Loony calendar?

June 2017

In northern Sweden, some Muslims follow the Ramadan advice of the European Council of FatwaPhoto: Fredric Alm / Al Jazeera

One thing Muslims could do to cheer themselves up is: drop the lunar calendar. North-west European Muslims have got enough to worry about without facing a month of 18-hour total fasts.

(I’m not a Muslim – I’m a North-west European agnostic lapsed Christian. I don’t like religion, but at the same time I’m fascinated by it! Some of my friends are Muslims. Some of them are fasting.)

Apparently, a lunar-solar calendar was used in Arabia before Islam. A solar correction known as ‘intercalation‘ or ‘nasri‘ took account of the year and the seasons. The Islamic lunar calender was implemented, as I understand it, because intercalation was being used to allow armed violence during the months of unarmed peace. Or something like that.

The months were reorganised, and consequently the new Islamic ‘year’, starting, of course, with ‘yearzero (or one – it’s not clear) had twelve lunar months of 29 or 30 days with no intercalation, making a total of 354 or 355 days. It’s now Islamic ‘Year’ 1438 (October 2016 CE to September 2017).

So how can the Muslim ‘year’ be a year? It can’t be, of course, because it isn’t. A year is the orbital period of the earth moving around the sun: 365 or 366 calendar days. The Islamic lunar calendar – with all  due respect to a world religion with nearly two billion followers – is a loony calendar.

No doubt Muslim farmers, herders and others continued to observe lunar-solar cycles. Today, the only effect of the lunar ‘year’ on most Muslims is the timing in the solar cycle of the lunar month of Ramadan. And this is the problem.

In tropical Mecca, dawn to sunset (the Ramadan fast period specified in the Quran) at any time of year is about twelve hours – a manageable period for total fast. Also, in the tropics the difference between astronomical dawn (the start time agreed by most Muslim scholars) and sunrise is very short; in northern lattitudes it can be three or more hours.

For the diaspora, therefore, it’s more difficult than in Mecca or Medina. In the UK this year (2017) Ramadan is in June: 18 hours.

I’ve tried a long total fast for a few days. It’s hard. The spirituality is said to make it easier, but even so, it’s tough. And then, once the sunset ceremony of prayer, dates and water is over, you’re stuffing loads of food late at night. It can’t be good for your health.

So, drop the lunar calender. No offence meant, but it’s ridiculous to persist in using a yearly calendar which isn’t based on actual years. There are 12.4 lunar cycles in a year. Restore the intercalation, and fix the twelve Islamic months in a lunar-solar calendar.

Ramadan would be well positioned as month nine of twelve in an Islamic lunar-solar calender. It’d be in Autumn in the North (about ten hours daylight in London) and Spring in the South. Muslims in Dunedin, New Zealand (there are some) would have a similar fasting time.

There might be a problem relating a solar-fixed Ramadan to sightings of the new moon. If necessary, the proposed intercalation could adjust the position of Ramadan each year, so that it begins and ends on a new moon. The exact (Gregorian) date of Ramadan would then vary by several days, like Easter, which is also dependant on the moon cycle.

The dates of the surrounding lunar-solar Islamic months would also then vary, but as most Muslims use the Gregorian calendar for everyday purposes, that shouldn’t be a problem.

Yes, I know. The prophet Muhammad had a divine revelation which supposedly ordained a lunar calendar. The Quran’s verse 9:36 says, ‘Indeed, the number of months with Allah is twelve [lunar] months in the register of Allah [from] the day He created the heavens and the earth; of these, four are sacred. That is the correct religion, so do not wrong yourselves during them. And fight against the disbelievers collectively as they fight against you collectively. And know that Allah is with the righteous [who fear Him]’.

Fair enough – but the translation’s square–bracketed ‘lunar‘ suggests non-divine interpretation.

Another translation says, ‘The number of the months, with God, is twelve in the Book of God, the day that He created the heavens and the earth; four of them are sacred. That is the right religion. So wrong not each other during them. And fight the unbelievers totally even as they fight you totally and know that God is with the godfearing. Know that intercalation (nasi) is an addition to disbelief. Those who disbelieve are led to error thereby, making it lawful in one year and forbidden in another in order to adjust the number of (the months) made sacred by God and make the sacred ones permissible. The evil of their course appears pleasing to them. But God gives no guidance to those who disbelieve’.

