Awal Muharram and the Hijri Calendar: marking Islamic History and Traditions

Awal Muharram, also known as Maal Hijrah, marks the beginning of the new Hijri year, falling on the first day of Muharram on the Muslim calendar. The phrase "Maal Hijrah" in Arabic translates to "migration", symbolising Prophet Muhammad's emigration as a process of positive change and leaving behind negative aspects of life. Thus, this new year's day for Muslims emphasises reflection, remembrance and gratitude.

Awal Muharram holds historical significance for Muslims worldwide and is observed as a public holiday in many Islamic countries, including Malaysia. This public holiday allows Malaysians of all faiths to appreciate the diversity and richness of their nation's cultural and religious tapestry.

To mark Awal Muharram, Muslims in Penang participate in morning mosque visits and engage in a re-enactment of Prophet Muhammad's emigration to Medina through a marching exercise. On the eve of Awal Muharram, mosques hold prayers as part of the commemorative observances.

A popular treat specially prepared for the 10th day of Muharram is Bubur Asyura, a thick mixed-bean porridge enjoyed during breakfast with friends and relatives. The main ingredients of the dish include a variety of mixed beans, such as red beans, green beans, black-eyed beans and roasted groundnuts, along with sago, sweet corn, sweet potatoes and bananas. The rich aromatic porridge, perfumed with daun pandan, is thickened with santan (coconut milk) and sweetened with gula melaka (palm sugar). Alternatively, the same ingredients are used to make Bubur Asyura into a cake in Kedah, which is sliced into diamond-shaped pieces for serving.

The origin of Awal Muharram

Awal Muharram is indeed an occasion that echoes the footsteps of Prophet Muhammad and his devoted followers. It all began with the journey of the Hijrah, as they fled Mecca in the year 622 CE, seeking refuge from the intense persecution and hostility from the Quraysh tribe in Mecca, who opposed the message of Islam. Their destination was Yathrib, later known as Medina (meaning, the city of the Prophet), 320 km north of Mecca.

In Medina, the Prophet Muhammad laid the foundation for a new beginning when he established the "Pact of Medina" or the "Constitution of Medina". It was an agreement that bound the Muslim immigrants from Mecca (Muhajirun) and the local inhabitants of Medina (Ansar), along with other tribes and communities; it was intended to end inter-tribal conflicts and maintain peace and cooperation among the people. This pact formed the bedrock of governance, social harmony and mutual support, laying the groundwork for an Islamic state under the leadership of the Prophet.

While the original document of the Pact of Medina has been lost to the passage of time, its stipulations have been preserved through documentation in various historical sources and hadith (narrations of the Prophet Muhammad's sayings and actions). These sources offer insights into the principles and clauses that defined the Pact of Medina.

Prophet Muhammad died in 632 AD. However, it was only in 638 AD that the Prophet's companion, Umar ibn Al-Khattab, selected the date that was made to be the starting month of the Islamic year.

Do you know that in the Quran, you would not find the words "Awal Muharram" or "Muharram"? The holy book of Islam does not lay out precise rituals for celebrating the Islamic new year. However, what makes Awal Muharram meaningful is its rich historical and cultural significance within Islamic tradition.

Historical Islamic Events

The migration of Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina took place in the year 622 CE in the Gregorian calendar, equivalent to the year 1 AH (After Hijrah) in the Islamic calendar.

Ashura, the 10th day of Muharram (the first month of the year) is an important day in the Islamic calendar for both sects of Islam – the Shias and the Sunnis. Sunnis celebrate Ashura as the day when Prophet Moses fasted to express gratitude to Allah for saving the Israelites from their enemies in Egypt. On the other hand, Shia Muslims observe Ashura as a day of mourning and sorrow to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, in the Battle of Karbala in 680 CE. Imam Hussein and his followers were killed by the forces of the Umayyad caliph Yazid I. For many Muslims in Malaysia, Ashura is a day of fasting and reflection, recommended as an act of devotion.

The Hijri Calendar

The Islamic calendar, also known as the Hijri calendar, was not created by a specific individual but resulted from the collective efforts of early Muslim scholars and companions of the Prophet Muhammad. It was introduced during the time of the Prophet in the 7th century.

The Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar based on the sighting of the moon, unlike the solar-based Gregorian calendar. The decision to adopt a lunar calendar aimed to align lunar-based events mentioned in the Quran and commemorate significant Islamic historical events, such as the migration of the Prophet from Mecca to Medina.

The Islamic calendar consists of a 12-month lunar year, with each month lasting either 29 or 30 days, depending on the new moon sighting. This lunar cycle results in a year of approximately 354 or 355 days, making it shorter than the solar year of 365 days. As a result, the Islamic calendar moves back about 11 days each year compared to the Gregorian calendar.

The Chinese calendar and the Islamic calendar are both lunar-based calendars but have significant differences. The Chinese calendar has a starting point in 2637 BCE, associated with Chinese culture and incorporates leap months to align with the solar year. In contrast, the Islamic calendar began with the migration of Prophet Muhammad in 622 CE (the Hijrah), has a 12-month cycle based on moon sightings and does not have leap months. Both calendars indicate distinct cultural observances, with the Chinese calendar tied to traditional Chinese festivals and the Islamic calendar linked to important religious events such as Ramadan and Eid celebrations.

To conclude, Awal Muharram and the Hijri calendar encapsulate the rich tapestry of Islamic history, cultural practices and religious devotion, reflecting the resilience and diversity of Muslim communities worldwide.

Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah
© All rights reserved
Updated: 17 June 2023