4. The Islamic Calendar

22.03.2015 13:13


The Islamic calendar is a purely lunar calendar in which months correspond to the lunar phase cycle. As a result, the cycle of twelve lunar months regresses through the seasons over a period of about 33 years. For religious purposes, Muslims begin the months with the first visibility of the lunar crescent after conjunction. For civil purposes a tabulated calendar that approximates the lunar phase cycle is often used.

The seven-day week is observed with each day beginning at sunset. Weekdays are specified by number, with day 1 beginning at sunset on Saturday and ending at sunset on Sunday. Day 5, which is called Jum'a, is the day for congregational prayers. Unlike the Sabbath days of the Christians and Jews, however, Jum'a is not a day of rest. Jum'a begins at sunset on Thursday and ends at sunset on Friday.


4.1 Rules

Years of twelve lunar months are reckoned from the Era of the Hijra, commemorating the migration of the Prophet and his followers from Mecca to Medina. This epoch, 1 A.H. (Anno Higerae) Muharram 1, is generally taken by astronomers (Neugebauer, 1975) to be Thursday, +622 July 15 (Julian calendar). This is called the astronomical Hijra epoch. Chronological tables (e.g., Mayr and Spuler, 1961; Freeman-Grenville, 1963) generally use Friday, July 16, which is designated the civil epoch. In both cases the Islamic day begins at sunset of the previous day.

For religious purposes, each month begins in principle with the first sighting of the lunar crescent after the New Moon. This is particularly important for establishing the beginning and end of Ramadan. Because of uncertainties due to weather, however, a new month may be declared thirty days after the beginning of the preceding month. Although various predictive procedures have been used for determining first visibility, they have always had an equivocal status. In practice, there is disagreement among countries, religious leaders, and scientists about whether to rely on observations, which are subject to error, or to use calculations, which may be based on poor models.

Chronologists employ a thirty-year cyclic calendar in studying Islamic history. In this tabular calendar, there are eleven leap years in the thirty-year cycle. Odd-numbered months have thirty days and even-numbered months have twenty-nine days, with a thirtieth day added to the twelfth month, Dhu al-Hijjah (see Table 4.1.1). Years 2, 5, 7, 10, 13, 16, 18, 21, 24, 26, and 29 of the cycle are designated leap years. This type of calendar is also used as a civil calendar in some Muslim countries, though other years are sometimes used as leap years. The mean length of the month of the thirty-year tabular calendar is about 2.9 seconds less than the synodic period of the Moon.


Table 4.1.1
Months of Tabular Islamic Calendar
1. Muharram** 30 7. Rajab** 30
2. Safar 29 8. Sha'ban 29
3. Rabi'a I 30 9. Ramadan*** 30
4. Rabi'a II 29 10. Shawwal 29
5. Jumada I 30 11. Dhu al-Q'adah** 30
6. Jumada II 29 12. Dhu al-Hijjah** 29*
* In a leap year, Dhu al-Hijjah has 30 days.
** Holy months.
*** Month of fasting.



4.1.1 Visibility of the Crescent Moon




4.2 History of the Islamic Calendar

The form of the Islamic calendar, as a lunar calendar without intercalation, was laid down by the Prophet in the Qur'an (Sura IX, verse 36-37) and in his sermon at the Farewell Pilgrimage. This was a departure from the lunisolar calendar commonly used in the Arab world, in which months were based on first sightings of the lunar crescent, but an intercalary month was added as deemed necessary.

Caliph 'Umar I is credited with establishing the Hijra Era in A.H. 17. It is not known how the initial date was determined. However, calculations show that the astronomical New Moon (i.e., conjunction) occurred on +622 July 14 at 0444 UT (assuming delta-T = 1.0 hour), so that sighting of the crescent most likely occurred on the evening of July 16.