In that translation, the twelve months aren’t said – or interpreted – to be lunar, but the intercalation needed for a lunar-solar year is said to be an error made by disbelievers.

Verse 9:37 says, ‘Indeed, the postponing [of restriction within sacred months] is an increase in disbelief by which those who have disbelieved are led [further] astray. They make it lawful one year and unlawful another year to correspond to the number made unlawful by Allah and [thus] make lawful what Allah has made unlawful. Made pleasing to them is the evil of their deeds; and Allah does not guide the disbelieving people’.

Right. Clear as mud.

I’d say: have your 12 months; make four of them sacred; but respect the sun and its seasons. Restore the intercalation and make the Islamic year an actual year. 1,500 years after the local problem with tribal fighting, how can that be an error made by disbelievers?

Another problem with my suggestion is that the beginning of each Islamic month is supposed to be determined by the sighting of a new moon. A possible compromise would be to have an extra month (call it Shams, meaning Sun) and make each month 28 days. An extra day would be needed to make a 365-day year. (See International Fixed Calendar and Foundation for the Law of Time.)

Postscript: A Muslim friend told me that one of her UK Muslim aquaintances has unilaterally decided to follow Mecca time: she fasts from 6:00 am to 6:00 pm. This is an imaginative idea – probably better than trying to change a 1,400-year-old supposedly divinely ordained calendar.

Yes I know. Verse 2:187 says, ‘And eat and drink until the white thread of dawn becomes distinct to you from the black thread [of night]. Then complete the fast until the sunset.’

But that was in tropical Arabia. Perhaps Quranic proclamations about Ramadan and the lunar calendar didn’t take into account the possibility of future worldwide diaspora.

Most modern Muslim scholars prescribe as the start time of fasting an astronomical dawn that is based on the sun being 18 degrees below the horizon; but some post-diaspora scholars have said that dispersed Muslims may observe a 6:00 am to 6:00 pm fast.

Verse 2:185 of the Quran says, ‘God does not impose any hardship upon you. He wants you to have comfort so that you may complete the fast’. Admittedly, this is in the context of postponing fast days if you’re ill or travelling, but surely the principle of kindness also applies to dispersed Muslims facing an 18-hour total fast.

Some Muslims say that the hardship of a long total fast is a test of submission to God. But according to a Hadith generally accepted as authentic (Sahih Muslim 2593) the prophet Muhammad said, ‘Allah is gentle and He loves gentleness’.

As-salāmu ʿalaykum.

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Fear of Islamophobia

In which I write a robust, generalised, secular humanist critique of Islam in the UK without being Islamophobic

Nice art – shame about the self-segregation Photo: Mohammad Reza Domiri Ganji

Warning: the following article contains strong opinions. Devout Muslims of simple faith may wish to move along; anyone else, please read on…

Am I Islamophobic, frightened of Islam? If I believed the many rabid anti-Islamic websites out there, saying that Muslim immigration is a Trojan horse, about to destroy democracy, I probably would be. But I dont; and I’m not.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, here in the UK, I’ll explain why I don’t much like Islam as it is at the moment; and how that doesn’t make me Islamophobic.

Fact: Oil-rich Saudi Arabia spends billions of dollars on the international promotion of Wahhabism/Salafism, widely recognised as one of fundamentalist Islam’s most extreme movements. Much of the money funds children’s education in British faith schools and mosques.

Fact: A headteacher friend told me that in her mainly-Muslim state primary school the day after 9/11, Muslim children were singing pro-Osama bin Laden chants.

Fact: There were demonstrations in London by Muslims against the war in Iraq and against offensive cartoons, but there have been no demonstrations against al-Qaeda or Isis. PR statements of condemnation and claims that Islam is a religion of peace are made, but Muslims have not accepted any responsibility for the brutal terrorism coming from within their religion. Many Muslims resort to elaborate conspiracy theories or blame foreign policy to justify denial.

Fact: A UK opinion poll has indicated significant support amongst Muslims for young Muslims who leave the UK to join fighters in Syria. Another poll showed that a significant number of UK Muslims believe the 2005 7/7 London bombings were justified because of the west’s war on terror.

Does writing those things in a blog make me Islamophobic?

Fact: Muslims are taught that they shouldn’t live in a non-Muslim country, but if they do, they shouldn’t befriend non-Muslims. (Actually, despite being a native non-believer – I’m agnostic – I find UK Muslims friendly. But the teaching is there.)

