The Hijra and the Islamic Calendar
Since time immemorial, man has found it necessary to measure the passage of time. By simple observation of the stars, changes in the seasons, harvest cycles, and the periods of light and darkness that alternated continuously, early man came up with primitive methods of measuring time to satisfy his basic needs. Early civilizations relied on the motions of celestial bodies to determine seasons, months, and years. The rising and setting of the sun, the solstices, phases of the moon, and the position of particular stars and constellations have all been used in ancient civilizations to demarcate activities and events.
Calendars were developed to organize units of time and throughout history, several forms were used, principal among them the solar and lunar calendars.
The pre-Islamic calendar
The people of pre-Islamic Arabia used various systems to measure time. Some were lunar while others were lunisolar. Though the lunisolar calendar used in pre-Islamic Arabia was based on the phases of the moon, it was also synchronized with the seasons by the insertion of an additional, intercalary month, whenever necessary. When it suited them, the people of pre-Islamic Arabia would change the months about or postpone one of the prohibited months (during which fighting was forbidden). In time, the practice of intercalation was much abused, affecting the related months and the prohibitions by changing a sacred month into a non-sacred one. Eventually, after the advent of Islam the practice of altercation was prohibited through a Quranic injunction “The number of months in the sight of Allah is twelve (in a year)- so ordained by Him the day He created the heavens and the earth; of them four are sacred: that is the straight usage. So wrong not yourselves therein, and fight the Pagans all together as they fight you all together. But know that Allah is with those who restrain themselves. Verily the transposing (of a prohibited month) is an addition to Unbelief: the Unbelievers are led to wrong thereby: for they make it lawful one year, and forbidden another year, in order to adjust the number of months forbidden by Allah and make such forbidden ones lawful. The evil of their course seems pleasing to them. But Allah guideth not those who reject Faith” [Quran 9: 36-7].
The Hijri Calendar
The hijri calendar was established by the second Rightly Guided Caliph and the Prophet’s close Companion, Umar Ibn al-Khattab, in 637/638 AD. According to al-Jabarti, the great chronicler of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Abu Musa al-Ash’ari wrote to the then caliph Umar Ibn al-Khattab saying, “Letters have reached us from the Commander of the Faithful, but we do not know which to obey. We read a document dated [the month of] Sha'ban, but we do not know which of the Sha'bans is meant: is it the month that has passed, or that which is to come?" After consulting the Prophet’s Companions, Umar Ibn al-Khattab established the year of the Prophet’s emigration as the beginning of the Islamic calendar since it was the single most important event in the Islamic world at that time. The Islamic calendar is usually abbreviated in Western languages from the Latin Anno Hegirae “the year of the hijra.”
The Islamic calendar consists of 12 purely lunar months. They are (1) Muharram, (2) Safar, (3) Rabie’ al-Awwal, (4) Rabie’ al-Thani, (5) Jumada al-Awwal, (6) Jumada al-Thani, (7) Rajab, (8) Sa’ban, (9) Ramadan, (10) Shawwal, (11) Dhul-Qi’da, (12) Dhul-Hijja.
Lexical meaning of hijra
The word hijra comes from the root h/j/r. These letters in Arabic indicate movement and locomotion. In whatever order, the letters covey sound audibility. And because sound causes movement in air and moves from one place to another, from the mouth of the speaker to the ears of the hearer, the root letters also connote transport and movement. Hijra from one place to another involves movement and transport.
In Hans Wehr’s Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, the meanings listed for the noun “hijra” include: departure, exit; emigration, exodus; immigration” while the meanings listed for the verb “hajara” include: to emigrate; to dissociate s.o., separate, part, secede, keep away (from), part company (with); to give up, renounce, forgo, avoid (s.th.); to abandon, surrender, leave, give up, vacate (s.th. in favor of s.o.); to desert one another, part company, separate, break up.”
In Islamic tradition, the word “hijra” is used to describe the emigration of Muslims from Mecca to other places to flee the persecution of the polytheists. However, it is most commonly used in reference to the Prophet’s emigration from Mecca to Medina in 622 AD.
Kinds of hijra
There are two kinds of hijra—physical and moral.
Physical migration can be defined as a process of moving, either across an international border or within a state. It encompasses any kind of movement of people, whatever its length, composition and causes and includes refugees, displaced persons, uprooted people, and economic migrants.
