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 1,500-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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