Islamic Lunar Calendar

By: Hussein Al-Rumaithi

The Islamic Lunar Calendar or Hijri Calendar, which consists of 12 months in a year of 354 days, is used to date events in Muslim countries, and used by all Muslims to determine the proper days of Haj season, fasting month (Ramadhan) and other Islamic holidays and festivals. The initiation of this calendar is dated to the migration of Prophet Mohammad from Mecca to Medina, which occurred in 622 AD. The interesting fact about this calendar lays in the number of days it holds, which are 10 to 11 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar. In addition, determining the beginning and end of the month depends on crescent sighting, which can be different from one geographic zone to another. The issue of determining the beginning of the Hijri month usually becomes problematic prior to Ramadhan and at the end of Ramadhan, as Muslims are eager to determine the first and last day of this holy month. Therefore, majority of Muslims, whether Shia or Sunni, turn to their religious authority institutions and wait for their announcements to formally determine the start and end of Ramadhan.

In addition, due to difference in jurisprudential opinions, during some years, Muslims are divided and start the month of Ramadhan in two different days, which ultimately affects the end of the month as well. However, the necessity lays in determining the end of the months, as Muslims are prohibited from fasting on the day of (Eid), which marks the end of Ramadhan. Therefore, even if the beginning of the month is differed upon, Muslims can fast that day with an intention of doubt, which means if that day is Ramadhan, then it is considered as first day, and if it is not the first day, it will only considered as commendable deed. However, fasting beyond the last of Ramadan with the intention of Ramadhan fasting would subject Muslims to atonement.

However, to evade such a dilemma, Shia jurisprudence has presented several options, which are used as simplification methods for Muslims during the months, where crescent sighting is important and essential (Ramadhan & Haj Season).

  • The first solution for this problem is very simple, as it has been offered by the Quran itself in verse 185 of chapter 2: “So, whoever of you sights the month, he must observe fasting”. Therefore, Muslims are suggested to go for heights and do what Islam calls moon-sighting. In this case, if any Muslim sights the crescent, he/she is obligated to start fasting on the next day, regardless if rest of the Islamic world is fasting on the next or not, as his/her sighting is sufficient. Therefore, that person will do the same thing upon the 29th day of Ramadhan, and if he/she sights the moon again, that would mark the end of Ramadhan for him/her and the next day is considered Eid for that person. However, if the crescent was not sighted, that person will fast the full 30 days of Ramadhan, and after the completion of 30 days the month of finished and the first day of the following month is considered Eid.
  • The other situation that might occur is due to the impossibility of moon sighting, due to weather conditions or any other obstruction. Therefore, Islamic jurists can permitted to Muslims to travel outside their towns boundaries, as they have travel over 24 kilometers, and return to their home only once the time of noon prayer has arrived. This solution can be done after a Muslim has fasted for 29 days, and there is a possibility that the 30th day is Eid.

Islamic Lunar Calendar Months

Just like any other calendar consists of 12 months, as mentioned earlier. The Islamic Lunar year start on the first of month of Muharram and end on the 29th or 30th day of month of Dhu Al-Hijjah. The name of Islamic Lunar months are:

  • Muharram
  • Safar
  • Rabi Al-Awwal (I)
  • Rabi Al-Thani (II)
  • Jumada Al-Awwal (I)
  • Jumada Al-THani (II)
  • Rajab
  • Sha’aban
  • Ramadhan
  • Shawwal
  • Dhu Al-Qa’adah
  • Dhu Al-Hijjah

Among these 12 months, four of them are considered the forbidden months, which many historians and scholars believe those forbidden designation to these months dates back to pre-Islamic era in Arabia. The four forbidden months are: Muharram, Rajab, Dhu Al-Qa’adah and Dhu Al-Hijjad. During these months Arabs and later on Muslim refrained from wars and any sort of confrontation, as whomever broke the code was renounced by rest of the Arab tribes.

Astronomical VS Visual consideration of Lunar Calendar

The issue of using astronomical calculations or modern tools to determine the beginning and end of Islamic months has been raised and used by several Muslim jurists and scholars. According to those scholars and jurists, considering and using astronomical methods to determine the beginning and end of the lunar month is permissible, as these calculations are precise and accurate. Therefore, Muslims are able to carry their rituals precisely on the intended dates and times, as the visual sighting of the crescent is subjected to several conditions and complications.

However, the scholars rejecting astronomical methods are not denying the accuracy of calculations or the tools used, as modern science has been able to determine the birth of the crescent several days prior to its birth. Nevertheless, the rationale used by these scholars to their rejection is derived from the Quran and the traditions of Prophet Mohammad and his holy household. According to those scholars, the visual accessibility of moon sighting has been labeled by the Quran through (Naked Eye), meaning without any tools or calculation. The Quranic verse state sighting not observing, as observing can be attained through telescopes or even astronomical calculations. Therefore, those scholars reject any notion of astronomical consideration for determining the start and end of the Islamic lunar months.

Regardless, this specific issue should not be viewed as a divisive matter, as Muslims are obligated to take their religion from the experts, and those jurists and scholars are the expert, which becomes an issue of submission to the expertise of the jurist a person follows.

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