11 January 2016

New Year Traditions: Muharram observances within the Islamic calendar

By Lisa J. Yarde

The twelve months of the Islamic or Hijri calendar found their basis in the sightings of the new moon, unlike the s0lar-based Julian and Gregorian calendars used in Christian medieval and modern history. Year 1 of the Islamic calendar commenced in the summer of 622 AD. So, the current Christian year of 2016 corresponds to the Islamic year of 1437. A new Muslim year has never occurred on a fixed date. The migration of dates is not unheard of in other religions From the enactment of the Julian calendar under the reign of Gaius Julius Caesar, January 1 signified the start of a year. However, during the Middle Ages up through the late 16th century, Christians observed the new year at varying points between December 25 through March 25. The Islamic lunar calendar also meant the start of a new month began in the evening. For instance, in 2015, the new year of 1437 began on the evening of October 15, 2015, and 1438 may occur on October 1, 2016.

From the earliest days of Islam’s foundation, the eyewitness viewing of the heavenly symbol shaped like a crescent meant the arrival of a new month. The Koran provided an explanation, saying of the appearances of new moons, “…They are but signs to mark fixes of time in the affairs of men and for pilgrimage.” Once the new moon occurred, several observances coincided with the start of a new year during the first month of Muharram. The word connotes ‘haram’ or what is forbidden. Muharram is one of the four most sacred months and typically lasts thirty days. Some of the practices associated with the month even predate the advent of Islam.

During the month, the Prophet Muhammad recommended that fasting should occur, but the act has never been obligatory as during Ramadan, a month-long fasting period.  For Muslims, divisions among the sects of the Sunni and Shia have meant differences in traditions during Muharram across the centuries. For both, the tenth day of Muharram long held a special significance. For the Sunni, it meant devotion and fasting in remembrance of a battle between Moses and the Egyptians. For the Shia, solemnity overshadowed the day, because it marked the deaths of Muhammad’s grandson Hussein and his infant son Ali at the Battle of Karbala, Iraq in 680 AD. Shia rites have included self-flagellation.

In Turkey, one ritual food, in particular, is served during Muharram. The significance of its preparation predates the Muslim religion. Ashure is a sweetened pudding or porridge made primarily with grains, fruits, and nuts served all year-round as a dessert. The pre-Islamic tradition acknowledges the Biblical flood and the survival of Noah and his family. Their remaining supplies included the foods that make Ashure, which becomes a Turkish staple during the new year celebrations of Muharram.

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Lisa J. Yarde writes fiction inspired by the Middle Ages in Europe. She is the author of two historical novels set in medieval England and Normandy, The Burning Candle, based on the life of one of the first countesses of Leicester and Surrey, Isabel de Vermandois, and On Falcon's Wings, chronicling the star-crossed romance between Norman and Saxon lovers before the Battle of Hastings. Lisa has also written five novels in a six-part series set in Moorish Spain, Sultana, Sultana’s Legacy, Sultana: Two SistersSultana: The Bride Price and Sultana: The Pomegranate Tree, where rivalries and ambitions threaten the fragile bonds between members of a powerful family. Her short story, The Legend Rises, which chronicles the Welsh princess Gwenllian of Gwynedd’s valiant fight against English invaders, is also available.