When the new crescent moon appears on July 28, 2022, Muslims around the world will celebrate the beginning of the Islamic New Year, also called the Arabic or Hijrī New Year. For many Muslims, Muharram, the sacred month that kicks off each new year, is a time of mourning and reflection.
Here’s an introduction to the holiday—what you need to know about its origins, how it’s observed around the world, and why it occurs in the middle of July.
Origins of the lunar calendar
The Islamic New Year takes place during the first month of the Hijrī, or Muslim lunar calendar. Though majority-Islamic countries are governed by the solar Gregorian calendar, the lunar calendar is used to calculate the dates of religious feasts and important observances such as the Hajj pilgrimage. Because the Hijrī relies on the movements of the moon, the Muslim calendar has just 354 or 355 days, making it about 11 days shorter than the solar Gregorian calendar with 365 days (366 in leap years).
Umar I, the second Muslim caliph, instituted the calendar in 639 C.E. as part of a broader attempt to standardize and organize Islamic life and traditions—and possibly so the calendar would stand apart from those used by other religions.
Umar set the beginning of the calendar on an important anniversary: the summer in 622 C.E. during which the Prophet Muhammad and his followers are said to have migrated in secret from Mecca, the city in Saudi Arabia where the prophet was born, to Medina. That migration, also known as Hijrah, was an attempt to escape religious persecution, and the date is widely seen as the beginning of Islam both as an organized religion and political institution.
Though the Hijrī calendar has a distinct starting point, the days and times its months begin can vary by region because it relies on the first sighting of the new crescent moon.
In Arabic, the word muharram means forbidden—a hint at the month’s meaning. The Quran forbids warfare or fighting during Muharram and three other sacred months; Muslims around the world commemorate the entire month of Muharram with prayer and family time.
However, Islam’s two major religious sects observe the first month of the year differently. These differences can be traced back to the 680 C.E. death of Muhammad’s grandson, Husayn Ibn Ali al-Hussein, during a battle that set the stage for a schism between Shia and Sunni Muslims.
As the month begins, Shiite Muslims observe 10 days of mourning, culminating in Ashura on the 10th day to mourn the death of al-Hussein. Some Shiite Muslims participate in mourning marches that day; others also engage in self-flagellation using their hands, chains, or even blades as a way of memorializing al-Hussein’s suffering. Though some Muslim scholars believe the dramatic practice is permissible, others within Islam object to it and say it damages relations between the two sects.
Meanwhile, some Sunni Muslims observe Ashura with fasting and prayer as well, but they do so in honor of a fast undertaken by Muhammad in Medina after he emigrated there. However, there is disagreement among Sunni scholars as to whether Ashura fasting is permissible or not.
For many, the month of Muharram is also time for commemorative foods. They include the special saffron rice shared with mourners in Garmsar, Iran, and doodh ka sharbat, a milky drink consumed in Hyderabad, India, in memory of the thirst experienced by al-Hussein and his followers during the fatal battle.
Unlike the secular new year, Muharram isn’t a time for flashy (or firework-filled) revelry. For those who observe it, the Hijrī new year is an annual reminder of the passage of time, the long history of Islam—and the resilience of Muslim people.