Muslims observe two major holiday events each year but also acknowledge and pay respect to several other important days that represent significant events in the religious history. The dates for these holidays change each year which can lead to some confusion for non-Muslims but this is because they follow the lunar Islamic calendar and thus it is approximately 11 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar each year. As such, Islamic holidays have the benefit of cycling through all of the seasons eventually, with time.
Before we talk about those holidays, let’s look a little more about how this lunar Islamic calendar is organized. Muslims mark time according to when the Prophet Muhammad and his companions made hijrah (or migration) from Mecca to Medinah in 622 C.E. This event is so important in Islamic history that it officially begins the Islamic calendar as the year Zero. The beginning of each month in this type of calendar is marked by the first sighting of the waxing crescent moon and ends with the sighting of the next month’s waxing crescent moon. The Qur’an describes the calendar as follows: The number of months in the sight of Allah is twelve; so ordained by Him the day He created the heavens and the earth. Of them four are sacred. That is the straight usage. (9:36)
These four months as described in the Qur’an are sometimes called the Forbidden months and they are a time in ancient Arab culture during which fighting tribes agreed to a ceasefire. These months are called Muharram, Rajab, Dhul-Qi’dah and Dhul-Hijjah. Fighting was halted during this time to allow for free and uninhibited trade and travel. This was continued with the advent of Islam; however, any group that is attacked during this time and fights in self-defense is obliged to do so.
Now, the two many celebrations are the Eids. The first is called Eid-al-Fitr and it signifies the end of the month of Ramadan. The name of this special day officially translates to Festival of the Fast-Breaking. Muslims will give money to charity prior to this day in order to ensure that all families can enjoy the festival with food in their bellies. Earlier in the morning on Eid, Muslims will gather at the mosque or some vast prayer space in order to pray together to mark the joyous occasion. Everyone is welcome and encouraged to attend and the prayer is followed by a sermon. During the celebratory festivities which usually last around 3 days, Muslims will visit each other, their neighbours, family and sick people.
The second Eid is a marking of the end of the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca, but it is marked by all Muslims around the world in a celebration called Eid-ul-Adha, or Festival of the Sacrifice. This is a time when Muslims honour the prophetic history of the faith by marking a story told in the Qur’an about how Prophet Abraham was willing to sacrifice his own son because God ordered him to do so. When he was about to sacrifice him, God substituted a ram for the boy instead and accepted Abraham’s incredible act of surrender and worship. For those who have completed their Hajj and all other Muslims around the world, a ram or other animal is slaughtered on this day for meat which is then distributed amongst family and the poor. Special prayers are also attended and Muslims mark the holiday by visiting friends and family. It should remain clear to everyone that the slaughter of the animal is purely symbolic and the blood is not meant as a sacrifice for Allah. Rather it is an act of remembrance of Prophet Abraham and is a method by which the community is strengthened.
Muslims also note several other important days in the Islamic calendar, though the celebration of them with modern innovation is often frowned upon. These include:
- Mawlid an-Nabi: This is the day the Prophet Muhammad was born and many Muslims today use the day to honour, remember and teach about his life. However, it should be very clear that neither the Prophet, nor his companions ever acknowledged his birthday in his lifetime.
- Islamic New Year: The first day of the first month of the Islamic calendar is called 1 Muharram. Again, many modern Muslims will celebrate the day in similar ways to how Westernized counterparts celebrate the Gregorian New Year. However, this is not traditionally a time of celebration but rather just a method to note that time has passed, and for some, to reflect on their mortality.
- Ashura: On the 10th day of the first month (Muharram) of the Islamic calendar, Muslims observe the day of Ashura. However, it should be noted that there is a stark divide in the method of observance between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims. Originally, the Jewish community around Madinah used to mark the day when God parted the sea for Prophet Moses in order to escape Pharoah with a day of fasting. When the Prophet Muhammad became aware of this, he observed the practice as well by fasting for two days. Prior to Ramadan becoming obligatory as revealed in the Qur’an, Ashura was obligatory. But with the making of Ramadan fard (mandatory), Ashura became optional. For Shi’a Muslims, Ashura is considered a day of mourning as it was on this day in 680CE that the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, Husayn, was killed at Karbala. The day is marked by performing reenactment plays, conducting pilgrimages to shrines in Husayn’s name and participating in public self-flagellation demonstrations.