Awal Muharram or Hijri New Year is celebrated by Muslims the world over as the day symbolises two important events in the Islamic year.
Awal means beginning in English and Muharram is the name of the first month in the Muslim calendar. The first day of Muharram is therefore the Islamic New Year’s Day and on this date the Hijra, the historic journey from Mecca to Medina began.
Muharram is the second most holy month of the Islamic year, after Ramadan. On 10 Muharram, many Muslims mark Ashura which commemorates the martyrdom of Hussain ibn Ali, the grandson of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad.
The Islamic Calendar
Islam has a calendar based on the revolutions of the Moon rather than the sun. Thus, it is only 354 days long. Islamic New Year is celebrated on the first day of Muharram, the first Islamic month.
Compared to Western calendars, the Islamic year goes backwards by about 11 days every year.
Islamic New Year
This day is a public holiday in most Islamic countries and this year’s date for New Year in each country along with the name of the day in that country is shown in the table of countries to the right.
Islamic New Year represents the starting point of the Muslim era as it coincides with the Hijrah, the Prophet’s journey from Mecca to Medina on the first of Muharram in 622 CE.
Prophet Mohammed needed to relocate because somebody had intentions to execute him. Consequently, the Prophet chose to go to a town known as Yathrib, some 320 km north of Mecca. Yathrib is known today as Medina, in modern-day Saudi Arabia, which translates to ‘the city’.
Hijrah gave freedom from suffering for the Muslims in Mecca. When the Prophet emigrated to Medina, Muslims there were indirectly saved from further persecution by the Meccan pagans.
After the Hijrah, it was then declared by the Prophet in the Constitution of Medina that Muslims are a universal brotherhood with a unique identity in faith and ideology.
Umar ibn Al-Khattab, a close companion of Prophet Muhammad and the second caliph, subsequently adopted Hijrah as the reference point for the Islamic calendar, either in 638 CE or 639 CE.
The customs of Awal Muharram vary from country to country, though they generally involve attending various religious activities, spiritual singing and religious meetings. The traditions and customs for Muharram also vary between Shia and Sunni Muslims.
For both, the marking of the beginning of the new year is usually quiet, unlike New Year’s celebrations associated with other calendars. It is a time for Muslims to reflect on the passing of time and their own mortality.
To mark Muharram, Muslims will recite Koranic verses and hold special prayers and sermons at public halls and mosques. Some will fast on this day and the subsequent days as detailed below.
4 things you should know about Awal Muharram, the Islamic New Year
1. The history and meaning of Awal Muharram
Contrary to the translation of Muharram to English, which means “forbidden”, it is seen as the second holiest month, the first being Ramadan. Awal Muharram is also known as Maal Hijrah. The word Hijrah is derived from an Arabic word which means moving or emigrating, which is why this month Muharram concurs with the migration of Prophet Mohammed from Mecca to Medina in the year 622AD.
Prophet Mohammed needed to relocate because somebody had intentions to execute him. Consequently, the Prophet chose to go to a town known as Yathrib, which was 320 km north of Mecca. Yathrib is known today as Medina, in nowadays Saudi Arabia, which translates to ‘the city’.
2. Freedom and brotherhood in Medina
Hijrah signified freedom from suffering for the Muslims in Mecca. When the Prophet emigrated to Medina, Muslims there were indirectly saved from further persecution by the Meccan pagans. After the Hijrah, it was then declared by the Prophet in the Constitution of Medina that Muslims are a universal brotherhood with a unique identity in faith and ideology.
In this time, the Prophet restructured the state administration. Jews and Muslims lived in harmony, and, for the first time in world history, a multi-racial and multi-religious state performed and adhered to laws by which all races had equal rights and citizenship.
The stability and strength of the community depended on stable economy and education and so the Prophet made necessary efforts to end economic exploitation and to educate the Muslim community.
3. In Mecca, the Muslims were gracious in victory
Back in Mecca, however, religious tensions were still high between Meccans and Muslims. The Battle of Badr was a significant conflict in 624 AD between the two groups. The Muslims won despite having a much smaller infantry and cavalry.
The Prophet allowed a redemption period for Meccan captives after the Battle of Badr by allowing the literate to become teachers of Muslim children. If they taught 10 children to read and write, they would be freed (or if they paid a ransom). This led to the production of Muslim scholars who then built a civilisation that benefited both the Muslims and non-Muslims. Knowledge was no longer a privilege but accessible to all.
4. How Awal Muharram is celebrated in Malaysia
This month is the best time for voluntary fasts and for charitable acts as described by Prophet Mohammed:
Every fast of Muharram is equivalent to a whole month of fasts.
– Tabarani-fil-Saghir, V2, P87, Hadith 1580