Muharram, the Hijrah, and the Muslim calendar

By: Shaykh Mohammed Amin Kholwadia


The Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (upon him be blessings and peace) over a span of twenty-three years. The Prophet recited each verse according to its pre-ordained order in the Lawh Mahfuz, or Protected Tablet. After the Prophet (upon him be blessings and peace) left this world, his Companions compiled, and thus preserved, the Qur’an in the very order it was recited during his life. Muslims have always held the view that this order of recitation was also divinely inspired and that the Companions preserved the pre-ordained order of recitation. The science that inevitably emerged from this is that of understanding the nazm, or literary arrangement, of the Qur’an. In his brilliant exegesis of the Qur’an, Tafsir Azizi, Shah Abdul Aziz, the erudite protégé and son of Shah Waliullah of Delhi, notes the genius of the Companions vis-à-vis their understanding the nazm of the Qur’an and hence their dexterity in fathoming the meaning of the Qur’an itself.

We must understand some historical facts about the pre-Islamic calendar. The year in which the Prophet Muhammad (upon him blessings and peace) was born was known as the Year of the Elephant. The Year of the Elephant was the year in which Abrahah came to Makkah with the intent to destroy the Ka‘bah. He failed miserably, as the Qur’an notes in Surat al-Fil (105). The Arabs used that year as a point of reference to number their years. But they did not agree to any standard when it came to numbering their months, even though their calendar was lunar. Even the period of the Hajj was not specified and, consequently, the sacred month of Muharram was also shifted every year. This meant that some years had thirteen months instead of twelve.

The responsibility for announcing the date of the Hajj was entrusted to a man from Banu Kinanah named Hudhayfah bin ‘Abd Fuqaym (better known as al-Qalammas). He would announce on the occasion of the Hajj when the next pilgrimage was to be performed, and which month the thirteenth month was to follow. The first Qalammas was an individual, but then the name became a title specific to the announcer.

The Arabs regarded the months of Rajab, Dhul-Qa‘dah, Dhul-Hijjah, and Muharram as months of peace and sanctity. But, with this calendar, these months also began to undergo changes, and it was one of the responsibilities of the Qalammas to announce what months would be the sacred months in the following year. When it suited the purposes of the warring tribes, the announcer would declare that their idols had prohibited fighting that year in the month of Muharram; and the following year he would announce that the idols had now allowed fighting in the month of Muharram. So the month of Safar (which was not a sacred month) was either postponed or kept on its regular time according to the proclamation of the Qalammas. This was the practice known as al-nasi’ (postponing or transposing) in Arabic; the Qur’an addresses it in Surat al-Tawbah (9:36–37):

“The number of months in the sight of Allah 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 ordinance. So wrong not yourselves therein, and fight the pagans all together as they fight you all together. But know that Allah is with those who restrain themselves.

Verily the transposing (of a prohibited month) is an addition to disbelief. The disbelievers are led to wrong thereby. For they make it lawful one year, and forbidden another year, in order to adjust the number of months forbidden by Allah and make such forbidden ones lawful. The evil of their course seems pleasing to them. But Allah does not guide those who reject Faith.”

The Prophet, in his address at the Farewell Hajj, announced the abrogation of meddling with the months:

“O people! Time after undergoing a full revolution has returned to its original state,1 the day Allah created the heavens and the earth. The year is twelve months; four of them are sacred. Three run consecutively—Dhul Qa‘dah, Dhul Hijjah, and Muharram—and the other is the Rajab of Mudar, which comes between Jamadul ‘Aakhir and Sha‘ban.”

So the twelve lunar months were ordained. Muharram was left as the first month of the Muslim calendar year. But the determination of the first year of the Muslim calendar did not come about until later. ‘Allamah Sakhawi gives the following details about the origin of the Islamic calendar:2

“A report on the authority of Ibn ‘Abbas states that there existed no era in Madinah when the Prophet arrived there. People came to use an era a month or two after his arrival. This continued until Muhammad’s (upon him be blessings and peace) death. Then the use of an era was discontinued, and there was none during the caliphate of Abu Bakr and the first four years of the caliphate of ‘Umar. Then the (Muslim) era was established. ‘Umar is reported to have said to the assembled dignitaries among the men around Muhammad, “The income is considerable. What we have distributed has been without fixed dates. How can we remedy that?” One answer came from al-Hurmuzan. He had been king of al-Ahwaz. After his capture during the conquest of Persia, he had been brought to ‘Umar and accepted Islam. He said, “The Persians have a (method of) calculation which they call mahroz and ascribe to their Sassanid rulers. The word mahroz was Arabized as mu’arrakh, and the infinitive ta’rikh was formed from it.”

