The Muslim prophet Ibrahim (Abraham in Judeo-Christian tradition) is one of the most remarkable figures in religious history. He is the father of three great religions, the first to believe in one God, and his tales are recounted by all three faiths.
Eid al-Adha, the holiest feast of the Muslim calendar, marks the end of the annual pilgrimage (Hajj.) Eid Al-Adha begins on the tenth day of Dhu’l-Hijja and lasts four days.
It commemorates an event roughly three thousand years ago, when the prophet Ibrahim took his son Ishmael/Ismail to be sacrificed at the command of the Lord. But before Ibrahim could go through with the act God gave Ibrahim a ram to be sacrificed in the place of his son.
There are two major distinctions between the this and the Judeo-Christian version as written in Genesis.
First, in Genesis the son to be sacrificed is not Ishmael, but Isaac.
And second, in the Qur’an Ishmael is aware of his father’s intentions and agrees to be sacrificed. Thus, Eid al-Adha remembers not only Ibrahim’s sacrifice, but Ishmael’s as well.
Arguably the figure of Ibrahim is more prominent in the Islamic faith than in either Judaism or Christianity. Even though he lived twenty-five hundred years before the Prophet Muhammad, Ibrahim is said to have lived a life consistent with Muhammad’s teachings. In addition to nearly sacrificing Ishmael, Ibrahim also broke ties with his own father Azar, an idolator who refused to follow the teachings of the one true God.
Traditionally Eid al-Adha was been celebrated through the sacrifice of an animal such as a sheep, goat, camel or cow. (In recent years the practice has become more controversial. Animal sacrifice is not one of the five pillars of Islam and Muhammad himself did not eat much meat.) The meat of the animal was split into three parts. One part for themselves and family, one part for friends and neighbors, and one part for the poor.
Eid al-Adha also recalls the journey of Hajar, mother of Ishmael, and her search for water:
…Prophet Ibrahim brought Lady Hajar and their baby son Ismail, by the command of God, to the deserted uncultivable valley of Makkah where the sacred house, Ka’bah, is now located. Prophet Ibrahim left Lady Hajar and their son alone by the order of God, and Lady Hajar said, “never ever will God neglect us.” Eventually, she ran out of provisions. Shortly thereafter, she ran up and down two hills, Safa and Marwa, seven times looking for water. Finally, a spring of water gushed at her baby’s feet. God had not neglected them. That same water is still gushing (Zamzam Well).
Ashura (aka Ashoura) means 10th. Ashura falls on the 10th day of Muharram, the first month of the New Year. Fasting, though not obligatory during Muharram, is highly encouraged on this date.
Ashura is observed by both Shi’a and Sunni Muslims throughout the world, although for varying reasons. These differences give insight to the both commonalities and the conflicts between the two branches of Islam.
Ashura is one of the most sacred days of the year for Shi’a Muslims, who commemorate the martyrdom of Hussein ibn Ali in the Battle of Karbala. The battle took place on Muharram 10, 61 AH, or October 10th 680 CE in what is now Iraq.
Hussein was the son of Ali ibn Abi Talib and the grandson of the prophet Muhammad. Hussein and over a hundred of his followers, many of whom were family of Muhammad, were slain in the Battle of Karbala.
Hussein is the third Imam of Islam for the Shi’a Muslims.
In the immediate wake of the passing of Muhammad, disagreement arose as to the true successor of Muhammad, and two groups solidified.
The larger group elected the Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s father-in-law and close companion, citing among other things, Muhammad’s asking of Abu Bakr to lead prayers at mosque shortly before his death. These followers became the Sunni. They felt that election was the accepted way of deciding leadership at that time, and that Muhammad would have agreed to this, or would have left no doubt as to his successor.
But the election took place without the participation of key members of Muhammad’s family, including his daughter Fatima and son-in-law Ali, who were preparing Muhammad’s body for burial. This smaller group believed Muhammad chose Ali as successor, citing as partial evidence a speech Muhammad made at Ghadir Khumm:
“Of whomsoever I am the mawla, Ali is his mawla.”
Mawla means “friend,” but it can also mean “master” or “protector.”
Also, the Shi’a believed that since the prophet Muhammad was appointed by God and God alone, his legacy was passed on by blood, not by the elections and factions of men.
In the 24 years between Muhammad’s death (632 CE) and Hussein’s ascension to Caliph, three Caliphs ruled the Islamic empire: Abu Bakr, Umar, and Uthman.
Under their reigns the Empire spread from Arabia to what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan in the East, to Turkey and Georgia in the North, and to southern Spain and northern Morocco in the West.
Uthman’s reign was the longest, lasting just over a decade. In 656 CE Muslim rebels laid siege to his palace and killed the Caliph. What follows is one of the most hotly debated aspects of all Islam.
