as well as the fact we need an “additional day” every four years, is evidence that the solar calendar is far from perfect.
Signs of decline
Although Muslims worldwide still use the Islamic calendar, however, it’s been demoted in status to a secondary calendar that we only refer to when we want to know when is Ramaḍān, Eid, and Hajj. Following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I and the Treaty of Sèvres, the Islamic calendar lost its validity, where a law on December 26, 1925 was passed, and the Gregorian calendar was officially adopted for use in what was now known as the new Republic of Turkey.
Since then, other Muslim-majority countries have followed suit, limiting the Islamic calendar to matters of religion and detaching it from civil and political life. In fact, in more recent times, Saudi Arabia’s transformation plan for the country was dubbed Vision 2030 rather than Vision 1451 (the corresponding Islamic year), despite it being the land where the Islamic calendar was founded and remained in use for more than fourteen centuries.
What does this say about the Ummah’s state of affairs and future direction? Does the current detachment of the Islamic calendar from civil life predict the same fate for Muslim-majority countries as that of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century when it did the same? It is certainly within reason to argue that the Islamic identity of an Islamic empire or country is closely tied to the standardization of the Islamic calendar which regulates its affairs.
The abandonment of the Islamic calendar from the lives of Muslims has grave consequences not just on the identity but also on our awareness of our religious obligations; how will Muslims calculate the elapsing of a lunar year for paying their zakāh? How will Muslims remember to fast the three white nights of each lunar month? How will they determine, for example, the 10th of Muharram for fasting, the first 10 days of Dhū al-Ḥijjah, or the beginning and end of Ramaḍān? How will the widowed woman determine her ‘iddah (waiting period of 4 months and 10 days), which is not to be measured using the Gregorian calendar but by the Islamic lunar one? In fact, how will Muslims make sense of the dates referred to in the Islamic books of history with respect to the major events of the past?
Furthermore, there is an atmosphere that is found in the month of Muḥarram that is not found in Ṣafar. Similarly, there is an atmosphere that is found in Ramaḍān that is not found in Rajab. A disconnection from the Islamic calendar, therefore, is to allow these religiously invigorating atmospheres to pass by year on year out without growth, worse still, with decay of spirituality and identity. The Islamic calendar has Divine purposes and is in perfect balance with yourself and the cosmic rhythm.
The Gregorian calendar, today, is the calendar used by most of the world. Abandoning it completely would not only prove unfeasible but could possibly cause more harm than good. Having said that, Muslims are perfectly able to play an effective role in the revival of the Islamic calendar. For example;
- Muslim speakers could begin their speeches with the Islamic ḥijrī date, before the Gregorian date.
- Authors could so the same with their articles and publications.
- If you’re a business owner, pay your employees according to the Islamic calendar.
- To make visible an Islamic calendar in homes, offices and schools.
- To make use of existing technologies; Apple, Google, and Microsoft that allow adding the Islamic calendar to one’s digital calendar and smartphones.
- Parents could remind their children of the passage of each Islamic month and the beginning of a new one, whilst repeating the same message on each occasion;
This is the calendar that Allah chose for humanity, and so reviving it is an act of worship, a statement of identity and the best system to organize our life around.
 Al-Qurṭubī, al-Jāmiʿ li-aḥkām al-Qurʾān,
 Al-Qur’an, 9:36
 Ibn al-Jawzī, Al-Muntaẓam fī Tārīkh al-Mulūk wa al-Umam
 Al-Ṭabarī, Tārīkh al-Rusul wa al-Mulūk
 Al-Ṭabarī, Tārīkh al-Rusul wa al-Mulūk
 Ibn Ḥajar, Fatḥ al-Bārī
 Parts of the article were adapted from Faraz Malik’s paper, titled: The Months Ordained by Allah: Reviving the Islamic Calendar
Shaykh Ali Ihsan Hammuda is Islam21c’s Tarbiya Editor. A UK national of Palestinian origin, he gained bachelors and masters’ degrees in Architecture & Planning from the University of the West of England, before achieving a BA in Shari’ah from al-Azhar University in Egypt. He is currently based in Wales and is a visiting Imām at Al-Manar Centre in Cardiff, and also a senior researcher and lecturer for the Muslim Research & Development Foundation in London. Shaykh Ali is the author of several books including ‘The Daily Revivals’, ‘The Ten Lanterns’ and ‘The Friday Reminder’. He delivers sermons, lectures and regular classes across the country.