By Paul Salahuddin Armstrong
I’ve noticed online some people posting comments about the Western solar calendar, I’ve been directly asked questions about this too a number of times both recently and in the past. Some Muslims say it is haram (prohibited) for Muslims to use the Gregorian calendar and celebrate the New Year according to that calendar. Some say the Gregorian calendar is fake, that it’s not a real calendar and Muslims should follow the real lunar calendar (the Hijri calendar), as it follows the phases of the moon.
While I can understand people promoting the use and awareness of the Hijri calendar, there is no reason to make these allegations against the Gregorian calendar. I feel in all of this there is a lot of disinformation and misunderstandings people would be well advised to correct.
The Gregorian calendar is a solar calendar, it follows the cycle of the Earth’s orbit around the sun, whereas the Hijri calendar follows the phases of the moon. Neither of these calendars are fake, they are both genuine calendars, that measure time…
Consider how we measure length; my parents measure length in inches, feet, and yards, while I was brought up after the metric system was introduced in the UK and usually measure length in centimetres and metres. Are either inches or centimetres fake measurements? No, of course not, they are both legitimate and accurate ways of measuring, but some people will use one or the other according to what they are most familiar with and understand.
As a Brit, I grew up measuring my years by the Gregorian solar calendar, as did my parents, my grandparents, and all my former generations since the Gregorian calendar became the established method of measuring years in Britain and Europe. That’s why I use this calendar as part of my established customs and culture both before and after I embraced Islam. The usefulness of this calendar has caused it to be adopted all around the world as the standard international calendar. This isn’t because of some conspiracy, it is simply a very useful calendar.
Before we go any further we should consider what a calendar is and why do we need them. Calendars are used to measure long periods of time over months and years. One of the first and most important uses of calendars was to know when to sow crops that would feed communities, and when to harvest them. This is especially important in temperate, Mediterranean, and even subtropical climatic regions, and this is why all traditional calendars in these regions take account of the solar calendar.
Historically, agricultural communities that didn’t know when to sow crops, or when to take livestock out to pasture will not survive the winter.
Even lunar calendars like the Chinese and Hebrew calendars, though based upon the phases of the moon, are synchronised to the solar year, so they can take account of the seasons. Were this not the case, it would be virtually impossible to use these calendars to reasonably assess what the weather will be like in any given month or time of year, and without this, agriculture would be incredibly difficult. Even the Maya, famous for their intricate calendar system in the Americas, in addition to the Long Count and Tzolkin calendars, used a solar calendar for agriculture and civic reasons.
If I say March, June, or December, people who live in temperate regions will have a fairly good idea what the weather will be like during these months, this is because they take account of the actual seasons. The seasons themselves are very real, summer is warmer and brighter because that’s when the part of the Earth you are on is facing the sun more than at any other time of the year, whereas winter is much colder because that’s when the part of the Earth you are on is further away from the sun, which is due to the Earth spinning on its axis.
A lunar calendar that is not seasonally corrected does not give any indication what the weather is going to be like in a given month. If I ask what the weather is like in Ramadan, then unless you live on the equator you won’t have a clue. The Hijri calendar was introduced in the Arabian peninsula, in the middle of a desert. If you’re in the desert of Saudi Arabia, there are no pronounced seasons, it is always hot – it’s hot in December, it’s hot in June, and hot in September.
When you live in a place like Saudi Arabia, what time of the year it is doesn’t affect farming as much as it does in temperate regions, the biggest challenges to growing crops are fertile soil and access to water. If you have these in Arabia, then you can farm pretty much any time of the year. Whereas if you’re in the United Kingdom and try to grow crops in the middle of December, you won’t get very far (unless of course you’re farming in a light and temperature controlled indoor environment).
The main significance of the Hijri calendar is measuring religious dates. For the pure lunar calendar more generally, the phases of the moon are connected to tidal movements and monthly cycles, which incidentally is why you will often find the phases of the moon printed on Western calendars and in diaries.
We can see therefore that an awareness of the the seasons caused by the earth’s orbit of the sun and and an awareness of the phases of the moon are both valuable and necessary, and we shouldn’t criticise anyone for measuring years according to either system.