Uthman was succeeded by the son-in-law of Muhammad, Ali ibn Abi Talib. Initially Ali is reported to have initially refused the Caliphate, but he eventually accepted.
Aisha, a wife of Muhammad and daughter of the first Caliph Abu Bakr, believed Ali let Uthman’s killers off the hook too easily and raised an army to overthrow Ali. This did not succeed, but increased tensions between the two factions.
Around this time Muawiyah I, governor of Syria appointed by Umar, refused to acknowledge Ali as the new Caliph. Muawiyah had been the son of a powerful family controlling Mecca in the days of Muhammad. Ali doubted his piety, for Muawiyah had converted to Islam only when it was politically advantageous to do so. Muawiyah rebelled against Ali in what is known as the first Fitna, or Muslim Civil War. A truce was reached, but when Ali appointed one of Uthman’s suspected killers to be governor of Egypt, Muawiyah invaded Egypt and assumed authority.
In 661 CE the first Imam Ali was killed by the poisoned sword of a Kharijite. By this time Muawiyah, as ruler of Syria and Egypt, was the most power man in the Empire. He forced Ali’s oldest son, Hasan, to step down as the new Caliph.
When Muawiyah died in 680 CE (60 AH) he appointed his son Yazid as Caliph. This was the first time the Caliphate had been passed from father to son.
Which brings us to Hussein ibn Ali. Hasan’s younger brother. Hussein refused to acknowledge Yazid as ruler and mounted a campaign against him.
Meanwhile rebellion broke out against Yazid in Kufa. Yazid’s forces squashed the rebellion.
Hussein, unaware of this, set out for Kufa with a band of followers numbering between 108 and 136. He expected to be greeted with support in Kufa, but encountered Yazid’s troops, led by Umar ibn Sa’ad near the city of Karbala.
It was on the tenth day of Muharram that Hussein ibn Ali and all his supporters were killed by overwhelming forces.
In the aftermath of the battle the news of Hussein’s death solidified the Shi’a people against the Umayyad dynasty.
“Many westerners do not understand why it is that Shia Muslims mourn the martyred Imam Hussein as though the event did not occur a thousand years ago but as if it happened as recently as yesterday.”
Today Shi’a Muslims around the world are united in their view of Yazid as a force of evil.
Many Sunni join them in this depiction. However, Sunni are divided. And in addition to remembering the death of Muhammad’s grandson Hussein, Sunni observe Ashura for additional reasons. According to tradition, the 10th of Muharram is the anniversary of the date:
God created the earth
Adam and Eve were banished from Heaven, or the Garden,
Noah, or Nuh, stepped off the ark onto Mt. Judi
God saved Moses, or Musa from the Egyptian Pharaoh
Abraham, Moses, and Jesus were born
The origin of the establishment of Ashura for all these dates is unlcear. In his journeys Muhammad observed the Jews celebrating the tenth of Muharram as a day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).
Today, both Sunni and Shi’a mourn the tragedy of the death of the grandson of Muhammad, and Ashura is commemorated in different ways by the one-billion-plus followers of Islam.
“I had long been deeply impressed by the religious fervor of hundreds of thousands of Iranians whom newsreels in the 1980s showed marching in the streets, flagellating themselves with heavy-duty, Hydra-headed whips, drawing blood to commemorate the martyrdom of Iman Hossein in 683 CE. When I found myself in Shiraz on the memorial day Arbaeen, which marks the 40th day after the martyr’s death, I heard that self-flagellations were about to take place down the road, and I rushed there with my camera and notebook. What I found was a well-stylized dance. Young men were eagerly stepping in a circle to the tune of pleasant, if repetitive, music, gently waving slight whips, with which they symbolically touched their well-covered backsides. They did not even work up a sweat, much less draw blood.
~ November 26, 2011 ~ November 14, 2012 ~ November 3, 2013
Happy New Year!
What’s that? No party hats? No noise makers, or funny glasses with “1432” on them?
Nope, the Islamic New Year is a time of reflection and reverence, not outward celebration. The name Muharram itself–the first month of the Hijra calendar–means “holy” or “forbidden”. Muharram is one of the four “sacred” months (not including Ramadan), during which certain acts are forbidden.
“…the one that keeps a fast in the month of Muharram will receive the reward of thirty fasts for each fast.”
Details of the Hijra calendar are laid out in the Qur’an which states: “The number of the months according to Allah is twelve.” The number of days in each month is determined by the lunar cycle. The Qur’an condemns luni-solar calendars which insert an intercalary or leap period “one year and forbid it another year so that they may make up the number of the months which Allah has allowed in order to permit what Allah has forbidden.”
In other words, the days and months of the year are set down by God, as are rules about when to abstain from certain activities ranging from fighting to eating to intercourse. So even if man tries to shift the months of the year for his convenience, this doesn’t change the natural timetable by which prescribed activities are allowed and forbidden.
