4 Intriguing Things You May Not Know About the Islamic Hijri Calendar

Muslims around the world use the Islamic calendar to determine the dates of religious events and observances.
by Ustaz Muhammad Abdul Mateen Bin Hisham 2023-07-17 • 14 min read
Upon graduating from Madrasah Aljunied Al-Islamiah, Ustaz Mateen pursued his studies at Al-Azhar University and graduated with a degree in Islamic Theology, specialising in Creed and Philosophy.
2023-07-17 • 14 min read

Hijri Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar used to determine Muslim events

Praise be to Allah.

A journey happens when we travel from one place to another as we move closer to our destination. Similarly, in life, we won’t be meeting yesterday again as we embark on a journey that will continue to unravel us with new discoveries and experiences with each passing day.

Read: Reflections On Moving Forward in Life

The human civilization has seen various models of calculating time. One mode, in particular, is the calendar, which is a system to record the days of each month and week in a year.

In Islam, the calculation of the Islamic Hijri Calendar plays an important role in the life of a Muslim as it concludes the time for Ramadan, the two Eids (Hari Raya Aidilfitri and Aidiladha) and the period for Hajj, just to name a few. These specific periods are essential to observe some obligatory acts like the fasting in Ramadan and the Hajj or pilgrimage, for those who have met their calling. In other words, the Islamic Hijri calendar is directly involved in our religious life.

Read: Hajj: The Meaning of Pilgrimage

In this article, we will explore 4 other interesting things about the Islamic Hijri Calendar that you may not know. 

1. The Hijri Calendar was Created Out of Necessity

Little did we know that the Islamic Hijri Calendar was not set during the Prophet's time. It was only established during the time of the second rightly guided Caliph, Umar ibn Al-Khattab r.a. Previously, the Arabs did not have any system to register a certain year other than the significant events that happened at the time.

For instance, when a king from Southern Arabia, Abraha, and his army that was equipped with elephants decided to invade Makkah, it became a very distinct event which was etched in the memory of those who lived to see it, even though the military campaign was an unsuccessful one.

Due to the significant appearance of these war elephants, the year term of that time was known as the ‘Year of the Elephant’. Prophet Muhammad was born in that very same year term. Hence, it was recorded that the Prophet s.a.w. was born in the ‘Year of the Elephant’.

Although the Arabs at that time did not have a specific number or term to register the year, the lunar-months just like those in the Islamic Hijri Calendar today were already present during the Pre-Islamic era.[1] They are Muharram, Safar, Rabi’ul Awwal, Rabi’ul Thani, Jamadil Awwal, Jamadil Thani, Rajab, Sya’ban, Ramadan, Syawal, Zulkaedah and Zulhijjah.

These months were used in the time of Prophet s.a.w. as time representations to calculate religious observances. Allah s.w.t. mentions in the Quran:

إِنَّ عِدَّةَ الشُّهُورِ عِندَ اللَّهِ اثْنَا عَشَرَ شَهْرًا فِي كِتَابِ اللَّهِ يَوْمَ خَلَقَ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضَ مِنْهَا أَرْبَعَةٌ حُرُمٌ

"Indeed, the number of months ordained by Allah is twelve—in Allah’s Record since the day He created the heavens and the earth—of which four are sacred."

(Surah At-Tawbah, 9:36)

However, as mentioned above, the months would only be recorded without indicating the year itself. This method of recording dates continued until Caliph Umar Ibn Al-Khattab r.a. received a letter from the governor of Basra, Abu Musa al-Ash’ari r.a, who questioned the difficulty in identifying the dates:[2]

“Letters have reached us from the Commander of the Faithful (Umar r.a.), but we do not know which to obey. We read a document dated (in the month of) Sya'ban, but we do not know which Sya'ban is meant; is it the one that has passed, or that which is to come?"

Umar r.a. saw the need to establish a proper dating system and therefore quickly assembled important and senior figures within the community, which involved some of the Prophet’s companions r.a. to discuss the matter. 

Read: Singapore’s approach to determining the start of the Hijri month

2. The Islamic Calendar is Based on The Hijrah

There were suggestions to adopt various existing calendar models of the time such as the Roman and Persian calendar. It was argued that the Persian calendar was based on the victories of their kings, which do not coincide well with the spirit of Islam.

On the other hand, the Roman calendar was dated too far back and would not serve as a solution for several issues.[3] It was also said to be based on the birth of Alexander the Great, according to Ibn Kathir in Al-Bidayah Wan-Nihayah.

Beyond the above, there were also suggestions to base the calendar upon a significant event within the advent of Islam. These suggestions included the descent of the first revelation (Nuzul Al-Quran)the Prophet’s birth and his departure. The council did not agree with the aforementioned suggestions due to the following reasons:

1. The first revelation was not agreed upon because its specific date was contested. 

2. While the date of the birth of the Prophet was well known, there was still a lot of oppression and injustice within the Meccan community during the pre-Islamic era. The years preceding the appointment of Prophethood did not have a significant point of development for the community then. 