Fact: A religious message has been circulated calling for Muslims to foster or adopt refugee Muslim orphans to save them from the ‘alien environment’ of non-Muslim homes. (Many ‘alien’ non-Muslims had come forward, but very few righteous Muslims had done so.)

Is it Islamophobic to say those things?

Fact: According to supposedly reliable contemporaneous reports, the prophet Muhammad at the age of 54 began having penetrative sex with a nine-year old girl, who’d been his ‘wife’ since the age of six.


The accusation of Islamophobia is the knee-jerk defensive response by Muslim spokespeople to any criticism of Islam. This is like the accusation of antisemitism made in response to any criticism of Israel or Zionism. (See my blog on the weird word ‘antisemitism‘.)

Words matter. As a critic of Islam, am I Islamophobic? The suffix ‘phobia’ can mean ‘aversion’, but it’s usually taken to mean ‘irrational fear’ (as in ‘claustrophobia’, meaning fear of enclosed spaces). The widespread use of the word ‘Islamophobia’ deflects criticism. Critics must be either irrational or fearful or both, so they can be ignored. Say the magic word, and the criticism doesn’t need to be addressed.

Am I irrationally frightened of Islam? We all could be rationally frightened of Islam, after the horrors of 9/11 and 7/7. (I say ‘we all’, because some of the victims were Muslims.) But personally, in spite of that, I’ve got no fear of Islam – rational or irrational – or of Muslims in general. So no, I’m not Islamophobic.

Anti-Islamic‘ is better than ‘islamophobic’, but that’s not quite right either for a liberal critic of Islam. What if you don’t like Islam as it is, but you’re not actually against it? There should be a suffix or prefix for ‘dislike it as it is at the moment’ – but there isn’t.

There’s a long-term grumbling undercurrent in the British host community of semi-coherent resentment of the post-war immigration project. The sudden influx of large numbers of foreign people, many with foreign languages and religions, was a shock.

If the host community had been consulted and had agreed to mass immigration, there might gave been a more welcoming and trusting environment, which might have made integration more successful.

(My post, Patriotism – for scoundrels addresses the current policy of trying to promote integration by teaching ‘British values‘ in schools.)

When resentment and distrust are aimed at Muslims, as they sadly often are, ‘Islamophobia’ is as good a word as any to describe it. But it won’t do as a blanket response to any criticism.

Openly anti-Islamic racist groups in the UK and Europe try to stir up fear of Islam, but fortunately they have little support in the UK. However, any western criticism of Islam inevitably risks conflation with racism. Most UK Muslims are of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin and are therefore, like all immigrant communities, victims of racism.

Victimhood can become a bad habit – hence, perhaps, the over-use of the provocatively misleading word ‘Islamophobia’ – but the victims aren’t to blame. As the Archbishop of Canterbury has said, racism is deeply embedded in British culture. Liberal critics of Islam should tread lightly.

(Racism is a different – albeit, related – subject, with its own deep-rooted complexity. See my post Colour me racist, blame my genes – racism explained as a redundant instinct, which includes a detailed account of the racism-provoking self-segregation practised by a large minority of UK Muslims.)

Is there such a person as a moderate Muslim? Google it, and you find many writers and thinkers, both Muslim and non-Muslim, saying ‘No’. The Muslim ‘No’ argument is that it’s not acceptable to be moderately dedicated to Islam; ‘moderate’ Muslims are on the slippery slope to apostasy and Hell.

Ordinary Muslims – decent, honest and friendly – are moderate, aren’t they? Thats what an anxious host community would like to think. But a powerful and communal ideological commitment combined with a sense of being beleaguered can nudge the most ordinary person into a bunker mentality.

(UK Muslims’ sense of being beleaguered, or even persecuted, is somewhat ridiculous when compared to real persecution. See my article about the previously saintly Aung San Suu Kyi and her Myanmar goverment’s brutal persecution of the Rohingya Muslims, Halo Goodbye, Suu – the Rohingya crisis.)

Moderate or not, Muslims say that Islam isn’t just a religion, it’s a way of life – one which must be preserved, and not be contaminated by integration with the decadent host community. This reluctance to integrate is the cause of most of the criticism, and of the consequent paranoid accusations of Islamophobia.

