Every American Muslim of a certain age, by which I mean any age, has a favorite Friday sermon memory. A long time ago, in an America that now seems far, far away, imams would offer sermons remarkable not just for their length (less Green Day, more Led Zeppelin), but for their awfulness too. Like atrocious B-movies, which, with the amnesiac passage of time, become cultishly enjoyable.
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Rumor has it that, way back in the Clinton years, in a mosque outside Philadelphia, an imam railed for some thirty minutes about the demise of the Islamic calendar, which he then connected to graver events. Thus as he saw it the Bosnian genocide was caused by the failure to properly mark the arrival of, say, Muharram, the Muslim January — bring back the Islamic calendar, and all your problems will disappear. Shana Tova!
Islam’s second Caliph, Umar (who reigned from 634-644 C.E.) established the Islamic calendar. Umar chose the year 622, the year of the Prophet Muhammad’s hejira, or exodus, from an increasingly hostile Mecca for Medina, as the start date. Unlike the Gregorian, but like the Jewish calendar, the Muslim one is lunar. There are twelve months, of 29 or 30 days in length. The year is 354 or 355 days, and retreats eleven days against the solar calendar.
Once, that Islamic calendar governed the rhythms of huge parts of the world, from westernmost Portugal to the Arctic shores of Russia. Today, that calendar is not only rarely used — that isn’t just because of colonialism, and the long reign of the West — but because the Islamic calendar is the subject of ongoing disagreement. Which is just another way of saying: All Muslims really are not the same.
If you do a Google search of “Islamic New Year’s,” the result comes with an endearing caveat: “Dates may vary.”
This year, Muslim New Year’s Day is October 2nd. Depending on who you ask.
Many Muslims, myself included, believe that the arrival of a new month, heralded by the first sliver of a crescent moon — now you get it! — must not only be corroborated astronomically, but be sighted by a human eye. At least one. Preferably two. For some of us, four. Which means every year, every month, and many holidays, come down to the wire. You have to email your boss on a Friday afternoon all, “our biggest holiday of the year is coming up — can I have the day off?” And she’ll be, “Sure, what day?” And you go, “Well, Monday or Tuesday. I can let you know that Sunday night around 11 p.m.?”
Of course, in some Muslim contexts, scientific calculation alone is deemed sufficient. In others, physical sighting is demanded. But in countries where Muslims are a relatively young minority, or an incredibly diverse one, such as America, we get the best of both worlds. Because let’s say your mosque decides physical sighting’s required. Whose eyeballs are you going to believe? Will each mosque make its own decision? American mosques within mere miles of each other might celebrate the New Year on different days.
That’s part of the messiness, sloppiness and diversity of American Islam. I, for one, love it. Unity shouldn’t ever mean unanimity. The greatest bane of contemporary Islam is the confusion of the two.
But there’s one thing all Muslims agree on: Intercalation is not happening. True to another Muslim spirit. Misery hearts company. Even countries that maintain a standardized Islamic calendar let the months recede slowly against the solar seasons. Because the drifting Islamic lunar calendar provides for a unique kind of equality. If, for example, Ramadan always occurred in July, or thereabout, it’d be terrible for folks in the far north of the world, what with their increasingly hot and interminable daylight hours. Whereas that’d be entirely convenient for folks in the global south.
When Ramadan that retreats every year, we have a religious calendar that makes sure a different part of the world Unity shouldn’t ever mean unanimity. The greatest bane of contemporary Islam is the confusion of the two. That’s awesome for New York. Less so Melbourne. No one part of the world has any permanent cheat.
But there are so far as I know no historic traditions of celebrating the Muslim New Year with anything approaching the ball drop at Times Square. That might be because, for Shia Muslims especially, the first ten days of the Islamic year are an especially somber occasion, marking the doom of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Hussain. The son of Ali, the fourth Caliph and Shia Imam, Hussain was martyred on Ashura, the 10th day of the first month; observant Jewish readers will note that that is the same date as Yom Kippur. But prepare to be a little confused.
Muslims believe Ashura is the day on which God rescued Moses and the Children of Israel from Pharaoh—that is, it’s our day to mark Passover. To make this more confusing, this year Rosh Hashanah and Ra’s as-Sanah, and ten days later, Yom Kippur and Ashura, are practically taking place on the same day on the solar calendar. I don’t believe that religious similarity can, or should, erase genuine disagreements and differences of opinion. But given the present climate I hope the overlap reminds us of just how much we have to lose should we not consider each other allies and supporters in common causes.
A man on 5th Avenue who lit a headscarved Muslim woman on fire. The execution style deaths of two imams in Queens. A man in a neo-Nazi uniform who shot 9 Houstonians, and yet hardly made the news. If Trump wins, I expect it’ll get worse.
This is not how I imagined 1437 would go.
That Philadelphian imam was said to have come back the next week, frothing and fuming more than the week before even. “Someone reminded me after last week’s sermon,” he screamed, in what was that week’s sermon, “that my own daughter eloped with someone who wasn’t even Muslim so why am I wasting my time on Islamic calendar?”
These are the moments you live for. When you’re actually in the moment. No one could turn away. It was like a train wreck. “Brothers and sisters,” he said, his voice rising, turning lethally serious. “If my daughter ran away from home, it’s because”
Yes, you know what’s coming.
“It’s because we don’t use the Islamic calendar.”
Sana hilwa, beautiful people. New Year’s Mubarak.
Haroon Moghul is a Senior Fellow and Director of Development at the Center for Global Policy. He is a President of Avenue Meem, a new media company. Follow him on Twitter: @hsmoghul