Ahmad ibn Hanbal and Bukhari report through Maymun ibn Mihran that “an IOU payable in Sha‘ban was presented to ‘Umar. Thereupon ‘Umar asked, ‘Which Sha‘ban? The last one, the present one, or the coming one? Give the people something that they can understand.’” He then issued a regular directive and founded the present-day calendar in 16 AH, from which time the practice has been followed.3

Suyuti writes, with reference to Bukari’s Tarikh, that Umar asked Allah for Divine Providence (istikharah) for a month. Thereafter he consulted ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib and had the Hijrah dates inserted in all administrative directives two and a half years after assuming the Caliphate, and this became the practice from 16 AH onward.

That ‘Umar deliberated for a whole month and asked for Divine Providence is proof that he attached great importance to making the right choice for the Muslim Ummah. That he consulted his advisors, especially Ali, proves that he had utmost confidence in the assembly with him and refused to act without their unequivocal support. The words of the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) come to mind: “He who seeks Divine Providence [istikhara] will not be disappointed; he who seeks advice [istashara] will not regret.”

There was no doubt that the beginning of the months was to be determined by the crescent. Both the Qur’an, in Surat al-Baqarah (2: 189)4 and the practice of the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) confirm this beyond dispute. But ‘Umar was especially aware of how serious the matter was, since the Qur’an explicitly forbids believers from manipulating time. He wanted to make sure that the both the year he chose and the conference he enacted would stand the test of time—literally.

All nations and civilizations wish to remain constant and consistent in every theory they expound. If a civilization were to choose an inconsistent conference for measuring time itself, it would inevitably succumb to the pressures of time and seek modification and reform. Such was and still is the fate of what is now the “mainstream” Gregorian calendar now in use. The problem with the Gregorian calendar, as one author notes is the following:

“After every four hundred years seasonal changes occur and probably because of this fact the solar calendar requires constant modification. It is just not possible to remove this discrepancy.

“The League of Nations had set up a Special Committee at Geneva in 1923 charged with the formulation of a calendar that would be universally acceptable and would be reconcilable with seasonal changes. One of the recommendations of this Committee was that the year was to be divided into 13 months.5 However, such a calendar would not be devised as the seasons in the hemispheres differ in their periodic occurrence. The proximity and the distance of the sun in the East and the West naturally give rise to substantial differences. Because of this inherent discrepancy, it was not possible for the solar calendar to gain universal acceptance.”6

Having already accepted the lunar cycles as a conference to determine the months, ‘Umar did not immediately find any specific mandate regarding fixing a year from which to chronicle Muslim history. Along with the other Companions, he looked to the life of the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace). They wanted to give Islam its true place in history and that was not possible without revering the Prophet himself. It was their insatiable love for their leader that shook off any and every consideration that was not exclusive to him. They considered the year he was born and the year he died. They could not settle on those years, as the birth of a prophet was not exclusive to the Prophet Muhammad (upon him blessings and peace). Other prophets were born and they all passed away, save one, ‘Isa, who will also pass away after return. They considered the year when the Qur’an was first revealed. They did not choose that conference either, since revelation came to other prophets and was thus not exclusive to our Prophet. After a month of tremendous exertion (ijtihad) and through istikhara and istishara, ‘Umar was guided by the nazm, or order, of the Qur’an’s verses to a unique solution.

The verses in Surat al-Tawbah that speak of the year’s consisting of twelve months are followed by a didactic call toward sacrifice in the path of Allah.

