Islamic celebrations and other events commemorated by Muslims
by M. Amir Ali, Ph.D.
In Islam, celebration is a form of thanking Allah, the One True God. Celebration, in Islam, is merry-making, going out to parties, visiting and meeting friends and relatives and having clean fun, and also a form of physical and spiritual purification. Islamic celebrations include taking a bath, putting on clean or new clothes, wearing perfume and going to the mosque or a place of congregation for Salat, a form of prescribed prayers. The Islamic celebration of Eid is also a day when children and adults may get new clothes and gifts.
The dates and days of celebration are set according to the Islamic calendar.
The Islamic calendar consists of twelve lunar-based months. A new month begins with the sighting of the new crescent. Since lunar months are 29 or 30 days long, a year has 354 or 355 days, 10 or 11 days shorter than the solar year. Another characteristic of Islamic months is that the number of days of a month are not fixed. For example, the month of Ramadan may be 30 days in one year and 29 days in another year. In this age of advanced astronomy and mathematics it is possible to calculate the first of the month years ahead of time, but conservative interpretations of the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad(S) require Muslims to see the new crescent physically before announcing the first day of the month. Hence, there is uncertainty in fixing the date. In practice, Muslims look toward the western horizon on the 29th of the month, immediately after sunset for the new crescent. If the crescent is not sighted they complete 30 days of the month, then start the new month. If the moon is sighted on the 29th, the new month has already begun with the sunset.
The twelve months of the Islamic calendar are Muharram, Safar, Rabi’ Al-Awwal, Rabi’ Ath-Thani, Jumada Al-‘Ula, Jumada Ath-Thaniya, Rajab, Sha’ban, Ramadan, Shawwal, Dhu al-Qi’dah and Dhu al-Hijjah.
The moon by itself is not holy or sacred in Islam. The moon, as a symbol which appears on flags and minarets, may have been an adaptation from the Romans or the Turks in the early period of Islam but after the period of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad(S). Islamic teachings do not place any significance on the moon, sun or other heavenly objects except as creations and signs of Allah.
Prescribed prayers (Salat) and the time table
The Salat is a form of worship, a celebration of the holiness, praise and glorification of Allah and the renewal of dedication of oneself to Him. Every adult Muslim is required to perform Salat five times a day. For the preparation of the Salat time table, the position of the sun in relation to a location on the earth are used, that is, sunrise, meridian and sunset,. Before sunrise but after dawn (which commences 80 to 90 minutes before sunrise), is the time for the morning or Fajr prayer. Immediately after the meridian is the beginning of early afternoon or Zuhr prayer, which lasts midway to sunset. From midway to sunset till shortly before sunset is the mid-afternoon or ‘Asr prayer time. Immediately after sunset is the Maghrib prayer time, which lasts until the disappearance of twilight (approximately an hour). After Maghrib until dawn is the ‘Isha or night prayer time. Each of the prayers lasts five to ten minutes, but it must be done within its own time slot. All Muslims who have attained puberty are required to perform prescribed prayers (Salat) at the proper time. A brief washing is required as a preparation for the prayers.
The following weekly and annual celebrations are mandated in Islamic textual sources, that is, the Qur’an and the Hadith.
The literal meaning of these two words is “the day of congregation”, which is Friday. Muslims gather in the masjid (mosque) for a khutba (sermon or address) followed by Salat led by an Imam. After the Salat, people meet each other in the masjid and may visit relatives and friends. In Islam there is no Sabbath, therefore, there is no mandatory closing of businesses on Friday except for the duration of congregational services. However, in a majority of Muslim countries, Friday is the weekly holiday, sometimes combined with Thursday or Saturday. In the West, Muslims take a couple of hours from their jobs or businesses to go to the mosque on Friday. The Friday prayer, held in the early afternoon, lasts less than an hour in general.
In large work places where many Muslims are employed, Muslims use a room and prepare it for the Friday Salat. In some places a community center room is rented for a couple of hours on Friday for holding the congregation. Since, a part of the Salat requires prostrating and sitting on the floor, it is covered with clean sheets or rugs.
Ramadan, the month of fasting
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and is known as the month of fasting. During Ramadan Muslims get up before dawn, 2-3 hours before sunrise, and eat a pre-dawn meal. There is no eating, drinking, or sexual activity between dawn and sunset. In addition, Muslims must implement the moral code of Islam very strictly; the violation thereof nullifies their fast. During the night Muslims eat, drink (intoxicants are forbidden) and carry on normally.
The literal meaning is “the night of decree”, “the night of measure” or “the night of value”; sometimes also translated as “the night of power”. The worship and works of this night carry more value than the worship and works of one thousand months. This is the night when angels descend with the decree of Allah. This night may be any of the odd nights of Ramadan during the last ten days, meaning, Laylat al-Qadr may be the 21st or 23rd or 25th or 27th or 29th night of Ramadan. Some Muslims celebrate only on the 27th night and by doing so they may be missing the real Laylat al-Qadr. During these nights, Muslims stay awake all night reading and studying the Qur’an, listening to religious addresses and performing Salat. They go home for the pre-dawn meal to prepare for the fast; naturally, they need to sleep the next day.
