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THE NEAR EAST


Islamic New Year:
The Month of Muharram
From Crescent Moon Sighting and/or Sunset


The Muharram festival: the 'ta'ziyah' in the Imambara (watercolour, 1795-1800, from the British Library)
Found in a collection of 5 huge, fine depictions of Muharram from various sources at Columbia University

http://www.indobase.com/holidays/new-year/newyear-in-different-religions/islamic-new-year.html
This entry-level site comments briefly on how Muharram is celebrated:
...The way the Muslims celebrate New Year's Day is very different from other such celebrations. They gather in mosques and offer special prayers and listen to special readings from the Koran. An important part of the prayer service is the narration of the Hegira or the flight of Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina....
http://islamic-new-year.123holiday.net/
This page offers very interesting data on the historical background of this festival:
After Muhammad had preached publicly for more than a decade, the opposition to him reached such a high pitch that, fearful for their safety, he sent some of his adherents to Ethiopia, where the Christian ruler extended protection to them, the memory of which has been cherished by Muslims ever since. But in Mecca the persecution worsened. Muhammad's followers were harassed, abused, and even tortured. At last, therefore, Muhammad sent seventy of his followers off to the northern town of Yathrib, which was later to be renamed Medina ("The City"). Later, in the early fall of 622, he learned of a plot to murder him and, with his closest friend, Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, set off to join the emigrants....
At one point, pursued by the angry Meccans who opposed him, Mohammad and his best friend hide in a cave.  Here, a spider protects them (I love this detail):
...Muhammad and Abu Bakr, however, had taken refuge in a cave where, as they hid from their pursuers, a spider spun its web across the cave's mouth. When they saw that the web was unbroken, the Meccans passed by and Muhammad and Abu Bakr went on to Medina, where they were joyously welcomed...

This was the Hijrah - anglicized as Hegira - usually, but inaccurately, translated as "Flight" - from which the Muslim era is dated.... [It] marks not only a break in history - the beginning of the Islamic era- but also, for Muhammad and the Muslims, a new way of life. Henceforth, the organizational principle of the community was not to be mere blood kinship, but the greater brotherhood of all Muslims....

The site also provides further data about the remainder of Mohammad's life.
http://islam.about.com/cs/calendar/a/hijrah_calendar.htm
This 2-page about.com essay looks at the history of the Islamic calendar, again, with a historical focus on the Hijrah:
...It was agreed that the most appropriate reference point for the Islamic calendar was the Hijrah, since it was an important turning point for the Muslim community. After the emigration to Madinah (formerly known as Yathrib), the Muslims were able to organize and establish the first real Muslim "community," with social, political, and economic independence. Life in Madinah allowed the Muslim community to mature and strengthen, and the people developed an entire society based on Islamic principles....
On the second page of this essay, there is a listing of all 12 lunar months in the Islamic calendar. The name Muharram means:
"Forbidden" - it is one of the four months during which it is forbidden to wage war or fight.
http://www.socialstudiesforkids.com/articles/holidays/islamicnewyear.htm
From "Social Studies for Kids" comes another page on Islam's calendar, which spells out the math:
Islam has a calendar based on the revolutions of the Moon. 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 11 days backwards every year....
http://www.socialstudiesforkids.com/articles/holidays/hegira.htm
Again from "Social Studies for Kids" comes an entry-level page on Mohammad's life. Here is its conclusion:
...What  began as a desperate dash to freedom in the middle of the night had become a powerful religious movement that would soon claim followers around the globe.


Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Islamic Arts
Item 39 out of 99: "Bowl Iran, Kashan Bowl, 1187/Muharram, 538A.H. Ceramic"

http://www.pbs.org/empires/islam/profilesmuhammed.html
This is well-presented PBS page on Mohammad's life, offering more and richer details than the preceding links.  Here are some that caught my eye -- I either never knew, or had forgotten, that he was orphaned as a very young child:
Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, was born in Mecca around the year 570. Orphaned before he had reached the age of six, he was raised under the protection of his uncle Abu Talib. Muhammad began working as a merchant and became known for his trustworthiness.
I knew that his wife played an important role in his life, perhaps more so than usual since he was raised without a mother, but I was unaware of how high her actual status was:
When he was about twenty-five, he married Khadija, a wealthy widow whose status elevated Muhammad's position in Meccan society. Muhammad and Khadija had four daughters and two sons, both of whom died in infancy. About fifteen or twenty years after his marriage, he began to have visions and hear mysterious voices....
Here, this brief glimpse into a polytheistic Mecca is intriguing:
Muhammad slowly began to attract some followers, most of them young and of modest social standing, including his cousin Ali, the son of his uncle and protector Abu Talib. When Muhammad began to impugn the traditional polytheism of his native town, the rich and powerful merchants of Mecca realized that the religious revolution taking place under their noses might be disastrous for business, which was protected by the Meccan pantheon of gods and goddesses. The ruling elite ganged up against Muhammad and his followers, and began to persecute them....

Muhammad's position in Mecca became hopeless when his wife Khadija and uncle Abu Talib died in quick succession. In 622 the local rulers of Mecca forced Muhammad and his small band of followers to leave the city....