“If you do not help (your leader), (it is no matter), for Allah did indeed help him, when the disbelievers drove him out. He had no more than one companion; they two were in the cave, and he said to his companion, ‘Do not grieve, for indeed Allah is with us.’ Then Allah sent down His peace upon him, and strengthened him with forces which you did not see, and humbled to the depths the word of the disbelievers. But the word of Allah is exalted to the heights. For Allah is Exalted in might, Wise.” (Surat al-Tawbah, 9:40)

‘Umar realized that there was a link between the story behind this verse and the previous verses that spoke of the twelve months. He saw the pre-ordained order of recitation as giving him an ordinance for his case. Time for Muslims had to be regulated by an acquired act of a human that transcended time itself. The revelation of the Qur’an to the Prophet was not an acquired act. Human beings are not capable of following the act of revelation. Likewise, birth and death are divinely regulated and human beings cannot determine each other’s day of birth or death. Similarly, the Night of Isra and Mi‘raj (Ascension) was not something the Ummah could copy. Being the role model for Muslims in their affairs, the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) showed the community that if they followed his footsteps in matters related to time, they would be universally accepted. ‘Umar thus concluded that the Hijrah of the Prophet, the story of the Prophet’s flight and migration from Makkah to Madinah, was an act that could be and should be commemorated every year. It was a journey into the unknown; it was riddled with so many intangibles that they were almost uncountable. The Messenger of Allah (upon him blessings and peace) threw himself into the infinite mercy of the Unseen and voluntarily left all tangible consequences to the Creator of time (al-Dahr).

Being severely compromised by his own people in Makkah, Muhammad (upon him be blessings and peace), through Divine Providence, instructed his followers to migrate to Yathrib, a small town north of Makkah that later became known as Madinah. Muslims obliged, leaving their relatives and belongings in Makkah and seeking refuge in the unknown dimensions of Yathrib. The Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) and his best companion, Abu Bakr, were among the last to leave Makkah. Their strategy was to hide in a cave south of Makkah called Thawr in the hope that the Makkans, if they launched a search for him, would veer northward. They did not. The Makkans found out that they had headed south and followed their trail all the way up to the mouth of the cave. There was nothing shielding the entrance of the cave except a flimsy spider’s web7that could have been broken by a mere sneeze. The defenseless companions of the cave were ironically guarded by something that cannot protect itself. “If they had entered,” said the Makkans, “they would have broken the web.” But it was their web that was broken.

These moments of extreme exposure had countless consequences for the two companions of the cave. History stood still, but time was re-energized by the words of the Prophet to the concerned Abu Bakr: “Do not grieve, for indeed Allah is with us.” Abu Bakr’s expedited and precarious grief was that if they were caught, history indeed would stand still, as Islam would definitely perish without Muhammad (upon him blessings and peace). The Prophet’s timeless faith in Allah embodied Divine Ordinance and Providence that still relentlessly withstands the test of modern times.

‘Umar saw this event as the axis about which Muslim time would revolve. He read the verse “If you do not help (your leader), it is no matter…” as pushing him to appreciate Allah’s assistance in time over time. From the outside looking in, a neutral observer would have called the end of Islam in the cave of Thawr. From a universal standpoint, ‘Umar observed the infinite powers of the Unseen delivering the living from imminent death in the cave. Islam’s apparent and imminent death was replaced by Islam’s sure birth and unchecked growth. The Qur’an repeatedly reminds us of this phenomenon: “He [Allah] extracts the living from the dead.” The Hijrah of the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) and, by association, of Abu Bakr rejuvenate believers every time they pass by that time of the year.

The story of the Hijrah is preceded by an ordinance not to meddle with time. It would necessarily follow that the Hijrah was already ordained by Allah to be the conference upon which Muslims were to set their calendar. So by reading into the pre-ordained order of the verses of the Qur’an, ‘Umar and the Companions of the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) found order in their world. By understanding the recited order of the Qur’an’s verses, ‘Umar and the Companions wrote their names in the annals of history and time.


1 This prophetic revelation that time (zaman) itself was in its own orbit (istadarah) is an abstract for those who wish to study the Islamic theory of time.

2 Hakim Muhammed Said, Hamdard Islamicus, 1981.

3 Ibid.

4 “They ask you concerning the new moons. Say: They are but signs to mark fixed periods of time in (the affairs of) men, and for Pilgrimage.”

5 The resurgence of the practice of al-nasi, or intercalation, in modern times?

6 Hakim Muhammed Said, Hamdard Islamicus, 1981.

7 The Qur’an itself states in the Chapter of the Spider: “Truly the flimsiest of houses is the spider’s house” (Surah al-Ankabut, 41: 29).

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