Muslim, Jew – conflict. That is what we assume today. But it just does not add up. There is too much goodness in our shared histories to ignore. One example of that goodness is our respective stand on the sanctity of time, and each ummah’s response to preserving that sanctity.
The sanctity of time is of vital importance in Islam. The Islamic community’s identity is distinguished in part by its calendar. Three of the five pillars of Islam depend on the calendar: prayer (salat), fasting (sawm) and pilgrimage (hajj).
Accurate dating of ahadith and other documents is likewise of great importance, some are accepted as accurate, or dismissed as forgeries, based upon the date recorded therein; an apparently inaccurate date could cause a document to be rejected outright. This becomes urgent regarding literature written when the calendar was in a state of flux; important works may have been discarded because the dates appear inaccurate, but actually reflect a calendar that was still in process.
Studying the calendars used during the centuries before the dawn of Islam may restore important works to Islamic literature and thought. When days of the week are mentioned in ahadith, this gives a clue to accurate dating.
The Islamic calendar was a deliberate modification of the pre-Islamic calendar, revised in 632 CE at the direct command of God as described in the Qur’an, Surat al Taubah 36.
The pre-Islamic calendar was evidently a form of the Rabbinic Jewish calendar, adopted by Qussay ibn Kilab. Born in 400 CE, Qussay was a descendant of the Prophet Abraham through Ishmael. Orphaned early, he would become king of Mecca, leader of the Quraysh tribe, and keeper of the pre-Islamic calendar. He is best known for being an ancestor of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). The Dar al Nadwa was his court. This calendar would have persisted up until the dawn of Islam, and is one missing piece in the harmonization of Jewish and Muslim history. Scholar Al-Biruni, 11th century Persia, offers evidence of this congruence in his work, Athar Ul-Bakiya, so let’s look at the roots of the Rabbinic Jewish calendar.
The term “Rabbinic” refers to the sect that holds by the oral tradition, later written down in the Mishna and Talmud. Their calendar was based upon the following principals:
– Witnessing the crescent moon heralds the new month. This is performed by two adult competent male witnesses.
– The two witnesses report to the court.
– The court, also known as Sanhedrin, disseminates to the people.
– A month can never be longer than 30 days, should weather conditions not permit witnessing, mathematical approximations are used to declare the new month.
– Three holy months were ordained by God in which he commands pilgrimage to Jerusalem and promises that war will not befall the residents of the land of Israel during those months.
– A leap month would keep the calendar in line with the solar year because of the biblical commandment that the hag of Passover fall in the spring, in time for the barley harvest. This leap month would be added in late winter when needed.
– To keep the hag of Sukkot (booths) in line with the autumn equinox, a month in late summer could be deleted when needed. Since the time of the prophet Ezra, this has lapsed, and the time span between the hag of Passover and of Sukkot has been constant since then.
Months would remain in the same order. They could never be switched.
You may wonder, how did the Jewish calendar make its way to Himyar and find use among the Quraysh? Jewish influence in Arabia resulted from the in-migration of varying groups of Jews over the centuries, bringing different forms of Judaism, from the Sadducean to zealot to Herodian. It is beyond the scope of this article to describe these migrations in detail, suffice it for now that members of the house of David fled the Holy Land after the Hasmonean revolt against the Greeks, second century BCE, Sadduceans fled after the fall of the first Temple, 70 CE, zealots fled after frustrated attempts at restoring the Temple, second century CE, and members of the Pharisaic turned Rabbinic camp fled the Persian empire in the seventh century CE. Some of the above reached Egypt, India, China – and even to Himyar, the land of Muhammad’s (pbuh) birth and ministry. They brought their calendar.
And that calendar would find itself under threat.
In 325 CE, shortly after Roman Emperor Constantine’s declaration of Christianity as the official state religion of Rome, the Emperor gathered the First Council of Nicaea. It resulted in the first uniform Christian doctrine, called the Nicene Creed. One result of the council was an agreement on when to celebrate Easter, “All the brethren in the East who have hitherto followed the Jewish practice will henceforth observe the custom of the Romans.” Many Christians had celebrated Easter according to the Jewish calendar, and the Church wished to end this practice. The Council of Antioch, in 341 CE, condemned those who observed Easter with the Jews; the same stance was adopted two years later by the Eastern bishops at the Council of Sardica.
In other words, in order to distance the many Christians who expressed kinship with Jews via parallel celebrations of their holy days, the authorities forbid this, and went on to outlaw the Rabbinic Jewish calendar, so the rabbis formulated a way to maintain the calendar in a clandestine fashion. The sage Hillel II reverted to the use of mathematics to determine the new month, which had previously been employed sparingly, when weather conditions could not permit moonsighting, and since the time of the first exile in 586 BCE when the children of Israel were displaced from the Holy Land and could not witness the ripening of the barley there.