Symptoms of the host community’s supposed decadence include our acceptance of homosexuality and equality for women, and our lack of religious faith.

Young UK Muslims are often torn between the Islamic lifestyle – which secures their position in their extended family and the wider Muslim community – and the western lifestyle, which isn’t really that decadent, and which has attractions other than the merely material – mainly, the freedom to live how you want, within the protective barrier of reason and secular law.

This tension is expressed in a few cases by joining Isis (to escape temptation and see the world); or lapsing; and in most cases isn’t expressed at all, but simply bubbles under the surface. Perhaps surprisingly, many Muslim families have one or more lapsed or semi-lapsed members who are still very much part of the family.

In any case, the non-western lifestyle of most UK Muslims is not purely Islamic. Pakistani and Bangladeshi cultural traditions – north Indian, as they were for centuries before partition – are mixed with Islamic principle. For instance, most Islamic weddings ignore Quran-ordained simplicity in favour of expensive three-day celebrations with lavish gifts of gold jewellery and clothes.

Other unislamic traditions are less benign. Most UK ‘honour’ killing victims from 2009 to 2014 were of Pakistani origin. (1)

Muslims are entitled, of course, to preserve their way of life (within the law of the land), whether it’s strictly religious or not. There are other insular ethnic-religious groups in the UK that insist on keeping to a special lifestyle – for example, orthodox Jews. But Muslims are the only such group who’s religion is associated with worldwide sectarian and anti-west violence.

Muslims often say that the violence is unislamic. Even if that’s accepted (perhaps with some scepticism), there’s a worrying tendency for the culture of Islam in the west to self-segregate into an ideological supremacist fortress – nicely symbolised by the provocative wearing of eye-slit face veils.

Secular humanists look on with wariness and some distaste – but not Islamophobia.

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(1)’Honour’ killing victims: Of the 22 out of 29 reported cases of ‘honour’ killings and attempted killings in 2010 where the ethnicity of the victim was known or alleged, 15 were of Pakistani origin (3 were Indian, 1 was Bangladeshi, 1 Palestinian/Syrian, 1 Kuwaiti and 1 white British) – The Henry Jackson Society database – reported cases of ‘honour’ killings and attempted killings in the UK between 31 December 2009 and 31 December 2014.

(The neoconservative HJS has form for being anti-Islamic, but these statistics appear to be sound.)

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Postscript 1

I put this to some Muslim scholars, liberals and reformers. So far, there have been two respondents, both reformers. They say that Islam needs to shed man-made sects (Sunnism, Sufism and Shiitism), disregard the extra texts (hadiths) and rely on the Quran, the interpretation of which is human and fallible. However, reform can have a bad side. The Wahabi/Salafi movement is a reformist movement, albeit an ultra-conservative Sunni one. Christian Reformation’s Martin Luther, a nasty piece of work, was calling for the burning of synagogues some 500 years ago. Thank goodness for the Enlightenment.

Muhammad’s nine-year old ‘wife’

One respondent said that the hadith about Muhammad having sex with his nine-year old ‘wife’, Aisha, is fabricated. However, there are apparently many supposedly reliable hadiths attesting to this ‘consummation of marriage’.

Some Muslims argue that Aisha was aged between 15 and 19 when the marriage was consumated, but most Muslims seem to accept that it happened when the girl was nine. Many Muslims apparently deal with criticism about it by saying that in a tropical climate, as in Arabia, girls reach puberty earlier, and that the nine-year-old must have been sexually mature.

I haven’t found any scientific evidence of earlier female puberty due to a hot climate. (I found some contradictory evidence: that girls mature later in hot climates.)

In any case, the idea of a 54-year-old man having sex with a nine-year-old girl, even if by by some freak of nature she’d reached puberty, seems profoundly wrong – at any point in history.

(There are also claims in anti-Islamic sites that Muhammad practised ‘thighing‘ on his child bride before she was nine. None of the ‘evidence’ links work. This appears to be a complete fabrication.)

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Postscript 2

A UK Guardian article by political editor Anushka Asthana reported the concerns of a leading expert on race and integration that British society is increasingly divided along ethnic lines, with segregation in schools, neighbourhoods and workplaces. In another article in the same edition, Labour MP Chuka Umunna warned of a ‘more ethnically segmented nation‘. Neither article explicitly mentioned Muslim communities, but both mentioned Oldham, a town in Greater Manchester which in 2001 was the scene of violent ethnically-motivated rioting between between local and Muslim communities.

