lunar calendar used by Muslims to determine religious observances
This article is about the Hijri calendar based on lunar observation. For the solar calendar whose first year is fixed to the Hijra, see Solar Hijri calendar. For the rule-based Hijri calendar, see Tabular Islamic calendar.
The Islamic calendar employs the Hijri era whose epoch was established as the Islamic New Year of 622 AD/CE. During that year, Muhammad and his followers migrated from Mecca to Medina and established the first Muslim community (ummah), an event commemorated as the Hijra. In the West, dates in this era are usually denoted AH (Latin: Anno Hegirae, "in the year of the Hijra") in parallel with the Christian (AD), Common (CE) and Jewish eras (AM). In Muslim countries, it is also sometimes denoted as H from its Arabic form (سَنة هِجْريّة, abbreviated هـ). In English, years prior to the Hijra are reckoned as BH ("Before the Hijra").
The current Islamic year is 1441 AH. In the Gregorian calendar, 1441 AH runs from approximately 1 September 2019 to 20 August 2020.[note 1]
For central Arabia, especially Mecca, there is a lack of epigraphical evidence but details are found in the writings of Muslim authors of the Abbasid era. Inscriptions of the ancient South Arabian calendars reveal the use of a number of local calendars. At least some of these South Arabian calendars followed the lunisolar system. Both al-Biruni and al-Mas'udi suggest that the ancient Arabs used the same month names as the Muslims, though they also record other month names used by the pre-Islamic Arabs.
The Islamic tradition is unanimous in stating that Arabs of Tihamah, Hejaz, and Najd distinguished between two types of months, permitted (ḥalāl) and forbidden (ḥarām) months. The forbidden months were four months during which fighting is forbidden, listed as Rajab and the three months around the pilgrimage season, Dhu al-Qa‘dah, Dhu al-Hijjah, and Muharram. Information about the forbidden months is also found in the writings of Procopius, where he describes an armistice with the Eastern Arabs of the Lakhmid al-Mundhir which happened in the summer of 541 AD/CE. However, Muslim historians do not link these months to a particular season. The Qur'an links the four forbidden months with Nasī’, a word that literally means "postponement". According to Muslim tradition, the decision of postponement was administered by the tribe of Kinanah, by a man known as the al-Qalammas of Kinanah and his descendants (pl. qalāmisa).
Different interpretations of the concept of Nasī’ have been proposed. Some scholars, both Muslim and Western, maintain that the pre-Islamic calendar used in central Arabia was a purely lunar calendar similar to the modern Islamic calendar. According to this view, Nasī’ is related to the pre-Islamic practices of the Meccan Arabs, where they would alter the distribution of the forbidden months within a given year without implying a calendar manipulation. This interpretation is supported by Arab historians and lexicographers, like Ibn Hisham, Ibn Manzur, and the corpus of Qur'anic exegesis.
This is corroborated by an early Sabaic inscription, where a religious ritual was "postponed" (ns'’w) due to war. According to the context of this inscription, the verb ns'’ has nothing to do with intercalation, but only with moving religious events within the calendar itself. The similarity between the religious concept of this ancient inscription and the Qur'an suggests that non-calendaring postponement is also the Qur'anic meaning of Nasī’. The Encyclopaedia of Islam concludes "The Arabic system of [Nasī’] can only have been intended to move the Hajj and the fairs associated with it in the vicinity of Mecca to a suitable season of the year. It was not intended to establish a fixed calendar to be generally observed." The term "fixed calendar" is generally understood to refer to the non-intercalated calendar.
Others concur that it was originally a lunar calendar, but suggest that about 200 years before the Hijra it was transformed into a lunisolar calendar containing an intercalary month added from time to time to keep the pilgrimage within the season of the year when merchandise was most abundant. This interpretation was first proposed by the medieval Muslim astrologer and astronomer Abu Ma'shar al-Balkhi, and later by al-Biruni,al-Mas'udi, and some western scholars. This interpretation considers Nasī’ to be a synonym to the Arabic word for "intercalation" (kabīsa). The Arabs, according to one explanation mentioned by Abu Ma'shar, learned of this type of intercalation from the Jews. The Jewish Nasi was the official who decided when to intercalate the Jewish calendar. Some sources say that the Arabs followed the Jewish practice and intercalated seven months over nineteen years, or else that they intercalated nine months over 24 years; there is, however, no consensus among scholars on this issue.