Some Muslims take time off from their work for the entire last ten days of Ramadan and stay in the masjid, day and night, until the end of Ramadan. This is called I’tikaf or isolation from the worldly affairs. Those who are in I’tikaf are allowed to go out for necessities only, such as for food and to use the bathroom and shower, if not found within the mosque area.
The first day of the month following Ramadan is ‘Eid al-Fitr. This is the celebration of fast-breaking. Muslims watch the western horizon immediately after sunset on the 29th day of Ramadan for the crescent. If the crescent is sighted, it is the first day of the new month and beginning of ‘Eid day. If the crescent is not sighted within ½ an hour after sunset on the 29th day of Ramadan the Muslims complete 30 days of fasting. Either way, the 1st of Shawwal, the 10th month of the Islamic lunar calendar is ‘Eid al-Fitr. On ‘Eid day, Muslims gather in a larger facility than the neighborhood masjid and join in Salat al-‘Eid which is composed of Salat followed by an address by the Imam (leader). This is a major holiday for the Muslims. On this day, they visit many relatives and friends and give gifts to the children. ‘Eid is, first, a day of thanks to Allah, and next, a gathering of families and friends. All financially able Muslims are required to give Sadaqat al-Fitr, a form of charity, on behalf of each and every person of the family, including newborns, to the poor and needy during the Ramadan but before the ‘Eid prayers.
This is the celebration of sacrifice which comes two months and ten days after ‘Eid al-Fitr. Muslims celebrate the sacrifice of the lamb in place of Ishmael (Isma’il) by his father, Abraham. On this day, after Salat al-‘Eid (the prescribed ‘Eid prayers), Muslims sacrifice an animal: a ram, goat, sheep, cow or camel. The meat is divided into three parts: one part is distributed among the poor and needy, one part is distributed among relatives and friends and one part is used by the family. This is also a major holiday for Muslims to visit each other and give gifts to the children. ‘Eid al-Adha is celebrated on the 10th of Dhul Hijja, the 12th month of the Islamic lunar calendar, and again depends upon the crescent sighting for the first of the month. For those people who have gone to Makkah for Hajj (the pilgrimage), staying in the Plain of Arafat on the 9th of Dhul Hijja is the most important event. However, for those not performing Hajj, ‘Eid al-Adha is the 10th of Dhul Hijja and one of the two most important celebrations of the year. In the Arabian Peninsula the calendar follows the local crescent sighting criterion, whereas in the U.S., the local crescent sighting is used for the determination of dates. Eid al-Adha may be celebrated for four days from the 10th to the 13th of Dhul Hijja.
There are many other occasions which Muslims celebrate that are developments of local cultures and traditions. Some celebrations are more widespread than others. However, these are innovations in Islam and have no foundation in the Qur’an, the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad(S) or practices of the Sahaba, the companions of the Prophet(S). These innovative celebrations are not found in the early generations of Muslims. In fact, Prophet Muhammad(S) has declared all innovations (in the religion of Islam) to be heresy (bid’ah) and he declared that all bid’ah lead to misguidance (dalalah) and all dalalah lead to the hell-fire. The following celebrations are religious/cultural innovations which are discouraged by the informed Islamic scholars.
‘Eid Milad Al-Nabi or Mawlid Al-Nabi
This is the most common innovative celebration in the Muslim world. It is supposed to celebrate the “birthday” of the Prophet Muhammad(S). However, there is no authentic record that the Prophet(S) or his companions celebrated his birthday. Besides, there is no verifiable proof of Prophet’s date of birth. It is an innovation of later times, reported to have been introduced by the Fatimids in Egypt, a very corrupt Shi’ite sub-sect.
Laylat Al-Isra & Al-Me’raj or Shab-E-Me’raj
A verse in the Qur’an (17:1) states that the Messenger(S) of Allah was taken one night to Jerusalem and brought back to Makkah. In addition, authentic traditions add that he was led to the Heavens to visit the signs of Allah. However, there is no authentic day or date of this event recorded nor did the Prophet(S) or his companions ever celebrate this night. Despite the lack of evidence, many Muslims continue to celebrate it.
Laylat Nisf Sha’ban or Shab-E-Barat
This is a celebration which takes place on the 15th night of the 8th month of the Islamic lunar calendar, Sha’ban but has no foundation in the Qur’an or teachings of the Prophet(S).
Birthdays and death days of saints (awlia-Allah) and Imams
Some Sunni Muslims celebrate such days for many assumed saintly persons and Shi’as celebrate such days for their assumed Imams. There is no evidence to permit such celebrations in Islam. There are related celebrations held annually at the graves and mausoleums of reputedly virtuous men (assumed saints or awlia-Allah) of the past era. Such celebrations on or off the grave sites are not permitted according to the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad(S).
National celebrations and holidays
Celebrations such as of Independence Day, Republic Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving Day and others are rooted in the secular lives of nations. Such celebrations are not mandated in Islam and have no Islamic significance.