So how come two commentators gave views on increasing segregation without mentioning the Muslim community?

The first Guardian article mentioned above gave the views of Professor Ted Cantle. I emailed Cantle, Chukka Umunna and Anushka Asthana, asking if they’d avoided mentioning Muslims. Umunna and Asthana haven’t replied (but see Update 2, below). Cantle replied, saying: ‘I would very much like details of the extent of segregation of Muslim and other faith communities. Unfortunately most of the analysis is in relation to ethnicity. I suspect that Muslim communities have become more isolated, as they feel somewhat beleaguered, and other communities have moved away from Muslim-associated areas.’ (My bolding.)

On this blog article, he said: ‘I am wary of over-generalisations about the Muslim community. I have learnt over the last 15 years just how diverse it is – theologically, culturally, politically, nationally, socially etc. I thought your blog failed to represent this diversity, even if some of the points may have been fair comment.’ Ouch.

On the first point, surely ‘Pakistani’ is effectively synonymous with ‘Muslim’, so if you know that people’s ethnicity is Pakistani, you know their faith is Muslim; and it’s common knowledge that Muslim communities tend to choose segregation, especially in the case of education, for religious reasons.

I put this to Prof Cantle. He said that (contrary to what I was suggesting) most Muslims are not Pakistani. He referred me to a residential-pattern analysis of the 2011 census figures, which does indeed show that in 2011 there were 2.7 million Muslims, but only 1.1 million people of Pakistani origin. That’s a surprisingly (surprising to me, anyway) low 40%. (A further 646,000 people were of Bangladeshi, Turkish or Somali origin, and there were about 100,000 converts, leaving about 900,000 Muslims of unknown ethnic origin. Apparently.)

Fair enough – the census has spoken. So why did I think that most UK Muslims were of Pakistani origin? I think it’s because whenever Muslims appear in the UK media, whether ordinary people, politicians, community leaders, writers, artists, actors, musicians or TV pundits, they’re nearly always of Pakistani origin. In other words, UK Muslim culture is represented by people of Pakistani origin. So arguably, when analysing UK trends, ‘Pakistani’ and ‘Muslim’ are effectively interchangeable.

Also, the census analysis addresses residential segregation; but what about educational segregation? That subject was discussed at length in the Guardian article – without any mention of faith groups. Can there really be no details available of the extent of educational segregation of Muslim and other faith groups? It’s well known that Muslims choose educational segregation for religious reasons, and that this has been a matter of high-profile public concern for some time (eg, the murky but inconclusive Trojan Horse affair). So it’s difficult to see how this can be overlooked in an in-depth expert review of the subject. (And what about the Wahabi/Salafi oil money funding UK faith schools?)

Other faiths have their own conservative schools, of course, most of which are funded by the state – whereas Muslim schools, on the whole, aren’t. The solution, though, is not to have more state-funded Muslim schools, but to end all state-funded faith schools, and enforce the teaching of the Enlightenment values of liberty, self-determination and personal responsibility that Western liberal democracy is built on. Western values, if you like. (Just dont call them ‘British’ values. See more on the legislation requiring the teaching of British values in my blog article, ‘Patriotism – for scoundrels‘.)

In any case, Muslim self-segregation applies to other areas of life as well.

I’ve since found that, contrary to what Prof Cantle said, there is published research on faith-based segregation. But for whatever reason, Cantle, Umunna and The Guardian are not discussing this. I suspect that the reason is their fear of being thought to be Islamophobic or – even worse – politically incorrect.

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Update 1

Another integration expert, Professor Tariq Modood, has told me that only 7% of Muslims choose Muslim faith-schools as compared with 50% of Jews.

However, that may be a function of the very low number of state-sanctioned Muslim schools as compared with other faiths. Also, the perception of educational segregation comes not so much from the numbers as from the illiberal Wahabi/Salafi teaching that is sought to be imposed.

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Update 2

Guardian polical editor Anushka Asthana (see Postscript 2, above) has finally replied (after some prompting) to my question about the two Guardian articles that discussed segregation without mentioning Muslims. She didn’t refer to the Chukka Umunna article; but she said that in her article, Prof Cantle did mention faith schools. However, I think the Guardian should set things right by explicitly addressing Muslim self-segregation.Top 🔼

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