Postponement (Nasī’) of one ritual in a particular circumstance does not imply alteration of the sequence of months, and scholars agree that this did not happen. Al-Biruni also says this did not happen, and the festivals were kept within their season by intercalation every second or third year of a month between Dhu al-Hijjah and Muharram. He also says that, in terms of the fixed calendar that was not introduced until 10 AH (632 AD/CE), the first intercalation was, for example, of a month between Dhu al-Hijjah and Muharram, the second of a month between Muharram and Safar, the third of a month between Safar and Rabi'I, and so on. The intercalations were arranged so that there were seven of them every nineteen years. The notice of intercalation was issued at the pilgrimage, the next month would be Nasī’ and Muharram would follow. If, on the other hand, the names relate to the intercalated rather than the fixed calendar, the second intercalation might be, for example, of a month between Muharram and Safar allowing for the first intercalation, and the third intercalation of a month between Safar and Rabi'I allowing for the two preceding intercalations, and so on. The time for the intercalation to move from the beginning of the year to the end (twelve intercalations) is the time it takes the fixed calendar to revolve once through the seasons (about 32 1/2 tropical years). There are two big drawbacks of such a system, which would explain why it is not known ever to have been used anywhere in the world. First, it cannot be regulated by means of a cycle (the only cycles known in antiquity were the octaeteris (3 intercalations in 8 years) and the enneadecaeteris (7 intercalations in 19 years). Secondly, without a cycle it is difficult to establish from the number of the year (a) if it is intercalary and (b) if it is intercalary, where exactly in the year the intercalation is located.
Although some scholars (see list above) claim that the holy months were shuffled about for convenience without the use of intercalation, there is no documentary record of the festivals of any of the holy months being observed in any month other than those they are now observed in. The Qu'ran (sura 9.37) only refers to the "postponement" of a sacred month. If they were shuffled as suggested, one would expect there to be a prohibition against "anticipation" as well. If the festivities of the sacred months were kept in season by moving them into later months, they would move through the whole twelve months in only 33 years. Had this happened, at least one writer would have mentioned it. Sura 9.36 states "Verily, the number of months with Allah is twelve months" and sura 37 refers to "adjusting the number of months". Such adjustment can only be effected by intercalation.
There are a number of indications that the intercalated calendar was similar to the Jewish calendar, whose year began in the spring. There are clues in the names of the months themselves:
Rabi'I - first spring
Rabi'II - second spring
Jumada I - first month of parched land
Jumada II - second month of parched land
Sha‘bān - Arabs "dispersed" to find water
Ramadan - scorched
Shawwal - female camels "raised" their tails after calving
In the intercalated calendar's last year (AD/CE 632), Dhu al-Hijjah corresponded to March. The Battle of the Trench in Shawwal and Dhu'l Qi'dah of AH 5 coincided with "harsh winter weather". Military campaigns clustered round Ramadan, when the summer heat had dissipated, and all fighting was forbidden during Rajab, at the height of summer. The invasion of Tabak in Rajab AH 9 was hampered by "too much hot weather" and "drought". In AH 1 Muhammad noted the Jews of Yathrib observing a festival when he arrived on Monday, 8 Rabi'I. Rabi'I is the third month and if it coincided with the third month of the Jewish calendar the festival would have been the Feast of Weeks, which is observed on the 6th and 7th days of that month.
In the tenth year of the Hijra, as documented in the Qur'an (Sura At-Tawba (9):36–37), Muslims believe God revealed the "prohibition of the Nasī’".
The number of the months, with God, is twelve in the Book of God, the day that He created the heavens and the earth; four of them are sacred. That is the right religion. So wrong not each other during them. And fight the unbelievers totally even as they fight you totally and know that God is with the godfearing.
Know that intercalation (nasi) is an addition to disbelief. Those who disbelieve are led to error thereby, making it lawful in one year and forbidden in another in order to adjust the number of (the months) made sacred by God and make the sacred ones permissible. The evil of their course appears pleasing to them. But God gives no guidance to those who disbelieve.
The prohibition of Nasī’ would presumably have been announced when the intercalated month had returned to its position just before the month of Nasi' began. If Nasī' meant intercalation, then the number and the position of the intercalary months between AH 1 and AH 10 are uncertain; western calendar dates commonly cited for key events in early Islam such as the Hijra, the Battle of Badr, the Battle of Uhud and the Battle of the Trench should be viewed with caution as they might be in error by one, two, three or even four lunar months. This prohibition was mentioned by Muhammad during the farewell sermon which was delivered on 9 Dhu al-Hijjah AH 10 (Julian date Friday 6 March, 632 AD/CE) on Mount Arafat during the farewell pilgrimage to Mecca.
Certainly the Nasi’ is an impious addition, which has led the infidels into error. One year they authorise the Nasi’, another year they forbid it. They observe the divine precept with respect to the number of the sacred months, but in fact they profane that which God has declared to be inviolable, and sanctify that which God has declared to be profane. Assuredly time, in its revolution, has returned to such as it was at the creation of the heavens and the earth. In the eyes of God the number of the months is twelve. Among these twelve months four are sacred, namely, Rajab, which stands alone, and three others which are consecutive.
The three successive sacred (forbidden) months mentioned by Prophet Muhammad (months in which battles are forbidden) are Dhu al-Qa‘dah, Dhu al-Hijjah, and Muharram, months 11, 12, and 1 respectively. The single forbidden month is Rajab, month 7. These months were considered forbidden both within the new Islamic calendar and within the old pagan Meccan calendar.