The Jewish and Muslim New Years: Can They Help Unite Us?

The Jewish and Muslim New Years: Can They Help Unite Us?
(Aljumuah offers our series of articles by Reform Jewish Rabbi, Allen S. Maller, as a bridge-building effort to promote good relations among Jewish and Muslim communities. We share much in common due to the same source of our prophets and the revelations they received, namely the One God. Indeed, we are both stronger when we work together for justice, peace and mutual understanding. Our profound thanks to Rabbi Allen, who alone is responsible for the views and interpretations expressed herein.)

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MY WISH FOR the coming year is that more Jews and Muslims can join efforts to maximize our interrelationships, to come together on what we hold in common and to promote mutual understanding and active support for each other.  This common ground begins with the foundational belief held firmly by both of our communities, namely our belief in the One God who has created us, sent us prophets and revelation,  who provides for us daily. He calls us to live in conscious awareness of our obligations to Him as His creatures and to fulfill our responsibilities to one another in righteousness, justice and mercy.

This year the Jewish New Year and the Muslim New Year both fall on the same day —or rather days— namely from Wednesday, September 20 at sunset to Thursday, September 21 when it gets dark. This co-occurrence is not surprising since Islam and Judaism both work with a lunar calendar.  Each lunar month begins on the day when the new moon can first be sighted and extends for an average of 29 1/2 days.

However, in some years the Jewish calendar adjusts, or “intercalates,” the lunar calendar by adding an extra (13th) lunar month. This happens  seven times during the cycle of every 19 sun-based years, so as to keep the lunar year in sync with the solar calendar. Muslims were not allowed to do this:

Behold, the number of months, in the sight of God, is twelve months, [laid down] in God’s decree on the day when He created the heavens and the earth… [Surat Al-Tawbah, 9:36]

For Muslims any specific day of a calendar year (which is based on 12-lunar months lasting 353 or 354-days)  —for example an Eid day or the beginning of the new year—  will move forward each year by 11 to 12 days relative to the 365 1/4-day solar calendar. This is because the totality of days making up the twelve-month lunar year is that many days short of a full solar year (which stretches from January 1st to December 31st). The Islamic year —which is calculated by the completion of twelve lunar months— differs from the solar year, calculated by the position of the sun in the sky. For example, in the case of January 1st of any and every year,  the sun will always be in the same location in the sky (for any particular place on earth).

This year and next year, the two religious New Years (the first of Muharram and Rosh Hashanna, the first of Tishri) will fall on the same solar calendar day, or rather days — but not so the following year as that year is one of the seven “leap month” years on the Jewish calendar.

The reason I have said “day or days” is the same reason for both Islam and Judaism. In both cases a lunar calendar is used, and also both follow the ancient practice of declaring the New Year based on the first day of sighting the new moon in Jerusalem (Judaism) or Mecca  (Islam).

However, since clouds in those locations may obscure the sighting of the new moon’s crescent, and since both religions have become worldwide faiths, it is customary for some religious groups within each religion to observe the New Year based on astronomical calculation evidence rather than on the traditional visual evidence.

For Jews, the new year will be the year 5778 C.E. (or Anno Mundi, A.M.) in the Jewish Calendar era. In the Islamic Calendar era this will be the year 1439 A.H. (after Hijrah). The numbers before the letters indicate how many years since the era’s starting date.

There have been many calendars established to mark a new dynastic (political) era, but they  have disappeared after a few centuries when the governing dynasty died out.  Religious calendars are different than dynastic ones because major religions last much longer than political governments, and so their (spiritual) turning points remain much more quintessential and permanent.

The Christian calendar starts with the birth of Jesus. The Buddhist calendar starts with the enlightenment of Gautama Buddha. The Muslim calendar starts with the emigration of Mohammed from Mecca to Medina. So you might think that the Jewish calendar would also start with a very important event in early Jewish history.

