Peace at the Head of the Year

كُلَ عامٍ وَأَنتُم بِأَلفِ خًيراً
May you and yours be well all year

This is the traditional greeting on a Muslim holiday like today, Muharram, the Islamic New Year.

Shanah tovah um’tukah
May you have a good and sweet new year

This is the traditional greeting for Rosh Hashanah, meaning “head of the year” in Hebrew, the Jewish new year that was celebrated this week on Monday.

It has been 33 years since these two holidays fell so close together, almost concurrently. Both the Muslim and Jewish calendar are tied to phases of the moon. The Jewish calendar is a lunisolar calendar, meaning that months are based on lunar months, but years are based on solar years. The calendar year features twelve months of twenty-nine or thirty days, with an extra month added seven times every nineteen years to synchronize to the longer solar year. This means that, while Rosh Hashanah and other Jewish holidays fall on a different day, they always fall around September each year. By contrast, the Muslim calendar is a strictly lunar calendar, with twelve 28-day months, which means it is eleven days shorter than the solar year. Muslim holidays, then, fall eleven days earlier every year, so Muharram will fall well before Rosh Hashanah next year.

Ten days from now, however, a similar convergence will happen with Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement and recognition of Moses coming down off Mount Sinai with the Ten Commendments, and Ashura, when Shia Muslims also atone.

hijri new year

What Is Muharram?

The Muslim year ends with the Hajj, where Muslims from around the world travel to Mecca to sacrifice a ram in honor of the sacrifice of Abraham, the first monotheist and father of both Judaism and Islam. Now, in the Muslim month of Muharram, the pilgrims make their way back home again. One of the most important months of the year for Muslims, its name means “forbidden,” and during this month, any form of fighting or war is strictly forbidden. It’s also common for Muslims to try to avoid all kinds of individual acts of negativity during this time in order to promote peace.

What About Ashura?

For Shia Muslims, it’s a period of mourning and self-reflection, with prayers and fasting leading up to commemorating Muharram’s 10th day, Ashura, commemorating the Karbala massacre and the martyrdom of Imam Hussain. The Shia venerate Imam Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, as second in a finite line of men who carried the light of Muhammad, giving them special insight into the text of the Qur’an and the way that Islam should properly be practiced.

On the 10th of Muharram in 680 CE, the second Ummayyad caliph Yazeed was trying to establish caliphate by force, and asked Imam Hussain to endorse the caliphate or he would be beheaded. When he declined to endorse the tyrant, Hussain’s family were surrounded by an army of thousands who kept them deprived of water and food in the desert heat for three successive days before brutally killing them, even Imam Hussain’s six-month-old son.

Many Shia, in addition to the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, try to make a pilgrimage to Karbala in Iraq, especially around Ashoura, meaning the Tenth (of Muharram), and forty days after Ashoura. In Islam, forty days of mourning are proscribed for all deaths, and there are certain rituals of mourning performed on the last day to bring closure to the family. Shia have their own traditions for bring closure to the annual mourning of Imam Hussain.

An American Shia friend once told me that the Shia are like the Charismatics or Pentacostals in Christianity, denominations whose rituals are more visceral and emotional than mainline Protestant intellectualism. Shiism brings the stories of the early Muslims to life in passion plays, and does not shy away from painting images of the Prophet Muhammad, the Imams and other prophets and messengers of the faith. When I had the opportunity to visit the great mosque in Damascus, where the head of the martyred Imam Hussain was interred, I observed Shia pilgrims wailing and crying at the tomb, filled with the kind of effusive emotion I’ve observed in Baptist church services. Some Shia also practice mortification of the flesh in honor of the Imam Hussain; find more details (and some disturbing photos) on Al-Jazeera.

Ashura is also a day of fasting for Sunnis. It’s said that when the Prophet Muhammad established the first Muslim community in Madinah, the Jews already living there fasted on the 10th day of Muharram. They said that it was the day on which the Prophet Musa (Moses) and his followers crossed the Red Sea miraculously and the Pharaoh was drowned in its water. The Prophet Muhammad directed his Muslim community to also fast on this day, and it is still considered by many Sunnis to bring particular blessings to fast and give charity on Ashura.

It’s also believed by some Muslims to be the day that the Prophet Nuh (Noah) first set food on land after the flood.

Celebrating the Convergence

In this moment of convergence, religious institutions like the Jewish periodical The Forward are calling for unity between Muslims and Jews in the United States and beyond:

As both Jews and Muslims face increased prejudice, intolerance, and attacks on our communities in the United States, let this shared New Year be a time to join hands, recognize our commonalities, and work together to fight for justice and a better future for all people.

Actually, unity between these two communities has a long history, especially in the United States, and especially in the 17 years since the attacks on the World Trade Center, and even moreso in the Trump era. As rabbi Marc Schneier and imam Shamsi Ali recall in honoring this convergence of holidays in Newsweek:

Today, there is a broad global network of synagogues and mosques, Jewish and Muslim sisterhoods, young leadership and collegiate groups that engage with each other. In the U.S., the coalition of Muslims and Jews denouncing bigotry together and upholding religious freedom has been given a somewhat ironic boost over the past three years by the exponential growth of xenophobia, racism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.

Some Muslims, however, will be downplaying the convergence this year, coming as it does also at the same time as 9/11.

Incidentally, it is also the New Year for the Coptic Christians of Egypt and Sudan.


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