Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Dating Game: The Need For Calendar

Why was Islamic Calendar only introduced during the time of Umar, the Prophet’s second successor, and not by the Prophet himself?  Or by his first successor, Abu Bakar?

The story goes like this.

During and before the times of the Prophet, the Arabs were not used to writing.  Very few among them could read and write.  The Prophet was among those who couldn’t, although he was the grandson of their supreme leader, Abdul Muttalib.  This was probably due to the Prophet being an orphan, and was in the care of Abu Talib, his uncle, who was poor, though he was the leader of their tribe.  The Prophet spent most of his youthful life tending the sheep of his uncle, instead of attending the reading and writing classes.  

Their language, Arabic, however, was sophisticated.   But whatever literature they had was oral.  Assisted by their miraculous memory, they composed their “oral literatures” in the form of poetry.  Whether they were narrating their lineage, which they took great pride of, or expounding ideas, or narrating events, these were all done in rhythmic prose.  This rhythmic prose, or poetry, further assisted their memorization.  They held good poetries in high regard.  Poetry competitions were often held, which made many of them excellent poets.  These poetries were handed down from generation to generation.

When the Archangel Gabriel came for the first time with the Revelation, it was said that he held a piece of parchment with an inscription on it.  Gabriel asked Muhammad to read what was written on it, but the latter replied he couldn’t.  These exchanges occurred three times, until the Archangel Gabriel recited what was written on that parchment, and the recitation got engraved in the heart of Muhammad.  This story is well known.

Although it was not the standard practice during his time, his good sense dictated that the revelation was too important to be preserved solely through memory, irrespective of the fact that the Arabs during his time were endowed with miraculous power of memory.  So Muhammad instructed his Companions to write it down whenever the Revelation came to him.

But even the Prophet did not do what people in later times did, namely, putting the date on the important document.  Thus the Quranic parchments were recorded without having the dates on them, which led to disagreements as to when they were revealed.  Dating the Quranic verses later on became a science in itself.

This practice continued until the Prophet died.  He wrote several letters, entered into several written agreements, but they were undated.   Even if some were dated, there was no year in it, only day or month.  This is because the Arabs did not have proper calendar.  They generally based their “year” on certain important events, such as the “Year of Elephant.”  They would say, for instance, 15 years after the Year of Elephant.  Needless to say, this was said orally, not in writing.

By the time Umar became the Caliph, the Islamic Empire had become very big.  As the Empire became very big, face to face instruction, or instruction through a messenger, common during the times of the Prophet and Abu Bakar, was no longer feasible.  Most instructions had to be in the form of written documents.  At least some of these documents were dated, but continuing with the practice of his predecessors, they were without years. Needless to say, this had become a source of inconvenience to many of his governors and officials, as the following case illustrates.

Sheikh Abdel-Rahman El-Gabarti (d. 1825), the greatest known chronicler of late 18th- and early 19th-century Egypt, recounted that Umar Ibn Al-Khattab was the first "setter of dates" of the Islamic era. According to his account, Abu Moussa Al-Ash'ari wrote to Umar Ibn AlKhattab in distress: "Letters have reached us from the Commander of the Faithful, but we do not know which to obey. We read a document dated [the month of] Sha'ban, but we do not know which of the Sha'bans is meant: is it the month that has passed, or that which is to come?" Umar is then said to have gathered the Companions of the Prophet and told them: "Money is flowing in, and what we have apportioned bears no date. How are we to reach a way of regulating this matter?" (1)

It is because of the dilemma such as the above, as well as many others, that the need for a proper calendar to be set up became critical.  One internet source highlights this matter beautifully, which would be proper to quote here:

One day Abu Musa al-Ash`ari, the governor of Basra at the time, wrote to `Umar complaining that the ordinances, instructions, and letters from the Caliph were undated and therefore gave rise to problems linked to the sequence of their implementation. Because of this and other similar problems of undatedness, `Umar convened an assembly of scholars and advisors to consider the question of calendar reforms. The deliberations of this assembly resulted in the combined opinion that Muslims should have a calendar of their own.

The point that was next considered was from when should the new Muslim calendar era begin. Some suggested that the era should begin from the birth of the Prophet while others suggested that it should begin from the time of his death. `Ali suggested that the era should begin from the date the Muslims migrated from Mecca to Madina, and this was agreed upon.