Religious persecution and the quest for religious freedom has played an important role in migration, forcing people to flee for their lives. The connection between religion and migration has been a cross-cutting issue throughout the history of major religions such as Christianity (e.g. the spread of Catholicism by Portuguese and Spanish during the 11th and 12th centuries), Islam (e.g. the first and second migration during Prophet Muhammad’s time), and Judaism (e.g. the migration from eastern to Western Europe and overseas, and to the United States of America during the 19th century).
The relentless persecution of the early Muslims prompted Prophet Muhammad [peace and blessings be upon him] to allow those who lacked power and protection to flee to Abyssinia. Muhammad Ibn Ishaq said, “When the Messenger of God witnessed the trials descending upon his Companions, he compared this with his own good state derived from his own status with God and from his uncle Abu Talib, and, recognizing that he was unable to prevent the evil befalling them, he told them, ‘I wish you would go forth into the land of Abyssinia, for there is a king in whose realm no one is harmed, where truth prevails. Stay there until God gives you relief from your plight.’” This migration to Abyssinia took place seven years before the Prophet’s own hijra to Medina and was followed by a second one to Abyssinia a few years later.
The Prophet’s hijra to Medina
While in Mecca, the Prophet [peace and blessings be upon him] continued to invite the Arab tribes that flocked to Mecca to God and Islam, presenting himself to them and the message of guidance and mercy he brought. This went on until God granted victory to His Messenger through the Medinians who believed in him and agreed to give him and the Muslims aid and refuge. It was only after this that the Messenger of God [peace and blessings be upon him] ordered the Muslims, both those who had previously emigrated to Abyssinia and returned and those who had stayed with him in Mecca, to go to Medina and join their Muslim brothers and sisters there. He, however, stayed on in Mecca waiting for his Lord to give him permission to emigrate.
When the Quraysh could endure Prophet Muhammad [peace and blessings be upon him] no more, they decided to get rid of him once and for all. They consulted among themselves on how best to do this and Abu Jahl Ibn Hisham said, “I think we should select one young man from each tribe, and someone who is strong, of excellent lineage and reputation as a leader. We should give each one a sharp sword and they would go to him
and use the swords to strike him in unison. They would kill him and we would then be rid of him. If they do this, his blood will be spread over all tribes. And the Banu Abd Manaf will not be able to do battle against them all. So they will accept blood money which we can pay them.”
Gabriel came to the Messenger of God [peace and blessings be upon him] and commanded him not to sleep in his bed that night. The Prophet [peace and blessings be upon him] asked Ali Ibn Abu Talib to sleep in his bed instead of him, promising that no harm would come to him. Taking a handful of dirt and sprinkling it at those who gathered outside his door to kill him, the Prophet [peace and blessings be upon him] slipped away unseen after he had recited the following verses, “Ya Sin. By the Qur'an, full of Wisdom,-Thou art indeed one of the apostles, On a Straight Way. It is a Revelation sent down by (Him), the Exalted in Might, Most Merciful. In order that thou mayest admonish a people, whose fathers had received no admonition, and who therefore remain heedless (of the Signs of Allah..The Word is proved true against the greater part of them: for they do not believe. We have put yokes round their necks right up to their chins, so that their heads are forced up (and they cannot see). And We have put a bar in front of them and a bar behind them, and further, We have covered them up; so that they cannot see” [Quran 36: 1-9]. He then made his way to Abu Bakr who had made preparations for the journey.
This event marks the beginning of the Islamic era as was agreed upon by the Companions during Umar’s rule.
The term “hijra” has important subtle meanings associated with it other than physical movement from one place to another. In addition to its physical sense, it also means “to abandon something and neglect it.” This meaning finds support in some Prophetic traditions such as that narrated by Abdullah Ibn Umar in which the Prophet [peace and blessings be upon him] said, “The muhajir (emigrant) is the one who abandons what God has forbidden” [Bukhari and Muslim].
