Awal Muharram and Chinese New Year
M. Bakri Musa
To my Chinese readers, Happy New Year! May the new year bring you and yours peace, prosperity and good health. To my Muslim readers, let us pause and reflect on the meaning of Awal Muharram so we may learn from that seminal event of our faith – the Hijrah. To my Chinese Muslim readers in Malaysia, America, China and elsewhere, may the Blessings and Benevolence of Allah upon you and yours be doubled!
I have one other wish, but I will leave that to the end.
Yes, I do have readers in China! I was privileged to meet a special Chinese Muslim from there, the famous calligrapher Haji Noor Deen Mi Guangjiang when he was exhibiting his artistic works in America. His unique combination of Chinese and Islamic calligraphy was truly inspiring. I am filled with joy and wonderment every time I view his works. (You may view some of them on his website: www.hajinoordeen.com)
Physics of the New Moon
Both the Muslim and Chinese New Year begin with the new moon; theoretically they both should be on the same day this year. Yet, Chinese New Year will be celebrated on Sunday, January 29th, while Awal Muharram will be observed on Tuesday, January 31st. This difference in time is apparent, not real.
By calculation, the new moon will be on January 29th at 14 hours and 15 minutes Universal (Greenwich) Time. This is the new moon of the Chinese; thus they celebrate New Year on that day. This “new moon” needs clarification. It is the precise moment when the moon is directly aligned between the earth and sun (conjunction). At that brief instant, the moon’s shining part will completely face the sun, its dark side, the earth. The moon is completely dark and nothing is visible from the earth; hence the term “Dark Moon.” No telescope or other instrumentation can alter this physical reality.
To Muslims, the new moon is when the crescent (hillal) is visible. This can vary from 17 to 23 hours from the moment of conjunction. This variation is due to the variability of the velocity of rotation of the moon around the earth, as the moon’s trajectory is elliptical, not circular; hence it also changes with the seasons. Local weather conditions together with observer’s visual acuity also contribute to the variation.
Because of the physics of light in the atmosphere and the limits of human visual acuity, this hillal can only be seen when the angle of the earth-moon-sun is at least 9 degrees; hence the delay between conjunction and visualization.
By sunset on January 30, the crescent should be nearly 20 hours old in many parts of the world, and be readily visible. To Muslims, Awal (First of) Muharram has begun that very evening. In the Gregorian scheme, the Muslim new month (and year) begins the next day.
Acknowledging the New Year
The Chinese celebrate their New Year much like Muslims do Eid, in particular, Eid-ul Fitrah. Both festivities are joyous occasions for the renewal of familial and community bonds, together with tributes to God (or Gods), and remembrance of those family members who have departed before us.
The Chinese celebration goes on for ten days, with each day having its own special meaning. For Muslims, the tenth day of Muharram holds great significance. It is the anniversary of the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, grandson of Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. Shiite Muslims reenact that sad and tragic moment in Islamic history. This particular tragedy is heightened by the fact that Muharam is traditionally a time of peace, when fighting and wars are prohibited. To the Shiites, the first ten days of Muharram are a period of mourning.
Hijjrah of the Heart and Mind
The Prophet’s Hijrah (migration) from Mecca to Medinah on 622 CE was such a pivotal moment in Islamic history that Caliph Omar decided that the Muslim calendar, and hence Awal Muharram, should begin on that day. Historically, the migration actually took place during the third month.
Awal Muharram is not so much celebrated as observed. On this day, Muslims pause and reflect on that signal event in our history, and ponder its meaning and significance.
Hijrah means to move away from oppression, a bad place or situation. The symbolism of the new moon is particularly apt, the emergence from total darkness to ever increasing brightness under the soft luminescence of the moonlight.
Allah commands us not to accept the evil around or perpetrated upon us. In Surah Al Nisaa (4:97 – Women) (approximate translation), “When the Angels take the souls of those who die in sin, they [Angels] say, ‘In what plight were ye?’ They [sinners] replied, ‘Weak and oppressed we were on earth.’ They [Angels] say, ‘Was not the earth of Allah spacious enough for you to move yourself away from evil?’ Such persons will find their abode in Hell – What an evil refuge!”
The Prophet’s physical Hijrah is well known. Less well appreciated is his non-physical hijrah, when he moved his people away from the Age of Jahilliyah (Ignorance) with his divine messages. His physical Hijrah was a matter of days; his other hijrah consumed his total life after he received that first revelation.
The prophet’s physical Hijrah saw the Anzars (the Medinah natives) warmly welcoming and adopting the Muhajirins (the migrants following the prophet from Mecca). Through their unity and shared identity in that first Muslim community, the faith spread beyond. There is a particular lesson in this for Malaysia.
The early Muslims’ other hijrah saw servants paired with masters, and the rich with the poor. It emancipated the Arabs from a culture where female infanticide was the norm to one where women like Khatijah and Fatimah (the prophet’s wife and daughter respectively – May Allah bless them) have a special place in Islam.
I too have undertaken my own physical hijrah by coming to America. As wrenching an emotional decision as that was, it was the easy part. Now I must continue with the hijrah of my heart and mind.
Living in the heart of capitalism, it is easy to be caught up with the unbridled consumerism. I must constantly remind myself that in giving I am indeed receiving, and that zakat (charity) means purification. It is a continuous hijrah for me to live up to those ideals.
As a society, we too must undertake our own collective hijrah. Through the blessings of Allah, Malaysians are spared the horrors of having to undertake any mass migration, as the Afghans now have to in avoiding anarchy and tyranny of their homeland. However, the evils of corruption, dependency, drug abuse, dysfunctional families, and breaches of faith among officials are still with us. We have to undertake a hijrah of our collective hearts and minds to rid and keep us away from all such ills.
Thus, my third wish upon myself and others, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, is to undertake this mental and social hijrah to move ourselves away from these evils.