Tonight marks the first night of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting and prayer. Though this is one of the most important nights of the year for Muslims, and Islam is (by some accounts) America’s second largest religion, this fact will likely go completely unnoticed by most of the American population.
The American people take rightful pride in possessing a working knowledge of other cultures in our midst, especially those which attract a significant number of adherents. Note the acceptance of Jewish traditions in the American culture. Though by most estimates the numbers of Jews in the United States is lower than that of Muslims, the acceptance and knowledge of Jewish traditions and holidays is much better permeated into the American psyche than that of Muslims. For instance, schools are often closed for “staff development days,” which happen to fall on the major Jewish holidays Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and city sponsored banners advertise good wishes for Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish new year). In juxtaposition is our shared experience of constantly having to answer and explain what Ramadan is, how long the fast is for, and what Eid is.
The roots of this problem are varied and complex. They lie in political, economic, and social realms, all of which cannot be dealt with here. But at least partial blame is to be placed at the feet of one of the least likely of suspects: The Muslim (Hijri) Calendar.
The debate surrounding the Hijri Calendar embodies and symbolizes many of the obstacles that are faced by Muslims attempting to gain acceptance in Western society. It breeds discord among different branches of Islam, preventing us from presenting a unified front; it appears rooted in antiquity, with dependance on physical moon sightings; and it seems to beg for non-integration with the west, with its rotational nature.
It is important and vital that if Muslims ever want to gain acceptance in the greater realm of Western Society, they present a unified basis which Westerners can learn about. As it is, how can we expect non-Muslims to take the trouble to learn about more than a hundred different traditions within Islam, when we persist with petty differences over major issues? That is, how can we expect a national observance for Eid-al-Fitr when we can’t even agree when Eid-al-Fitr should be?
A fixed calendar based on the lunar cycle is possible in today’s society and is the first step towards Muslim reconciliation and acceptance. Many sects already follow a fixed lunar calendar and find that agreement with traditional moon sightings is excellent (such as the Fatemi branch of Shia Islam, of which I am a follower and which has followed a fixed calendar for millenia). In contrast, the practice of actual moonsighting leads to vast disagreement among Muslims, all sorts of variations of interpretation vis a vis modern technology, and serves to make Islam the unfortunate butt of many jokes.
Such a movement has gained momentum among pragmatists and even the Saudi Arabian government (who fancy themselves the leaders of the faith, but have yet to convince many others of that position). It is still greeted with scorn by many traditionalists, however. It is interesting that these “traditionalists” have no problem using digital atomic clocks to determine prayer times, or complicated spherical geometry algorithms to determine prayer direction, and yet they persist in their opposition to using astronomical calculations to determine moon phases.
We Muslims also face another major challenge. Our lunar calendar (as with most Lunar calendars) is shorter than the Gregorian calendar by 11 days a year, so that every three years or so, the Muslim year is shifted backwards approximately a month compared to the Gregorian year. This keeps the calendar in excellent concordance with the moon, but in total discordance with the seasons. This also keeps non Muslims in total ignorance as to when our holidays occur and prevents any sort of institutionalized acceptance of our observances.
Our Jewish brethren, who faced similar problems about a thousand years ago, solved this discordance through intercalation. In short, a thirteenth lunar month was added every three years or so to keep the calendar “luni-solar”, ie in concordance with both the lunar cycles and the solar seasons. This has allowed Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur to reliably occur in the early fall, with Passover reliably occurring in the early Spring, and has helped all of these observances gain greater acceptance in Western Society (though this was not obviously the initial goal of this change).
Intercalation was actually tried with the Arabic/Hijri Calendar in the pre-Islamic era and the early Islamic era, in a practice called “Nasi”. Though there was no intercalated month, per se, there was a rotating cycle where every three years, one of the months would be twice as long as the others. On the first year of the cycle, this extended month would be Muharram (the first month), three years later it would be Safar (the second month), etc. The term Nasi actually refers to the now defunct pre-Islamic first month of the Hijri calendar, occurring before Muharram, but later outlawed by religious proclamation.
The process of Nasi was eventually outlawed, seemingly because during the phases of the cycle, extensions were eventually added to the four sacred months (Rajab, Dhul-Qaad, Dhul-Hajj, Muharram). A fixed intercalation (such as the periodic lengthening of Safar), would circumvent this issue as well as maintain the Quranic proclomation that the year should only be limited to twelve months (though granted this seems suspiciously like a loophole).
Changing and modifications of calendars has tremendous precedent, and when a concerted effort to do so is undertaken dissenters rarely persist due to the sheer confusion involved. Moreover, the new calendar often totally erases memory of the old calendar. The transition from Julian to Gregorian calendars is an excellent historical example. Initial peasant revolts quickly died out, and today there is no mention among Christians that Christmas (for example) might not “really” be Christmas due to changes in Western calendars.
I am not advocating a return to pre-Islamic practices of Nasi or any other intercalation. This would require a paradigm shift with tremendous ramifications which would shake the core of Muslim identity. But if we are ever to garner any credence as a culture to be respected, we must at the very least put our own house in order. The entire Muslim Ummah must agree on a fixed calendar so that we may present a unified set of basic beliefs to those wishing to learn more about us.