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"They ask thee concerning the
New Moons. Say: They are but signs to mark fixed periods of time in (the affairs
of) men and for pilgrimage..."
Muslims measure their year by the cycles of the moon rather than the sun making the Muslim lunar year eleven days shorter than the Christian solar (Gregorian) year. Muslims do not adjust their year by adding an extra month, as the Jews do to keep their lunar calendar in synch with the seasons. Hence the months of the Muslim year do not relate to the seasons which are fundamentally related to the solar cycle. This means that important Muslim festivals, which always fall in the same Hijri month, may occur in different seasons. For example, the Hajj and Ramadan can take place in the summer as well as the winter. It is only over a 33-year cycle that lunar months take a complete turn and fall during the same season.
The Islamic Calendar was first introduced in 638 CE by the close companion of the Prophet and the second Caliph, `Umar ibn Al-Khattab (592-644 CE) (RA), in an attempt to rationalise the various, and at times conflicting, dating systems used during his time. `Umar (R.A) consulted with his advisors on the starting date of the new Muslim chronology. It was finally agreed that the most appropriate reference point for the Islamic calendar was the Hijrah. The Hijrah, which chronicles the migration of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) from Makkah to Madinah in September 622 CE, is the central historical event of early Islam, and led to the foundation of the first Muslim city-state, a turning point in Islamic and world history. The actual starting date for the Calendar was chosen (on the basis of purely lunar years, counting backwards) to be the first day of the first month (1 Muharram) of the year of the Hijrah. The Islamic (Hijri) calendar (with dates that fall within the Muslim Era) is usually abbreviated A.H. in Western languages from the latinized _Anno Hegirae_. Muharram 1, 1 A.H. corresponds to July 16, 622 CE.
The significance of the Hijrah as the starting of the Islamic calendar is particurlarly noteworthy as was pointed out, through quoting Nadvi, in Mohammad Ilyas' book ``A Modern Guide to Astronomical Calculations of Islamic Calendar, Times & Qibla,'' who wrote:
"The number of months in the
sight of God is twelve (in a year) - so ordained by Him the day He created the
heavens and the earth; of them four are sacred: that is the straight usage....
The Islamic (Hijri) year consists of twelve (purely lunar) months:
For religious reasons, the beginning of a Hijri month is marked not by the start of a new moon, but by a visual sighting of the crescent moon at a given locale with the Islamic months beginning at sunset on the day of sighting. Even though visual sighting is necessary to determine the start of a month, it is useful to accurately predict when a crescent is likely to be visible in order to produce lunar calendars in advance. Although it is possible to calculate the position of the moon in the sky with high precision, it is often difficult to predict if a crescent will be visible from a particular location. Visibility depends on a large number of factors such as weather conditions, the altitude of the moon at sunset and its closeness, atmospheric pollution, the quality of the eyesight of the observer etc. and there remains a measure of uncertainty associated with all criteria developed thus far. From the Fiqhi (Islamic jurisprudence) standpoint, one may begin the fast in Ramadan, for example, based on "local" sighting (IKHTILAF AL-MATALE') or based on sighting anywhere in the Muslim World (ITTEHAD AL-MATALE'). Although different, both of these positions are valid Fiqhi positions.
Ramadan is revered as the most blessed month of the year, the month in which the Quran was first revealed to Muhammad (pbuh), God's final Prophet on earth. It is a time of grace and spiritual energy, when the acts of worship practiced throughout the year suddenly take on new and urgent meaning. Towards the close of this month comes the Night of Power, Laylat al-Qadr, which, as the Quran relates, "is better than a thousand months." The Prophet stressed that it is a time for spiritual effort and breakthrough; and according to tradition, it was the night when God proclaimed man's status as Hid deputy on earth, thereby raising him above all other creatures: it is the moment when man can most easily become himself.
Because the Muslim calendar is derived from the phases of the moon, the Fasting month falls a little earlier each year. The effect of this is to balance out the discrepancy between Fasting in the northern and the southern hemispheres. It is often thought that in certain parts of the globe the fast will be easier than in others, for the length of the day, as well as its temperature, varies from season to season and from land to land. But Ramadan, creeping forward at a rate of about ten days in each solar year, ensures that wherever one may be on the planet, the fast will fall sometimes in winter and sometimes in summer. Similarly although in high latitudes the days can be long, there is no heat. A balance is thus obtained, so that Fasting is similarly efficacious all over the world. And where the sun rises and sets only once a year (there is an ancient Muslim community in Finland, for example), they simply adhere to the timetable of the nearest major town south of the Arctic Circle.
To learn about the significance of Fasting in the Muslim's life click here.
The most important dates in the Islamic (Hijri) year are:
To use a Gregorian Hijri Date converter click here.
(Sourcse:University of Pittsburgh website; Abdul Wadod Shalabi, Islam: Religion of Life; Bloom & Blair, Islam: Empire of Faith; http://www.ummah.net/ildl/ )