Why the year of Hijrah was used to mark the beginning of the Islamic Era, as opposed to other equally momentous events, such as the year of the Prophet’s birth, or the start of his Prophethood mission, or the conquest of Makkah?
One internet site has this to say:
Al-Haafiz Ibn Hajar (may Allah have mercy on him) said:
The incidents that are connected to the life of the Prophet (blessings and peace of Allah be upon him) and that could have been taken as the start of the calendar are four: his birth, the start of his mission, his migration (Hijrah) and his death. They thought it was best to start the calendar from the Hijrah, because in the case of his birth and the start of his mission, there would be uncertainty with regard to the exact year. As for the time of his death, they chose not to use it because remembering it would renew their grief. So there was no choice left except the Hijrah.
The same site quotes many other classical resources, but they are all amounting to the same argument (1).
From the above quotation, we get the impression that Umar and his companions decided to mark the Era of Islam on the strong footing. They wanted the Era to be based on certainty, not a mere guess. The year whereby the Prophet undertook the journey from Makkah to Madinah was certain and well known, whereas the other dates were more difficult to ascertain and probably less well known.
This, in itself, speaks volumes about the Character of Islam and the Character of the earlier Muslims. Islam is based on certainty, and the earlier Muslims would rather not delve into speculation, as we the later Muslims are wont to do.
But if we probe a little deeper, we would notice something else.
The decision to establish the Hijri Calendar was made around the fourth year of Umar’s reign. Some said a year or two later. Whether it was on the fourth, fifth or sixth year of Umar’s reign, it is a known fact that many of Muhammad’s contemporaries were still alive.
His uncle, Abbas bin Abdul Muttalib, was still around. So was Hakim bin Hizam, the nephew of Prophet’s wife, Khadijah, who was the Prophet’s close friend when they were young. Both of these were born a few years before Muhammad, peace and blessing be upon him, was born. A few others were also alive, aside from these two.
Should they consider the birth of the Prophet to be of such great importance, and that the Islamic Era must be based on that, it would have been more than possible to work out the exact year. Many among the Companions were smart people. Ali, for one, would be more than capable to do the job, if it was entrusted to him. After all, this task would not have been more difficult than the task of compiling the Quran, which had been ably handled by Zayd bin Thabit.
Spartan though he was, as the Caliph, Umar would not have exhausted any expenses for the task, if only they deemed the year of the Prophet’s birth to be the indispensable element, without which the Islamic Era would be defective.
That they didn’t undertake such a seemingly simple task tells a lot about the Character of Islam, and the Character of early Muslims.
Now, if the task of dating the year of Prophet’s birth is not exactly insurmountable, then the dating of the year of his Prophethood would have been much easier. It is well known that those who first joined the fold of Islam were four: Abu Bakar as Siddiq, Khadijah Khuwaylid, Zayd Haritha and Ali Abu Talib. They became Muslims in a matter of days or at most, weeks.
Of these four, Ali was still alive when the decision to establish the Calendar was made. We in fact know that Ali was living with the Prophet before Revelation took place. The Prophet had adopted him to reduce the burden of his uncle, Abu Talib, the father of Ali, who was poor but had many mouths to feed. Tradition has it that Muhammad went to his uncle, Abbas, with the proposal of adopting some of Abu Talib’s children. Muhammad took Ali, while Abbas took Ja’far, the older brother of Ali.
Many others who joined the fold of Islam during the earliest stage were still alive as well. Of the Ten Promised Paradise, nine of them were the early believers. Only Umar was the later convert. And of these great Companions, only Abu Bakar had died, while the rest were still alive. Thus, if Umar and his companions had deemed that the beginning of Prophet’s mission to be the indispensable requirement for the Islamic Era, they would have chosen the year of prophetic revelation to mark the Islamic Era. And the task of dating it would have been rather easy.
That they didn’t consider the beginning of Prophethood to be a must criteria also tell a lot about the Character of Islam, and the Character of early Muslims.
To say that they resorted to the year of Hijrah because they had no choice would be inaccurate.
As for the year of his death, although the date was well known, it is obvious why it was not considered as the beginning of Islamic Era. Why would the death of the Prophet be marked as the beginning of Islamic Era, when it was he who established it?
Other illustrious events, such as the Battle of Badar and the Conquest of Makkah, moreover, could have been selected. The Day of Badar is considered a momentous event in the history of Islam. The Prophet profusely supplicated for the victory, saying that if the Muslims are annihilated, Islam would perish. So is the Conquest of Makkah. It marked the great victory of a “fugitive” who came back as a “conqueror.”
But that neither of these was used to mark the Era of Islam does tell a lot about the Character of Islam, and the Character of early Muslims.
The event of Hijrah was selected, above all other momentous events, to mark the Islamic Era, and to establish the Islamic Calendar known as Hijri Calendar, because it fits with the Character of Islam as embodied in the Character of Early Muslims; namely, it is the Character of Islam and the earlier Muslims that practicality takes precedent over dogmatism. Great outcomes were nothing but natural consequences of this Character.
Now, the conquest of Makkah was an outcome of Hijrah. What it marks is glory. Neither Islam nor early Muslims consider “glory” to be consequential enough to mark the birth of an era. Vanity is not part of Islam. The Day of Badar is also, to a large extent, a mark of glory. There have been many other glories during the times of the Prophet, if glories are to be taken into considerations.
Neither was the year of his birth, nor the start of his prophetic mission, appeared to fit the bill. Each of these was wholly determined by Allah. None involved human intervention. Allah decided when the Prophet was to be born, and when he was to assume his prophetic mission. All these happened not by choice, nor by any human effort, but by God’s decree.
Thus, while there is nothing to suggest that Umar and his companions had indulged in long deliberations over the matter, it would also be naïve if we were to suggest that the decision was made without some measure of deliberation. Ali was credited for making the suggestion. As we know, it was not in the nature of Ali to merely suggest without making persuasive case. He is noted for having a knack for making an argument others cannot refute.
The earlier generation had lived by the character of Islam, which put more emphasis on actions than on idle talks, as we the later generation are fond of doing. “We hear and we obey,” that was their motto, which was derived straight from the Quran. Every Revelation was treated like a “circular” to be executed, not to be debated, or to be treated like an intellectual treaty. Once they accepted Islam and understood what it is for, their thinking was for the outcome, and their focus was for the best means to achieve the result. Practicality is given precedent over dogmatism.
End of Part 1.