3. Some also suggested the year of the Prophet's departure from this world, since it chronologically marked a new era. The thought of it, however, left a very depressing remark that should never be a point to begin with. It was one of the saddest moments in history for Muslims. The Islamic Hijri calendar should never start from a sad event.

Under the suggestion of Ali bin Abi Talib r.a, it became clear that the best option was to start with the year the Prophet s.a.w migrated from Makkah to Madinah, more commonly known as the Hijrah.[4] Umar Ibn Al-Khattab r.a. took this view upon the council's agreement due to its clear event and the significant meaning that it carries.

The more literal meaning of the Hijrah refers to moving from one place to another. Other than this physical understanding of the Hijrah, it also carries a moral meaning which can be seen in the hadith:

الْمُهَاجِرُ مَنْ هَجَرَ مَا نَهَى اللَّهُ عَنْهُ

“The muhajir (one who migrates) is the one who abandons what Allah has forbidden”

(Muttafaqun 'Alayh)

This moral sense of Hijrah relates to how a Muslim should navigate through the nature of this world. When afflicted with tribulations or even in idleness, a Muslim continues to strive for higher excellence in all aspects of his life; from ignorance to knowledge, from fear to courage, from intolerance to forbearance, from oppression to justice and from disobedience to obedience. It is a state of return to the Almighty and the All-Protecting, Allah s.w.t.

Read: Repentance in Islam

3. Muharram was Only Chosen as The First Month After Careful Deliberation

Now that the council have established a dating system to register the year, they continued to discuss which of the months should the calendar start from. Some suggested that it should be the month of Rejab, the first of the four sacred months; the other three being Zulkaedah, Zulhijjah and Muharram. Others suggested that it should be the month of Ramadan as it is one of the holiest months in Islam. It was then suggested that the calendar should start from Muharram.

After careful deliberation, the council agreed upon Muharram as the start of the Islamic Hijri Calendar. The reason is that people have gathered in Zulhijjah for the Hajj. In a more refined state, they return from their pilgrimage to their homelands in the month of Muharram with a new beginning.[5] In signifies a new and refined beginning.

The Islamic Hijri Calendar also symbolises the Muslim’s journey to fulfil all 5 pillars of Islam from constantly renewing their faith, performing their prayers, paying their annual Zakat, fasting in Ramadan and fulfilling the Hajj in Zulhijjah, for those who have met their calling.

Umar Ibn Al-Khattab r.a. agreed with the view to take Muharram as the month to start the calendar. This agreement meant the establishment of the Islamic Hijri Calendar that we still use today.

4. The Calendar Reminds Us To Reflect on The Lessons of Hijrah

The process of establishing the Islamic Hijri Calendar reflects the general outlook of a Muslim towards his or her life. Every passing day is a step further to progress towards our destination. Each step is motivated by a positive and uplifting outlook of what is to come in life. This inspires us with a sense of hope for Allah's all-encompassing mercy.

These are the lessons drawn from the journey of our beloved Prophet s.a.w. to Madinah, the Hijrah. For every challenge that awaits, the Prophet knew it wasn’t easy. He did not simply abandon all efforts needed to accomplish his objectives just because he was a Prophet.

The Prophet s.a.w. faced his challenges with a strong sense of reliance upon Allah s.w.t. and took the necessary steps to overcome them. At some point, he even took unconventional but morally consistent ways, as can be seen in his journey to Madinah, ensuring his safe arrival.

Imagine the number of lessons encapsulated for us to ponder upon as we enter this new Islamic Hijri Year. Even in the state of anxiety for what is to come or fear for the unknown, we can always look back at how Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. overcame his ordeal.

In fact, when we talk about fearing the unknown, I find one of the most valuable lessons taught in the Hijrah is when Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. reassured his loyal companion, Abu Bakr As-Siddiq r.a. During their journey, the Quraysh continued to pursue them relentlessly. As they were hiding in the dark cave from the Quraysh pursuers, Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. comforted Abu Bakr As-Siddiq, as recorded in the Quran:

إِذْ هُمَا فِي الْغَارِ إِذْ يَقُولُ لِصَاحِبِهِ لَا تَحْزَنْ إِنَّ اللَّهَ مَعَنَا

"While they both were in the cave, he reassured his companion, “Do not worry, for Allah is certainly with us.”

(Surah At-Tawbah, 9:40)

And Allah knows best.

[1] Pre-Islamic and agricultural calendars of the Arabian peninsula", The Encyclopedia of Islam
[2] The Clash of the Calendars, Pascal Ghazaleh in Al-Ahram weekly, 5 Jan 2000
[3] Ibid
[4] Muhadharat Fi Seeratil Khulafa’i Rasyideen r.a, Abu Al-Yasr Rashid Kuhus
[5] Al-Bidayah Wan-Nihayah, Ibn Kathir

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