The idea of a metaphorical hijra has numerous references to the life of the Prophet [peace and blessings be upon him]. Just as the Prophet’s hijra to Medina was a transitional line between two states—a state of weakness to a state of security, the hijra of the soul is likewise a transitional line between the human propensity to sin and a position of security, between a state of disobedience and one of obedience. The Prophet’s departure from Mecca was a flight from the polytheists and from a hostile unbelieving environment, with the aim of finding security in another place and forming a new community based on piety; it was a move to a better situation conducive to production for the sake of God. In a similar vein, a person undertaking a moral hijra migrates from everything God has forbidden without falling prey to his earthly desires. It is a flight for the sake of moral refuge from all forms of evils and corruption. It is a spiritual leave-taking from oppression to justice; from cruelty, harshness, and pitilessness to mercy, compassion and grace; from intolerance to forbearance; from indulgence to moderation; from miserliness to generosity and munificence; and from malignity to benevolence. It is also desisting from selfishness and moving towards charity and altruism; from hard-heartedness to sympathy; from hostility to goodwill and friendliness; from conflict and strife to peace and amity; from ignorance to knowledge; from pride to humility; from sin to repentance; and from defiance and resistance to God’s commands to complete submission to Him. It is most of all a return to man’s natural disposition of good. Perhaps the spiritual hijra is best expressed by the words of Prophet Ibrahim who said, “I will flee to my Lord: He is the Almighty, the All-Wise” [Quran 29: 26].
The metaphoric content of the journey is evoked every time a person decides to desist from prohibitions and disobedience. Like the Prophet’s journey from Mecca to Medina, the flight to moral excellence and obedience is not without difficulties. Man’s existence on earth is not a promenade through life. His path is fraught with hurdles and fears. It often means forsaking what one desires for what God desires. Because man has been ordered to strive for the life prescribed by God, he cannot succumb to harsh conditions or to weaknesses and desires. He cannot blame circumstances that are forced upon him or the temptations he meets along his way. He also cannot give in or rely solely on God to live the virtuous and pious life required of him. He has to exert effort to attain the glory of God’s pleasure. On returning from a battle, the Prophet [peace and blessings be upon him] once said, “We have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.” This tradition clearly demonstrates man’s part in struggling against his own weakness and inclination for wrongdoing.
The secret nature of his hijra and the precautions he took all demonstrate the Prophet’s human insecurities. He ordered Ali to sleep in his bed in his place, chose an unconventional route to Medina, took measures to wipe out his and his companion’s footsteps, and sheltered with his companion Abu Bakr in a cave to hide from the pursuing enemy. Though his reliance on God was without reservations, yet the Prophet [peace and blessings be upon him] employed every human endeavor to achieve his goal. In a similar fashion, we are instructed to employ every possible measure to achieve our goal of obeying God and attaining His pleasure both of which will ultimately secure for us God’s promise of an eternal life in paradise. This promise alone is a motivating force to do better, to shun disobedience and to strive for God’s pleasure.
The end of the Prophet’s journey and the triumphant welcome he received in Medina foretell our own triumph at the end of our journey on earth and our entry into paradise. The Prophet’s flight from Mecca to Medina, from a land of hostility to a land of security, should serve as a moral compass for us. By all scales, the Prophet’s journey to security was not easy and neither is our own. The conscious decision to migrate from both major and minor transgressions is indeed of great magnitude and the difficulties that may ensue in its wake should not deter us from embarking on it. In essence, the Prophet’s migration was about fulfilling his mission on earth. Our moral migration, in turn, must also be about fulfilling the same purpose for God says, “I created jinn and man only to worship Me” [Quran 51: 56]. It should determine our departure from the various realms of sin to a desire to attain Divine propinquity and secure our place in the hereafter. Although oftentimes difficult, a perpetual moral migration is the mark of a life lived along the lines of righteousness and success.
Hijra in the Quran
The word hijra and its derivatives are mentioned in many verses of the Quran. The majority of these verses contain praises and promise rewards to those who emigrated for the cause of God and to those who aided them.
The emigrants are entitled the highest honor and praise for having made a great sacrifice in the cause of God. He says,
“To those who leave their homes in the cause of Allah, after suffering oppression,- We will assuredly give a goodly home in this world; but truly the reward of the Hereafter will be greater. If they only realised (this)!” [Quran 16:41].