Finally, Roman Byzantine decree eliminated the office of Nasi (patriarch) in 425 CE – just at the time that Qussay was rising as a leader.
We propose that the role of Nasi was then taken over by Qussay ibn Kilab’s House of Assembly (the Dar al-Nadwah), and that this involved the adaptation of the Rabbinic Jewish calendar.
But unscrupulous leaders in the Quraysh tribe would later manipulate the calendar for there own ends. Recall the three sacred months in which God promises in the Bible that war would not be waged as the children of Israel pilgrimage to Jerusalem – this apparently translated in the pre-Islamic calendar to sacred months in which war was prohibited. Quraysh leaders, after the rule of Qussay, would manipulate the sacred months so as to wage war when it suited them. This was called commutation, totally unheard of in Judaism, and an act of desecration of the sanctity of time that Muhammad(pbuh) would later stand up to, by divine command.
Al-Tabari in his Ta’rikh al-Rusul wa’l Muluk gives the following exposition:
The Prophet on the occasion of the Hajjat al Wada’ said: O people! Time after undergoing a full revolution has returned to its original state; the day Allah created the heavens and the earth. (vol. iii, p.150, Cairo 1969).
The Qur’an in chapter 9 fixes a twelve month year, and prohibits the manipulation of the calendar by intercalation:
Surely the number of months with Allah is twelve months in Allah’s ordinance since the day when He created the heavens and the earth, of these four being sacred; that is the right reckoning; therefore be not unjust to yourselves regarding them, and fight the polytheists all together as they fight you all together; and know that Allah is with those who guard (against evil). (Sura at-Taubah 9:36)
Postponing (of the sacred month) is only an addition in unbelief, wherewith those who disbelieve are led astray, violating it one year and keeping it sacred another, that they may agree in the number (of months) that Allah has made sacred, and thus violate what Allah has made sacred; the evil of their doings is made fair-seeming to them; and Allah does not guide the unbelieving people. (Sura at-Taubah 9:37)
A hint at the lunar calendar is seen in the following verse:
He it is who appointed the sun a splendor and the moon a light and measured for her stages, that ye might know the number of the years, and the reckoning. (Sūrat Yūnus 10:5)
The year would consist of twelve months only, following the waxing and waning of the moon, with no leap months, and commutation and intercalation would cease due to having been misused by leaders in order to wage war at convenient times.
Thus, in different ways, Judaism and Islam would preserve the sanctity of time, in defiance of unscrupulous rulers.
What ties our histories together is the effort of Muslim and Jewish leaders to to protect the calendar from being used as a political tool, and prioritize the sanctity of time.
Muhammad Ilyes quotes Nadvi who wrote: “It (the advent of the 15th century) is indeed, a unique occasion to ponder that the Islamic Era did not start with the victories of Islamic wars, nor with the birth or death of the Prophet (pbuh), nor with the Revelation itself. It starts with Hijra, or the sacrifice for the cause of Truth and for the preservation of the Revelation. It was a divinely inspired selection. God wanted to teach man that struggle between Truth and Evil is eternal. The Islamic year reminds Muslims every year not of the pomp and glory of Islam but of its sacrifice and prepares them to do the same.”
The convergence and divergence of the Jewish and Islamic calendars reflect epochs in which our peoples worked in parallel and when they took divergent paths, but it is essential to note that the Rabbinic Jewish and Islamic paths diverged for the same underlying reason: the sanctity of time is paramount, and should not be used as a political tool.
Both camps were in passionate agreement, and strove mightily and at personal risk, regarding the sanctity of time.
An understanding of the development of the Islamic calendar is thus key in shedding light upon both the sacred and the historical context of the rise of Islam and its relations with other communities. It is our fervent wish that such understanding will triumph over past corruption and persecution, reveal our underlying brotherhood, and pave the way for lasting peace.
It is our fervent wish that understanding our shared histories and goals will reveal our underlying brotherhood and pave the way for lasting peace.
The above is based on the Rabbi Ben Abrahamson’s paper, accepted and published in the Jamalullail Chair for Prophetic Sunnah International Conference (JCICI), Malaysia, October, 2020.
Rebecca Abrahamson is passionate about the shared histories of Islam and Judaism and in that capacity is co-director the the AlSadiqin Institute, which devoted to the study of our shared common heritage.
 William Muir, The Life of Mahomet.