The next question considered was the month from which the new era should start. Some suggested that it should start from the month of Rabi` al-Awwal, some from Rajab, others from Ramadan, others from Dhu al-Hijja. `Uthman suggested that the new era should start from the month of Muharram because that was the first month in the Arabic calendar of that time. This was agreed upon. Since the Migration had taken place in the month of Rabi` al-Awwal, two months and eight days after the first of Muharram that year, the date was pushed back by two months and eight days, and the new Hijri calendar began with the first day of Muharram in the year of the Migration rather than from the actual date of the Migration. (2)

That, in short, was how the Hijri or Islamic Calendar came into the picture.  Umar and his companions did not celebrate the New Year of Hijrah during their times because the purpose was different. 

One last point to note in this installment is that while the Prophet did not establish the Islamic Calendar, he did establish the foundation for it.  As we know, the calendars people used are either lunar or solar.  The Christian Calendar is solar, while most others, such as the Jewish and the Chinese calendars, are lunar.  The Islamic Calendar too is a lunar calendar.

But unlike the Jewish and Chinese calendars, the Islamic Calendar is strictly lunar, while the other two are in effect lunar-solar calendars.  This is because the Jewish and Chinese calendars employ what is known as intercalation, that is, the insertion of a leap day, week or month into some calendar years to make the calendar follow the seasons. 

As we know, the moon completes its rotation around the earth in 29 ½ days.  Hence, a year of 12 months would only be 354 days, instead of 365 days, a deficit of 11 day per year.  Thus, after three years, one month has to be added, making that leap year 13 instead of 12 months, so that the month in the lunar calendar would not fall behind the seasonal change.  That is why, for instance, the Chinese New Year is either celebrated in January or February every year, although their calendar is considered a lunar calendar.

The Arabs before Islam too employed intercalation method.  They used to perform their most important ritual, hajj, after the harvest.  This practice started about three hundred years before the Prophet was born, and was done so that it would be convenient to feed the pilgrims.  Thus, the hajj could be performed in any “month” of the year, but would fall roughly on the same season. 

When the Prophet performed his last hajj, known as Farewell Pilgrimage, it was a year that, after undergoing a full revolution, has returned to its original state.  In that year, the Prophet prohibited the infidels from doing hajj.  This is well known.  But it was also the year he prohibited the manipulation of calendar and asked the Muslims to adhere strictly to its original state.  Because of this prohibition, the hajj has always been performed on the fixed days of the fixed month thereafter, but it can be on any season.

Why the year of his migration is used as the starting year of Islamic Calendar, as opposed to the year of his birth, as the Christian Calendar is, which allegedly is based on the year of Jesus’ birth?  After all, events related to Muhammad’s birth are no less “miraculous” than the events of Jesus’ birth. 

Traditions say that when he was born, a very bright light came out of his mother’s birth canal, and Sham (greater Syria) was shown to her, and the fire at the Magian (Majusi) Temple went out for the first time in a thousand years.   Now, even if one doubts the authenticity of these traditions, the year was still conspicuous, because it was the Year of Elephant, whose story no Muslims can doubt, because it is well established in the Quran.

Or perhaps, why not the year of his prophethood, or of his death, or even the year of the conquest of Makkah?

Umar and his companions did not decide the beginning of the Islamic Era arbitrarily, but after much deliberation.  There is something interesting about this decision, which tells a lot about the character and the nature of Islam itself, especially in the beginning of the Islamic Era. 

That we shall cover in the next installment, insyaAllah.

Stay tuned.



  1. Eisey man... ada part 2 la pulak.

    Anyway thanks for initial explanation. This kind of story should be in text book while while we are in primary school. Now only after 40 years i know the reason or can i say the history.

    Bak pe la ajar pasal kamal artatuk masa kat sekolah rendah dulu.

    thanks again and hopefully before next year we can have the part 2...

    1. InsyaAllah, the so-called part 2 is in the making. Chances are it would be separated into two or three instalments. But I will try my best to get it done by this month, because next month is going to be another theme. One who has been following my blog may notice that I write according to theme. This month, the theme is Hijrah.

      Pasal Kamal Ataturk tu satu hal. Isu yang lebih besar ialah kefahaman. Our history text book is more concerned about dates and what happened, but never really go into the substance as to why things happened, and what they mean to us.

    2. Great article! I especially loved this point you made.