Islam and the Moon
Islam’s use of the moon and the lunar cycle as the sole determinant of the year stands in stark contrast to luni-solar calendars that originated from earlier cultures, many of which worshipped a “sun-god”, be it Ra, Helios, or Mithra.
Today the crescent moon is the most widely recognized symbol of Islam, yet early Muslims used icon-free banners of various colors. The moon and star, symbols of Byzantium since the 4th century BC, spread across the Islamic world during the expansion of the Ottoman Empire.
The Qur’an forbids worship of the moon or any other object. During the Prophet Abraham’s quest for God, Abraham first worships a “shining planet”, but when the star fades he says, “I love not those that disappear.” When the moon rises he says “This is my Lord.” But he is disillusioned when the moon sets as well. Finally, when sun rises, he says, “This is my Lord; this is the greatest of all” But like the moon and star, even the sun sets. Abraham at last proclaims, “I have devoted myself absolutely to the One who initiated the heavens and the earth. I will never be an idol worshipper.” [Qur’an 6:76-79]
The birthnight of Islam may have been Muhammad’s first revelation of the Quran by the Angel Gabriel in 610 CE. But the Year known as 1 in the Muslim calendar came over a decade later..
The Prophet Muhammad was living in Makkah, teaching Islam and monotheism to his followers, and thus angering the city’s governance. Even then Makkah was a pilgrimage destination, but for a very different reason. The Kaaba–the birthplace of monotheism in Islam–held idols of pagan gods worshipped by the many cults and clans around Makkah. Much of the power of city leaders rested on their perceived connection with pagan gods and idols.
Muhammad found support in the people of Medinah, who would travel the 200 miles distance to Makkah to meet with him and learn the ways of Islam. Muhammad refused to stop teaching Islam, despite offers of riches and power from government leaders if he did, and threats to his life if he didn’t. In September of 622 he cut his ties with the leaders of Makkah and led his followers north to Medinah to establish the world’s first city-state governed by the laws of the Qur’an.
Though today Makkah is the direction toward which Muslims pray and the destination of the Hajj, it was Muhammad’s departure of the city that set in motion the Islamic calendar. We’re beginning the 1430th year of Al-Hijra, or “the Migration.”
Months of the al-Hijra calendar
Muharram: Forbidden, holy Safar: Whistling of the Wind Rabi al-Awwal: First month of spring Rabi al-Thani: Second month of spring Jumada al-Awwal: First month of dryness (summer) Jumada al-Thani: Second month of dryness Rajab: To respect. One of the four sacred months, Rajab is also called Rajab al Fard (alone), because the other three sacred months are consecutive. Shaban: Continual Increase Ramadan: Intense heat Shawwal: Uplift or breakage Zul Qu’dah: To sit Zul Hijjah: Pilgrimage (month of the Hajj)
The names derive from pre-Islamic times when the months coincided with the seasons.
[from Dec. 28 – 2008 – For the first time in over three decades Muslims will celebrate two ‘New Years’ in a single Gregorian calendar year. First, Al-Hijra 1429 on January 9/10 2008 CE and now 1430 AH on December 28/29. The next time this will happen will be in 2041 CE, so better make this one count!]
For Muslims across the world, tonight is a night “better than a thousand months.”
On this night, the 27th of Ramadan, in 610 CE, the 40 year-old future Prophet Muhammad was meditating in a cave outside Mecca. The Angel Gabriel/Jibril appeared to Muhammad and commanded him to recite. Muhammad twice refused, explaining he did not know how. After the third command, Muhammad found himself reciting what would become the first verses of the 96th chapter of the Qur’an.
‘Read, in the name of thy Lord Who createth everything.
Created man from a clot of blood.
Read, for thy Lord is Most Beneficent,
Who teacheth by the pen,
Teacheth man that which he knew not.’
The last ten days of the month of Ramadan are considered the most sacred. While fasting and sacrifice is required throughout the month, Muslims strive to follow and understand the teachings of the Qur’an most stridently during these days.
Many Muslims, notably Shi’a Muslims, observe Lailatul-Qadr (Night of Power) on the 23rd of the month. Some also point to the Qur’an as expressing that the night may fall on any odd-numbered night in the last third of the month.
Laylat al-Qadr is also known, perhaps more accurately, as Night of Predestination, or Night of Measure.
This year, the 27th day of the ninth month of the Islamic calendar coincides with the 27th day of the ninth month of the Gregorian calendar. An event that (depending on moon sightings) may not happen again for 200 years. However, since the “day” officially begins the evening before, the 27th night of Ramadan actually falls on the 26th night of September this year.
The end of Ramadan is marked with the festival Eid-al-Fitr.