Raiding and warfare were the primary economic activities of the new community in Medina, and the rich caravans organized by the Quraysh of Mecca were particularly attractive targets. In 628, Muhammad finally negotiated a truce with the Meccans and in the following year returned as a pilgrim to the city's holy sites. The murder of one of his followers provoked him to attack the city, which soon surrendered. Muhammad acted generously to the Meccans, demanding only that the pagan idols around the Kaaba be destroyed. Muhammad's prestige grew after the surrender of the Meccans. Embassies from all over Arabia came to Medina to submit to him. Muhammad's extraordinary life and career were cut short by his sudden death on June 8, 632, aged about sixty, less than a decade since he had set off from Mecca with his small band of followers....

Shiite Women -- Muharram 2011
From Islamic Korner

http://www.albalagh.net/general/muharram.shtml
Finally, this is a lengthy essay on Muharram by Mufti Muhammad Taqi Usmani.  Not being an Islamicist, I'm not familiar with him but he was born in Pakistan in 1943 and, according to his bio page, is "one of the leading Islamic scholars living today."

What I like about his essay is the clarity of his approach to what a preceding link refers to as "the four months during which it is forbidden to wage war or fight."  Elsewhere, several of these sites mention that these four months are especially sacred, which is why war was forbidden during them.  But, I wondered about the theology of that.  If god created everything, including time, how could he create four really, really sacred months and eight not-so-sacred months?  It seems a contradiction in terms that an all-perfect deity could create degrees of sacredness within time -- a less sacred and a more sacred.  I mean, why would a deity deliberately create the "less holy"? How could he even conceive of such a "shadow-thought" [see my discussion of such issues on the Crones & Sages page]? The twelve months should be all of a piece, all equally sacred.  Thus, if war is forbidden during four months, there's no ethical rationale for approving it during the other eight. It should always be forbidden -- and since it's not, why not? Here is how the essay begins:

...[Muharram] is one of the four sanctified months about which the Holy Quran says, "The number of the months according to Allah is twelve (mentioned) in the Book of Allah on the day He created heavens and the earth. Among these (twelve months) there are four sanctified."
Here is the part I like because it is where he discusses exactly the issue irritating me:
The specific mention of these four months does not mean that any other month has no sanctity, because the month of Ramadan is admittedly the most sanctified month in the year. But these four months were specifically termed as sanctified months for the simple reason that their sanctity was accepted even by the pagans of Makkah.

In fact, every month, out of the twelve, is originally equal to the other, and there is no inherent sanctity that may be attributed to one of them in comparison to the other months. When Allah Almighty chooses a particular time for His special blessings, the same acquires sanctity out of His grace.

Thus, the sanctity of these four months was recognized right from the days of Sayyidina Ibrahim, alayhi salam. Since the Pagans of Makkah attributed themselves to Sayyidina Ibrahim, alayhi salam, they observed the sanctity of these four months and despite their frequent tribal battles, they held it unlawful to fight in these months....

So, they are all equal -- none of the months have an "inherent sanctity" in comparison to the others but God can bestow special blessings on whichever ones he chooses. Apparently he did so choose many generations earlier, making his choice so clear that even "the pagans of Makkah" recognized it. It seems the "pagans of Mecca" claim a connection to the Hebrew patriarch, Abraham ("Ibrahim"), which implies that they drew from the many spiritual traditions to which they were exposed. Their recognition of the sanctity of those four months greatly pre-dates Islam and establishes a sense of continuity back to the time of Abraham.  The common sense of this solution to the problem of the four months is appealing.  A pity that unlawfulness of warring during those months isn't still observed.

The author also discusses the uniqueness of the tenth day of Muharram, which is connected to the Crossing of the Red Sea.  Psychologically, this connection makes perfect sense: as we have seen in preceding links, Mohammad's flight from Mecca to Medina gave the fledging community in Medina a chance to mature and become one people. The flight of Moses and his people from Egypt through the Red Sea and into the Sinai provided exactly the same chance.

Although Muharram is a sanctified month as a whole, yet, the 10th day of Muharram is the most sacred among all its days. The day is named 'Ashurah'. According to the Holy Companion Ibn 'Abbas, Radi-Allahu anhu. The Holy Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, when migrated to Madinah, found that the Jews of Madinah used to fast on the 10th day of Muharram. They said that it was the day on which the Holy Prophet Musa (Moses), alayhis salam, and his followers crossed the Red Sea miraculously and the Pharaoh was drowned in its waters. On hearing this from the Jews, the Holy Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, said, "We are more closely rotated to Musa, alayhi salam, than you," and directed the Muslims to fast on the day of 'Ashura'....
All in all, especially since its content is so unfamiliar, I found this a fascinating essay.

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20 December 2011, 4pm: this page was originally a section of my Winter Greetings & Lore page. I created it December 11, 2009. The following year Muharram began 6 December 2010. This year it began in late November so I am now giving it its own page.

                          21 December 2011, c, 2pm: added 2 more images
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