Patterns of Moon, Patterns of Sun
Written by Paul Lunde
The Hijri Calendar
In 638 CE, six years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, Islam’s second caliph, ‘Umar, recognized the necessity of a calendar to govern the affairs of Muslims. This was first of all a practical matter. Correspondence with military and civilian officials in the newly conquered lands required dating. Pre-Islamic Arab customs identified years after the occurrence of major events. But Persia used a different calendar from Syria, where the caliphate was later based; Egypt used yet another. Each of these calendars had a different starting point, or epoch. The Sasanids, the ruling dynasty of Persia, used the date of the accession of the last Sasanid monarch, Yazdagird III, June 16, 632 CE. Syria, which until the Muslim conquest was part of the Byzantine Empire, used a form of the Roman Julian calendar, with an epoch of October 1, 312 BCE. Egypt used the Coptic calendar, with an epoch of August 29, 284 CE. Although all were solar calendars, and hence geared to the seasons and containing 365 days, each also had a different system for periodically adding days to compensate for the fact that the true length of the solar year is not 365 but 365.2422 days.
In pre-Islamic Arabia, other systems of measuring time had been used. In South Arabia some calendars apparently were lunar, while others were lunisolar, using months based on the phases of the moon but intercalating days outside the lunar cycle to synchronize the calendar with the seasons. On the eve of Islam, the Himyarites appear to have used a calendar based on the Julian form, but with an epoch of 110 BCE. In central Arabia the course of the year was charted by the position of the stars relative to the horizon at sunset or sunrise, dividing the ecliptic into 28 equal parts corresponding to the location of the moon on each successive night of the month. The names of the months in that calendar have continued in the Islamic calendar to this day and would seem to indicate that before Islam, some sort of lunisolar calendar was in use, though it is not known to have had an epoch other than memorable local events.
There were two other reasons ‘Umar rejected existing solar calendars. The Qur’an, in Chapter 10, Verse 5, states that time should be reckoned by the moon. Not only that, calendars used by the Persians, Syrians and Egyptians were identified with other religions and cultures. He therefore decided to create a calendar specifically for the Muslim community. It would be lunar, and it would have 12 months, each with 29 or 30 days.
This gives the lunar year 354 days, 11 days fewer than the solar year. For the epoch of the new Muslim calendar, ‘Umar chose the Hijra, the emigration of the Prophet Muhammad and 70 Muslims from Makkah to Madinah, where Muslims first attained religious and political autonomy. Hijra thus occurred on 1 Muharram of the year 1 according to the Islamic calendar, which begins the hijri era. (This date corresponds to July 16, 622 CE, on the Gregorian calendar.) Today in the West, it is customary, when writing hijri dates, to use the abbreviation AH, which stands for the Latin anno hegirae, “year of the Hijra.”
Because the Islamic lunar calendar is 11 days shorter than the solar, it is therefore not synchronized to the seasons. Its festivals, which fall on the same days of the same lunar months each year, make the round of the seasons every 33 solar years. This 11-day difference between the lunar and the solar year accounts for the difficulty of converting dates from one system to the other.
The Gregorian Calendar
The early calendar of the Roman Empire was lunisolar, containing 355 days divided into 12 months beginning on January 1. To keep it more or less in accord with the actual solar year, a month was added every two years. The system for doing so was complex, and cumulative errors gradually misaligned it with the seasons. By 46 BCE, it was some three months out of alignment, and Julius Caesar oversaw its reform. Consulting Greek astronomers in Alexandria, he created a solar calendar that added one day to February every fourth year, effectively compensating for the solar year’s length of 365.2422 days. This Julian calendar was used throughout Europe until 1582 CE.
In the Middle Ages, the Christian liturgical calendar was grafted onto the Julian one, and the computation of lunar festivals like Easter, which falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox, challenged some of the best minds in Christendom. The use of the epoch 1 CE dates from the sixth century CE, but did not become common until the 10th century.
The Julian year was nonetheless 11 minutes and 14 seconds too long. By the early 16th century, due to the accumulated error, the spring equinox had begun falling on March 11 rather than where it should, on March 21. Copernicus, Christophorus Clavius and the physician Aloysius Lilius provided the calculations, and in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII ordered that Thursday, October 4, 1582, would be followed by Friday, October 15, 1582. Most Christianized kingdoms accepted the new “Gregorian” calendar, but it was not adopted in England and the Americas until the 18th century. Its use today is common worldwide. The Gregorian year is nonetheless 25.96 seconds ahead of the solar year, which by the year 4909 will add up to an extra day.
Converting Years and Dates
Online calculators can be found by searching “Gregorian-hijri calendar calculator”or similar terms. The following equations show how the conversion is made mathematically. However, keep in mind that in each case, the result is only the year in which the other calendar’s year begins. For example, 2023 Gregorian begins in 1444 hijri and ends in 1445; correspondingly, 1445 hijri begins in 2023 Gregorian and ends in 2024.
Gregorian year =
[(32 x Hijri year) ÷ 33] + 622
Hijri year =
[(Gregorian year – 622) x 33] ÷ 32