God promises those who leave their homes for His sake a mercy, especially from Himself, His good pleasure, gardens of eternal delight and the ultimate reward of Divine propinquity. It is due to sacrificing one’s own kith and kin, wealth and property, businesses and homeland as well as everything that proves to be a hindrance in God’s cause that one earns the ultimate reward. God says,
“Those who believe, and suffer exile and strive with might and main, in Allah's cause, with their goods and their persons, have the highest rank in the sight of Allah. they are the people who will achieve (salvation). Their Lord doth give them glad tidings of a Mercy from Himself, of His good pleasure, and of gardens for them, wherein are delights that endure: They will dwell therein forever. Verily in Allah's presence is a reward, the greatest (of all)” [Quran 9: 20-22].
God also promises mercy and forgiveness to those who suffered hardships and exile and fought in His cause with patience and constancy. He says,
“Those who believed and those who suffered exile and fought (and strove and struggled) in the path of Allah,- they have the hope of the Mercy of Allah. And Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful” [Quran 2: 218].
“But verily thy Lord,- to those who leave their homes after trials and persecutions,- and who thereafter strive and fight for the faith and patiently persevere,- Thy Lord, after all this is oft-forgiving, Most Merciful” [Quran 16: 110].
The promise of provisions and paradise is another grant to those who migrated for God’s cause. He says,
“Those who leave their homes in the cause of Allah, and are then slain or die,- On them will Allah bestow verily a goodly Provision: Truly Allah is He Who bestows the best provision. Verily He will admit them to a place with which they shall be well pleased: for Allah is All-Knowing, Most Forbearing” [Quran 22: 58-9].
God’s reward is to all of those who left their homes and suffered harm in His cause. Both males and females are promised God’s acceptance into paradise—no distinction is made between them. God says,
“And their Lord hath accepted of them, and answered them: "Never will I suffer to be lost the work of any of you, be he male or female: Ye are members, one of another: Those who have left their homes, or been driven out therefrom, or suffered harm in My Cause, or fought or been slain,- verily, I will blot out from them their iniquities, and admit them into Gardens with rivers flowing beneath;- A reward from the presence of Allah, and from His presence is the best of rewards" [Quran 3: 195].
The sacrifice of home and kin for the sake of God and His Messenger does not go unrewarded. In addition, God encourages Muslims to migrate for comfort and prosperity. He says,
“He who forsakes his home in the cause of Allah, finds in the earth Many a refuge, wide and spacious: Should he die as a refugee from home for Allah and His Messenger, His reward becomes due and sure with Allah. And Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful” [Quran 4: 100].
Those who made the sacrifice of going into voluntary exile for the sake of Islam and those who gave them asylum are granted the same status—they become members of one society. God says,
“Those who believed, and adopted exile, and fought for the Faith, with their property and their persons, in the cause of Allah, as well as those who gave (them) asylum and aid,- these are (all) friends and protectors, one of another. As to those who believed but came not into exile, ye owe no duty of protection to them until they come into exile; but if they seek your aid in religion, it is your duty to help them, except against a people with whom ye have a treaty of mutual alliance. And (remember) Allah seeth all that ye do” [Quran 8: 72].
“And those who accept Faith subsequently, and adopt exile, and fight for the Faith in your company,- they are of you. But kindred by blood have prior rights against each other in the Book of Allah. Verily Allah is well-acquainted with all things” [Quran 8: 75].
A Muslim is duty-bound to move from a place where he is persecuted and suppressed for his religion, even if this involves forsaking home and brethren. God says,
“When angels take the souls of those who die in sin against their souls, they say: "In what (plight) Were ye?" They reply: "Weak and oppressed Were we in the earth." They say: "Was not the earth of Allah spacious enough for you to move yourselves away (From evil)?" Such men will find their abode in Hell,- What an evil refuge!” [Quran 4: 97].
God’s forgiveness is not only promised to those who migrated for His sake, but it is also a grant of mercy to those who received them in their homes and shared their wealth with them. God says,
“Let not those among you who are endued with grace and amplitude of means resolve by oath against helping their kinsmen, those in want, and those who have left their homes in Allah's cause: let them forgive and overlook, do you not wish that Allah should forgive you? For Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful” [Quran 24: 22].
The emigrants were not the only ones who made sacrifices for the sake of God and His Prophet. The sacrifices made by the Ansar in helping the emigrants establish homes and livelihoods in their new home were of no small value. Indeed, the love they showed, secured for them a reward of great measure, one that is only possible from God. He says,
“Those who believe, and adopt exile, and fight for the Faith, in the cause of Allah as well as those who give (them) asylum and aid,- these are (all) in very truth the Believers: for them is the forgiveness of sins and a provision most generous” [Quran 8: 74].