If you did think so, you would be mistaken. The Jewish calendar doesn’t start with the birth of Abraham or with the Exodus from Egypt or even with the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses at Mount Sinai. It starts with Adam and Eve. In fact, all of these “Jewish” events and prophetic personages are important to Muslims, too. So then , why does the Jewish calendar start so many centuries prior to the birth of Judaism and the Jewish People?

The rabbis in the third or fourth century who originated the current Jewish calendar did so to replace the non-Jewish calendar that the Jews had been using for the previous six centuries. That calendar dated from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C.E. and was the first calendar in the world to record events over many centuries using just one fixed starting point.

The rabbis based their calendar on a second century book of Jewish chronology written by Rabbi Yosi ben Halafta who followed the example of the opening Biblical Book of Genesis and began his calculation with Adam and Eve.[i]  So why does the Bible start with Adam and Eve rather than with Abraham?

Because in the Biblical view, God is the creator of all humans and He is the one God of all historical nations. The Jewish calendar thus records the chronology of all the generations of written historical civilizations. Everything prior to 58 centuries ago is pre-history.

The first dynasty in Egypt arose in the seventh century of the Jewish calendar. The current era of the Hindu calendar, the Age of Kali, also began in the seventh century of the Jewish calendar. The oldest astronomical calendar in the world, the Mayan calendar, starts from the middle of the first century on the Jewish calendar. Thus all ancient calendars fit within the Jewish Bible based calendar.

By beginning the Jewish calendar with Adam and Eve, rather than with some important event in their own religion, the rabbis emphasized that the one God of Israel was the one God of all humanity. The rabbis also equated human history with urban civilization and writing. Thus, all written references to human events in the archeological records of the earliest civilizations can be dated with reference to the Jewish calendar.

There is not any before Adam (B.A.) from a historical point of view, only an after. If one were to understand that Adam and Eve are significant for marking the beginning of historical humanity rather than the beginning of humanity as a biological species, much of the present day conflict over human evolution versus Adam and Eve would disappear.

The Quran, too, presents Adam and Eve as the first recipients of God’s guidance and instruction (Quran 2:37) in how to live up to the ways of their Creator. Similarly, the stories of the Children of Israel are recounted throughout the Quran, often pointing up new lessons, or new reminders of old lessons, for a new people as well as for the old. For Muslims, God’s history with the Jewish people is accepted and celebrated. The Qur’an calls for the communities blessed with previous revelation to return to worshipping none but Him and observing His ways.

In accordance with both the Bible, as well as with the Quran and the Sunnah/Hadith, Jews and Muslims have no grounds for enmity or poor relations with each other —except insofar as either one or both are behaving unjustly or failing to abide by the standards of their own faith!

The start date of the Islamic calendar —the emigration of Prophet Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina— marked their escape from oppression at the hand of arrogant disbelievers after many years of ever-increasing suffering inflicted upon them. This turning point for Muslims was the occasion for setting up a divinely law-governed community with a Constitution, and in the end what could be called a Covenant closely akin to the Law given to Moses.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the next two years with a co-occurring date of the Islamic and Jewish New Years could help produce a united mutual understanding and co-operation of Jews and Muslims. This is my New Year’s wish.

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Rabbi Maller’s website is: www.rabbimaller.com. His new book Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms: A Reform Rabbi’s Reflections on the Profound Connectedness of Islam and Judaism (a collection of 31 articles by Rabbi Maller previously published on this and other Islamic web sites) is now for sale ($15) on Amazon.

[i]    http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/history-of-the-world/

"You are invited to respond to the contents of the article and to engage in conversation about the issues raised."

1 Comment

  • Rabbi Allan Maller is a great scholar and better yet a great man. I have had the pleasure and an honor to have known him for over 15 years and consider him to be a teacher as well as a great friend. His dedication to bring unity amongst the children of Abraham and especially between Jews and Muslims is unparalleled.

    Usman Madha
    Culver City, California

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