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What is the Islamic New Year and how is it celebrated?

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What is the Islamic New Year—and how is it celebrated?

When the new crescent moon appears on July 19, 2023, Muslims around the world will celebrate the beginning of the Islamic New Year (1445) , also called the Arabic or Hijrī New Year. For many Muslims, Muharram, the sacred month that kicks off each new year, is a time of mourning and reflection.Here’s an introduction to the holiday—what you need to know about its origins, how it’s observed around the world, and why it occurs in the middle of July.

Origins of the lunar calendar

The Islamic New Year corresponds to the first month of the Hijrī calendar, a lunar calendar employed for calculating the dates of religious festivals and important observances like the Hajj pilgrimage. While majority-Islamic countries primarily follow the solar Gregorian calendar, the lunar calendar remains instrumental in determining religious events. Due to its reliance on lunar movements, the Muslim calendar encompasses 354 or 355 days, making it approximately 11 days shorter than the solar Gregorian calendar with its 365 days (or 366 in leap years).

In 639 C.E., Umar I, the second Muslim caliph, introduced the Hijrī calendar as part of a larger effort to standardize and organize Islamic life and traditions. This move also aimed to distinguish the Islamic calendar from those used by other religions.

Umar selected a significant anniversary to mark the beginning of the calendar: the summer of 622 C.E. when it is believed that Prophet Muhammad and his followers secretly migrated from Mecca (the city in Saudi Arabia where he was born) to Medina. This migration, known as Hijrah, was an escape from religious persecution and is widely regarded as the starting point of Islam as both a structured religion and political institution.

While the Hijrī calendar has a fixed starting point, the beginning of its months can vary across regions depending on the sighting of the new crescent moon.

Observing Muharram

The word "muharram" translates to "forbidden" in Arabic, hinting at the month's significance. During Muharram and three other sacred months, the Quran prohibits warfare or fighting. Muslims globally observe the entire month of Muharram through prayer and spending time with their families.

However, Islam's two major sects approach the first month of the year differently, stemming from a historical event following the death of Muhammad's grandson, Husayn Ibn Ali al-Hussein, in 680 C.E. This event led to a schism between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.

Shiite Muslims engage in ten days of mourning at the start of the month, culminating in Ashura on the 10th day to commemorate al-Hussein's death. Some Shiite Muslims partake in mourning processions, while others engage in self-flagellation using their hands, chains, or even blades as a way to honor al-Hussein's suffering. Although some Muslim scholars permit this dramatic practice, others within Islam object to it, citing potential damage to inter-sect relations.

On the other hand, some Sunni Muslims observe Ashura through fasting and prayer, in honor of a fast undertaken by Muhammad in Medina after his migration. However, there is disagreement among Sunni scholars regarding the permissibility of fasting on Ashura.

During the month of Muharram, commemorative foods also play a role in various traditions. Examples include the saffron rice shared among mourners in Garmsar, Iran, and doodh ka sharbat, a milky drink consumed in Hyderabad, India, in memory of the thirst experienced by al-Hussein and his followers during the fatal battle.

Unlike the secular New Year celebrations, Muharram does not involve extravagant festivities or fireworks. Instead, for those who observe it, the Hijrī new year serves as an annual reminder of the passage of time, the rich history of Islam, and the resilience of Muslim individuals and communities.

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