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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January 1991, Page 56

Islam in America

By Dima Zalatimo

Islamic Holidays in 1991

While the Western world celebrates the beginning of 1991 this January, the Islamic new year, marking the beginning of the Muslim era, is not observed until July 12, 1991. That, for Muslims, will be the first day of 1412 AH (After Hijra).

The Muslim era began with the hijra (migration) of the Prophet Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina to escape from persecution in the year 622 AD, or 1 AH. The migration is a seminal event for Muslims because it resulted in the first Islamic state and society.

Unlike the Gregorian calendar based on the solar year of 365 days, the Muslim calendar is lunar. Its months are calculated from the beginning of one lunar cycle to the beginning of the next.

Since the average interval between similar phases of the moon is 29 days, 12 hours and 44 minutes, the 12 months of the Islamic calendar alternate between 30 and 29 days in length. The total number of days in the hijra year is 353, 354 or 355.

The holiest month of the Muslim calendar is Ramadan, the ninth month of the lunar year. Because the lunar calendar, based upon slightly shorter years, travels backward through the solar calendar, any given date falls 10-12 days earlier each year. Consequently, Ramadan rotates throughout the seasons, completing a cycle of 12 months in about 33 solar years.

During the month of Ramadan, Muslims abstain from food and drink from about 1 minutes before sunrise to shortly after sun set. Ramadan in the Muslim world is a social and spiritual event. Families and friend usually break their fast together and engage in nightly congregational prayers. Mush communities in America practice these same religious traditions during Ramadan.

One of the special occasions within the month of Ramadan commemorates the nigh on which the Prophet Muhammad received the first revelation of the Quran. It is calle Lailat Al-Qadr, or night of power, and fall on the 23rd, 25th, or 27th of the month. Muslims believe this is a blessed night when Allah answers all prayers. Devout Mush observe Lailat Al-Qadr by the performance of prayers, nightlong devotions and recitations of the Quran.

The two main holidays of the Muslim calendar are Eid El-Fitr and Eid El-Adha. Ei El-Fitr (festival of fast-breaking) is the holiday which marks the end of Ramadan. On the first morning of the three-day Eid, or holiday, a congregational prayer, Salat EI-Eid is performed just after sunrise. Throughout the three days, Muslims exchange visits with family and friends, give charity to the need and remember their deceased. For children both Eids are much like Christmas: the wear new clothes, receive toys and money and eat special holiday sweets.

Eid El-Adha (festival of sacrifice), which marks the completion of the annual haj, o pilgrimage to Mecca, is celebrated for four days. At the end of the haj each year, pilgrims slaughter an animal, usually a lamb in commemoration of the Prophet Abraham's sacrifice of a ram in place of his son Ishmael. The meat is divided into three equalportions. One portion is for the use of the family and the other two portions are given to friends or neighbors and to the poor. Households typically have a large meal which brings family and friends together. Although Eid El-Adha is considered a more significant festival, it is celebrated much like Eid El-Fitr.

While festivities are limited to their small communities, Muslims in the US have managed to maintain the celebration of the holidays. Congregational prayers are held at central mosques and are usually followed by a community-wide lunch. Many Muslim children stay home from school to celebrate their holidays, while schools and universities in some areas observe Muslim holidays. Some communities hold parties to celebrate.

Other dates marking the Muslim calendar are less likely to be occasions for public observances. Isra and Miraj (the night of journey and ascension) commemorates the night on which the Prophet Muhammad was transported on a winged animal, a burak, to Jerusalem, from where he ascended to heaven and returned to lead Abraham, Moses and Jesus in prayer at the site of the Dome of the Rock. It is believed that on this night the five daily Muslim prayers were prescribed.

Ashura is a day of voluntary fasting and resembles the Jewish Day of Atonement. Historically this was the day Noah left the ark and Moses was saved from the pharoah. For Shi'i Muslims, a minority in most parts of the Islamic world except in Iran, where they are a majority, Ashura is a day of mourning, since it marks the death of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.

Milad Al-Nabi is the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad in Mecca in the year 570 AD. The Prophet discouraged his followers from celebrating his birthdate. The event is, therefore, usually observed with quiet remembrance of his life and teachings.

Dima Zalatimo is features editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.