17 November 2012

Nigeria: Happy New Islamic Year


The Islamic Year 1434 has arrived. Last Thursday November 15 was Muharram 1. The beginning of an Islamic New year is not a celebration and is not a festival, unlike the two Eids of Fitr and Adha, but a significant and momentous occasion of reflection remembrance.

Here in Nigeria, many Muslim-majority states, including Kano and Osun, declared Public Holidays to commemorate the literally historic occasion as is being done all over the Muslim world. And now that the 1999 Constitution is being amended, it will be apt, and deserving, to insert Muharram 1 as National Public Holiday, at par with January 1. That will be justice. That will be equity.

This new Islamic Year means one thousand, four hundred and thirty four years have passed since Prophet Muhammad (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him), the greatest person to walk on this Planet Earth, the one person who is the most beloved of all to Allah, the Leader of the Prophets and the Messengers, the heart-throb of the Muslims, began his journey from his hometown Makkah (Mecca) to Madinah (Medina), said to have correspond with July 16, 622 in the Christian Gregorian Calendar. This journey is a history in itself and in it is a message of historical proportions for mankind.

Muharram is the first month of the Islamic Calendar, and the others are (especially for those who are too boko-imbibed and Islamiyya-forgotten) Safar, Rabi' Awwal, Rabi' Thani, Jumada Awwal, Jumada Thani, Rajab, Sha'ban, Ramadan, Shawwal, Zul Qa'adah, Zul Hijjah). The Islamic Calendar is lunar, and uses the moon, rather than the sun (as in the Gregorian Calendar) to count the days and weeks and months and years and...And as the lunar cycle is usually eleven days shorter than the Gregorian Calendar, the Islamic new year reduces by that number of days every year, and Muharram 1 shall fall on each of the days of January to December in a generation of about thirty three years.

After Prophet Muhammad had preached publicly for more than a decade, (this narrative from "ARAMCO and Its World: Arabia and The Middle East", edited by Ismail Nawwab, Peter C. Speers & Paul F. Hoye) the opposition to him reached such a high pitch that, fearful for their safety, he sent some of his adherents to Ethiopia, where the Christian ruler extended protection to them, the memory of which has been cherished by Muslims ever since.

But in Mecca the persecution worsened. Muhammad's followers were harassed, abused, and even tortured. At last, therefore, Muhammad sent seventy of his followers off to the northern town of Yathrib, which was later to be renamed Medina. Later, in the early fall of 622, he learned of a plot to murder him and, with his closest friend, Abubakr al-Siddiq, set off to join the emigrants.

In Mecca the plotters arrived at Muhammad's home to find that his cousin, 'Ali, had taken his place in bed. Enraged, the Meccans set a price on Muhammad's head and set off in pursuit. Muhammad and Abubakr, however, had taken refuge in a cave where, as they hid from their pursuers, a spider spun its web across the cave's mouth. When they saw that the web was unbroken, the Meccans passed by and Muhammad and Abubakr went on to Medina, where they were joyously welcomed by a throng of Medinans as well as the Meccans who had gone ahead to prepare the way.

This was the Hijrah - anglicized as Hegira - usually, but inaccurately, translated as "Flight" - from which the Muslim era is dated. In fact, the Hijrah was not a flight but a carefully planned migration which marks not only a break in history - the beginning of the Islamic era- but also, for Muhammad and the Muslims, a new way of life. Henceforth, the organizational principle of the community was not to be mere blood kinship, but the greater brotherhood of all Muslims. The men who accompanied Muhammad on the Hijrah were called the Muhajirun - "those that made the Hijrah" or the "Emigrants" - while those in Medina who became Muslims were called the Ansar or "Helpers."

Muhammad was well acquainted with the situation in Medina. Earlier, before the Hijrah, the city had sent envoys to Mecca asking Muhammad to mediate a dispute between two powerful tribes. What the envoys saw and heard had impressed them and they had invited Muhammad to settle in Medina. After the Hijrah, Muhammad's exceptional qualities so impressed the Medinans that the rival tribes and their allies temporarily closed ranks as, on March 15, 624, Muhammad and his supporters moved against the pagans of Mecca in the first battle between him and Meccans at Badr. The rest, alhamdu lilLah, is happy history.

In his book, Destiny Disrupted, Tamim Ansary considers the history of the world through Islamic eyes. Starting from the same cradle of civilization, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers of ancient Iraq, he explains how Western and Muslim perceptions of civilization diverged into two separate universes - and how they are merging again in today's geopolitical scene. He says the two histories - Western and Islamic - had begun in the same place and they had come back to the same place; this global struggle in which the West and the Islamic world seemed to be the major players. In between, however, they had passed through different - and yet strangely parallel - landscapes.

Looking back, for example, from within the Western world-historical framework, one saw a single big empire towering above all others back there in ancient times: Rome, where the dream of a universal political state was born. Looking back from anywhere in the Islamic world, one also saw a single definitive empire looming back there, embodying the vision of a universal state, but it wasn't Rome; it was the Islamic Caliphate of the religion's early centuries. In both histories, the great early empire fragmented because it simply grew too big. The decaying empire was then attacked by nomadic barbarians from the north - but in the Islamic world, "the north" refers to the steppes of Central Asia - and in that world the nomadic barbarians are not the Germans, but the Turks.

World history is always the story of how "we" got to the here and now, so the shape of the narrative inherently depends on who we mean by "we" and what we mean by "here and now." Western world history traditionally presumes that here and now is democratic industrial (and post-industrial) civilization.

But what if we look at world history through Islamic eyes? The year zero for us would be the year of Prophet Muhammad's migration from Mecca to Medina, his Hijra, which gave birth to the Muslim community.

But the superseded history never really ended. It kept on flowing beneath the surface, like a riptide, and it is flowing down there still. When you chart the hot spots of the world - Kashmir, Iraq, Chechnya, the Balkans, Israel and Palestine - you're staking out the borders of some entity that has vanished from the maps but still thrashes and flails in its effort not to die.

Islam and Muslims are still on that path - Hijra. So, may next year's Muharram 1 be a National Public Holiday (though, as we are reminded by Dr. Spahic Omer, it goes without saying that a people are the most direct causes of their own civilisational destinies, as Allah says He will change the condition of a people only when they change what lies in themselves (Qur'an al-Ra'd, 31:11).

All change! It is 1434!

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