The thing with the ‘approximate’ dates in the Islamic calendar…

Have you ever wondered why there is an asterisk (*) next to Islamic holidays such as ‘Eid al Adha’ or ‘Prophet’s Birthday’ when you look at a calendar accompanied by a little footnote saying: ‘Dates for Islamic Holidays are approximate’?

How can a date be ‘approximate’ meaning it is close to the actual date, but not completely accurate or exact? Christmas is on 25. December and we know when Easter will be in 2025. We just look it up! Have you also been curious about this?

It basically means that the celebration/day off can move by a day and that public holidays are only confirmed a few days beforehand which can make planning difficult. I remember a few years ago, we received a message from school on Friday evening that ‘Ashoora’ is not on Sunday/Monday but public holidays have been announced for Monday/Tuesday instead. So much for a long weekend which many had taken advantage off…

So, how come? Throughout history, different people invented different types of calendars to help them to know when to plant crops, move from one place to another, plan meetings and observe religious holidays. The Gregorian calendar is the most wide-spread one and uses the sun for time keeping. Islamic holidays, however, are based on the Islamic or Hijri Qamari calendar which uses the moon to organise time. As an aside, the Islamic calendar starts in AD 622 with the flight of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) to Medina which makes 2015 the year 1436 in the Hijri Calendar. This calendar is mainly used for religious purposes, but in Saudi Arabia it is the official calendar.

So, the ‘approximate’ date has something to do with the moon? First of all, a new moon occurs every 29.5 days which timed by 12 months means the lunar year is shorter than the solar year (the time it takes the sun to return to the same position in its journey around the earth) by 11 days. As a result, each year, religious holidays are about eleven days earlier than in the previous year.

So, next question is why can’t we just use astronomical projections to calculate when, i.e., Ramadan will start this year? This has to do with the fact that Muslims need to sight the new moon either by naked eye of by telescope as stated in the Q’uran: “Do not fast till you see the new moon, and do not break fast till you see it; but if the weather is cloudy complete it (thirty days).”

As a result, Ramadan dates can also vary by one day in different countries due to the cycle of the moon. The moon travels the same path all year round and when the moon is seen in the east, it is then seen traveling towards the west. All the countries around the world see the moon within a 24-hour period once spotted by one country in the east.

So, there we go. Islamic holidays can only then be confirmed when the new moon is sighted by eye or by telescope through the clouds before an Islamic holiday will be confirmed.

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