God praises the Ansar, the people of Medina who accepted Islam and who took in the Prophet [peace and blessings be upon him] and the emigrants who came to them as refugees. They did not welcome the refugees as a duty; their generous hospitality was out of devotion, affection, and love. God says,
“But those who before them, had homes (in Medina) and had adopted the Faith,- show their affection to such as came to them for refuge, and entertain no desire in their hearts for things given to the (latter), but give them preference over themselves, even though poverty was their (own lot). And those saved from the covetousness of their own souls,- they are the ones that achieve prosperity” [Quran 59: 9].
The term hijra and its derivatives is not mentioned in the Quran in reference to the Prophet’s physical hijra only, but goes beyond this to the metaphorical scope of the concept of hijra. God orders men to suspend sexual relations with their wives as a means of punishment to disobedient wives. He says,
“Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in (the husband's) absence what Allah would have them guard. As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (Next), refuse to share their beds, (And last) beat them (lightly); but if they return to obedience, seek not against them Means (of annoyance): For Allah is Most High, great (above you all)” [Quran 4: 34].
A similar meaning is found in the next verse wherein Prophet Ibrahim’s father rejects his message and invitation to Truth. The spiritual lesson from this is that even if a father rejects the light, a son will never do so even if has to forfeit his father’s love and renounce his home. There is no sanctity associated with a particular place just because it is the place of one’s birth. The most important thing is religion and the freedom to practice it. The Quran states,
“(The father) replied: "Dost thou hate my gods, O Abraham? If thou forbear not, I will indeed stone thee: Now get away from me for a good long while!" [Quran 19: 46].
Prophet Muhammad [peace and blessings be upon him] is instructed to keep a psychological distance between him and the disbelievers, though he must not do so grudgingly. He must, at all times deal with them kindly and with mercy, and dissociate himself from them in a dignified manner,
“And have patience with what they say, and leave them with noble (dignity)” [Quran 73: 10].
Both the physical and metaphorical sense of the term hijra are expounded in two verses describing the disbelievers’ abandonment of the Quran, treating it as foolish nonsense. God says,
“"In arrogance: talking nonsense about the (Qur'an), like one telling fables by night” [Quran 23: 67].
“Then the Messenger will say: "O my Lord! Truly my people took this Quran for just foolish nonsense" [Quran 25: 30].
Hijra in the Sunnah
The command to embark on a hijra did not end with the Prophet’s emigration to Medina. It is true that the Prophet [peace and blessings be upon him] said on the day of Mecca’s conquest, “There is no hijra after the conquest (of Mecca)” i.e. there is no need for people to leave Mecca after it has become an abode of Islam since Muslims are no longer persecuted in it for their religion.
Emigration will always be part of man’s life on earth. We are not entirely deprived of its benefits and rewards as it will continue to be an obligation in its metaphorical sense, the hijra of the heart, until the Last Day as attested to by the Prophet’s words:
“Hijra will never come to an end until repentance comes to an end” [Ahmad].
“The muhajir is the one who avoids what God has prohibited” [Al-Bukhari and Muslim].
“A Muslim is someone who spares people the harm of his tongue and hand, and a muhajir (migrant) is someone who migrates from what God has forbidden” [Al-Bukhari and Muslim].
Although all kinds of hijra involve entering unchartered territory and therefore evoke a sense of fear in pledging to withstand the tribulations ensuing from the decision to stay on the path of truth, it is important to remember that God is always the best Companion on the road to righteousness. We should always keep in mind the Prophet’s words of reassurance to Abu Bakr when, on their way to Medina, the Quraishite search party that was after them came too dangerously close to the mouth of the cave where they were hiding. When Abu Bakr expressed his alarm, the Prophet [peace and blessings be upon him] told him, “Have no fear for Allah is with us.”
As the beginning of the Islamic new year draws close, we would do well to reflect on the many lessons we can derive from the momentous journey on which the beginning of the Islamic calendar is based. We should not be content to celebrate the new Islamic year without drawing moral and psychological parallels from the Prophet’s journey from Mecca to Medina to our own context and lives.