Muharram 2023: Al Hijri date, history, significance of the Islamic New Year, rituals performed by Muslims
Muharram is observed differently by Sunni and Shia Muslims. Here's all about the date, history, significance of the Islamic New Year and the rituals performed
Muharram is the first month of the Islamic calendar and holds great significance for Muslims worldwide as it is Islamic New Year, also known as Al Hijri or Arabic New Year and is celebrated on the first day of Muharram as it was in this holy month that Prophet Muhammad migrated from Mecca to Medina. However, the 10th day of the month, known as Ashura, is mourned by Muslims in the remembrance of the matryrdom of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Hussain Ibn Ali.
Unlike the Gregorian calendar that consists of 365 days, Islamic calendar has about 354 days divided into 12 months where Muharram is followed by the months of Safar, Rabi-al-Thani, Jumada al-Awwal, Jumada ath-Thaniyah, Rajab, Shaban, Ramadan, Shawwal, Zil-Qadah and Zil-Hijjah. After Ramadan or Ramzan, Muharram is considered to be the most sacred month in Islam and it marks the beginning of the lunar calendar which Islam follows.
The Islamic calendar is based on the lunar cycle, so the dates of Muharram vary each year in the Gregorian calendar. Muharram is the first month of the Islamic year and its precise start depends on the sighting of the moon.
According to Ibrahim Al Jarwan, President of the Emirates Astronomy Society (ESA), Muharram 2023 or the new Hijri year 1445 is likely to be on Wednesday, July 19, 2023. Apart from UAE, this might be the same for United Kingdom (UK), Saudi Arabia, Oman and other Gulf countries or those that follow KSA's moon sighting.
India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and Morocco usually gear up to sight the crescent moon of the Holy Month of Muharram a day later hence, 1st day of Muharram is expected to fall in these countries on Thursday, July 20, 2023 while the 10th of Muharram or Ashura is expected to be observed on Saturday, July 29, 2023 in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco and other South Asian nations.
Muharram has historical importance for both Sunni and Shia Muslims. It commemorates significant events, including the martyrdom of Imam Hussein (the grandson of Prophet Muhammad) in the Battle of Karbala in 680 CE. This battle holds immense religious and political significance in Islamic history.
The battle took place during the caliphate of Yazid I, the second Umayyad caliph and it involved a conflict between the forces of Imam Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad and the ruling Umayyad army. Imam Hussein, along with his family members and a small group of loyal companions, refused to pledge allegiance to Yazid I due to concerns about his unjust rule and violation of Islamic principles.
They embarked on a journey to the city of Kufa in present-day Iraq, responding to calls for support from its inhabitants however, upon reaching Karbala, Imam Hussein and his companions were met with a large Umayyad army, which vastly outnumbered them. Despite the odds, Imam Hussein and his followers remained steadfast in their commitment to uphold justice and the true teachings of Islam.
On the 10th day of Muharram, known as Ashura, Imam Hussein and his supporters faced a brutal battle against the Umayyad forces where the small group of Imam Hussein's followers including men, women and children, were surrounded and deprived of food and water for several days. Ultimately, they were mercilessly killed and Imam Hussein himself was martyred in the battle.
Muharram marks the beginning of the Islamic New Year, signifying a time of renewal and spiritual contemplation. The word Muharram means ‘not permitted’ or ‘forbidden’ hence, Muslims are prohibited from taking part in activities like warfare and use it as a period of prayer and reflection.
However, Muharram is also a month of mourning and reflection for Muslims. It serves as a reminder of the sacrifices made by Imam Hussein and his companions, highlighting principles of justice, bravery and standing up against oppression.
The events of Karbala and the martyrdom of Imam Hussein hold great significance for Muslims. The sacrifices made by Imam Hussein and his companions are seen as a symbol of resistance against oppression and the importance of standing up for justice, even in the face of tyranny.
Observance and rituals:
Muharram is observed differently by Sunni and Shia Muslims, although mourning and remembrance are common aspects. Shia Muslims engage in mourning processions, hold gatherings called "Majlis," and commemorate this tragic event through mourning rituals, processions and gatherings in mosques, Hussainiyas or community centers to listen to sermons by religious leaders that recount and highlight the events of Karbala, paying homage to the martyrs and expressing grief and sorrow.
They may also engage in self-flagellation or chest-beating as expressions of grief. Shia Muslims refrain from attending and celebrating all joyous events in this period and observe a ‘faaka’ on the tenth day of Muharram, commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, who was the son of Hazrat Ali and the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, in Karbala.
As for Sunnis, observing a fast on this day is considered a ‘sunnah’ since Prophet Muhammad kept a roza on this day after Prophet Musa or Moses as per the Sunni tradition. Sunni Muslims may observe fasts on the 9th and 10th or 10th and 11th days of Muharram, known as Ashura, as recommended by Prophet Muhammad where the two fasts of Ashura is also observed to distinguish from the Jewish observance of Yom Kippur.
It was in the month of Muharram that Allah saved the Children of Israel from Pharaoh hence, as a sign of gratitude to Allah, Prophet Musa or Moses fasted on the day of Ashura that is the 10th of Muharram. In 622 CE, when Prophet Muhammad migrated from Mecca to Medina in the month of Muharram, he learnt from the Jews that they fasted on this day following the ways of Prophet Musa.
Wanting his followers to show the same gratitude to Allah, Prophet Muhammad decided to observe a two-day fast - one on the day of Ashura and one on the day prior (that is the 9th and 10th day of Muharram). These are the traditional customs of Sunni Muslims.
The 10th day of the month or Ashura is mourned by Muslims in the remembrance of the martyrdom of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Hussain Ibn Ali, in Karbala. The Shia community remembers the massacre on Ashura when Imam Hussain was said to be beheaded in the battle of Karbala and to mark public mourning and remembering the pain given to their great leader and his family, members of Shia community wear black clothes, observe abstinence, faaka and take out processions on this day.
It is important to note that Muharram is a solemn time for reflection, remembrance and honouring the sacrifices of Imam Hussein. It is a period of mourning and respect and individuals partaking in its observance do so with reverence and sensitivity to its cultural and religious significance.