The Islamic calendar is a flawed and arbitrary calendar that is neither practical nor useful. In the Islamic texts there is a strange emphasis on the pre-Islamic lunar calendar as if it's somehow divine. The Hijri calendar, which starts when Muhammad made hijrah (migration) to Madinah is a lunar calendar based on the existing pre-Islamic months.
The first problem with the Islamic calendar is it’s based on the moon and doesn’t line up well with a solar year. Calendars that line up with the seasons are more practical and make more sense. Back then, this was the best they could come up with. But it’s hardly divine.
Surely the number of months with Allah is twelve months in Allah’s ordinance since the day when He created the heavens and the earth […] (9:36)
How to measure time according to the Quran
They ask you, [O Muhammad], about the new moons. Say, “They are measurements of time for the people and for Hajj.”… (2:189)
This is precisely what ancient people used the moon for. But this is hardly the purpose of the moon. It’s simply one way to calculate time. Apparently to Allah, this was important enough to mention in his final revelation.
Emphasis on a strict 12 month lunar calendar
According to the Quran, its forbidden to add months to the Islamic calendar, because Allah has fixed time in 632 AD so we shouldn’t mess with it.
The Quran strangely emphasizes this concept, as if the current pre-Islamic Arab practices are set in stone:
Verily the transposing (of a prohibited month) is an addition to Unbelief: the Unbelievers are led to wrong thereby: for they make it lawful one year, and forbidden another year, in order to adjust the number of months forbidden by Allah and make such forbidden ones lawful. The evil of their course seems pleasing to them. But Allah guideth not those who reject Faith. (9:37)
The sacred months (Dhul-Qa’dah, Dhul-Hijjah and Muharram and Rajab) were problematic to the pre-Islamic pagans because there was no fighting allowed. They wanted to switch them around in order to fight when they wanted to. In reality, having sacred months where nobody fights only makes sense if everyone agrees to these same conditions. In the modern world, this would be practically impossible, and hence useless.
This calendar was so important that Prophet Muhammad mentioned it in his final sermon. He said:
Time has completed a cycle and assumed the form of the day when Allah created the heavens and the earth. The year contains twelve months of which four are sacred, three of them consecutive, viz. Dhul-Qa’dah, Dhul-Hijjah and Muharram and also Rajab of Mudar which comes between Jumadah and Sha’ban. (Abu Dawud 1947)
This hardly seems important enough to mention in a final sermon, especially over other more important things like “Make sure you seek consent before sex. Do not rape women”.
Intercalation and leap years
The Islamic lunar calendar is off by about 10 days from the solar year, causing the seasons to go out of whack. This is why Ramadan moves backwards around 10 days every year. In one lifetime, you would experience Ramadan in both summer and winter.
Precisely calculating time to match a year is difficult because the Earth’s rotation slightly changes due to earthquakes and other reasons. It’s also quite difficult to divide it into exactly 12 months and measure it using the moon or using the position of the sun in the horizon.
Calendars are useful to know when to plant your crops and organize your business. People in ancient times used to intercalate (add time) to the calendar in order to keep the seasons fixed.
That’s why many cultures added a leap month, or a leap week or a leap day (like we do every 4 years even today!)
In order to fix this confusion, the ancient Arabs used to practice “Nasi”, which means they used to add 1 or 2 months to the calendar:
“In order to harmonize the lunar with the solar year so that the Haj should always fall in the same season and they should be saved from the bother and inconvenience that are experienced by its observance according to the lunar year.” (Tafsir of 9.37 by Syed Abul Ala Mawdudi)
Many cultures moved on to use a solar calendar because of the flaws inherent with the lunar one. According to one explanation Bengalis went from an Islamic calendar to a new one to make it easier to collect taxes for the harvest:
During the Mughal rule, land taxes were collected from Bengali people according to the Islamic Hijri calendar. This calendar was a lunar calendar, and its new year did not coincide with the solar agricultural cycles. According to some sources, the current Bengali calendar owes its origin in Bengal to the rule of Mughal Emperor Akbar who adopted it to time the tax year to the harvest. (Bengali Calendars on Wikipedia)
Allah is the creator?
It would have been easy for Allah to make the solar year have exactly 12 lunar months. It’s almost as if the Earth-Moon-Sun system formed naturally and is not the product of a divine creator. As well, the moon is slowly moving away from the Earth 1.6 inches every year and slowing down our rotation. If Allah really made our universe, we would expect to see something totally different — an Earth with 7 heavens raised up by Allah held up with pillars you can’t see, and a natural world that lined up with God’s divine calendar.
Muhammad used the pre-Islamic calendar and made it one of the important features of his religion as if God himself invented this calendar. It is yet another example of the arbitrary pre-Islamic norms and values that Muhammad included in his religion.
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