Culture & Religion

4 things you should know about Awal Muharram, the Islamic New Year

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Image credit: hikrcn /
Awal Muharram celebrations in Istanbul Image credit: hikrcn /

The Islamic calendar was introduced by Umar ibn Al-Khattab, a close companion of Prophet Mohammed, in 638AD. In accordance with the Islamic calendar, Awal Muharram is the beginning of the New Year for Muslims.

On 2 October 2016 in the Gregorian calendar, the year 1438 AH will begin on the Islamic calendar – which means that Monday 3 October is a public holiday here in Malaysia. Here are a few things you should know about the history of the Awal Muharram, and the traditions of the Islamic New Year, as celebrated nowadays:

1. The history and meaning of Awal Muharram

Contrary to the translation of Muharram to English, which means “forbidden”, it is seen as the second holiest month, the first being Ramadan. Awal Muharram is also known as Maal Hijrah. The word Hijrah is derived from an Arabic word which means moving or emigrating, which is why this month Muharram concurs with the migration of Prophet Mohammed from Mecca to Medina in the year 622AD.

Prophet Mohammed needed to relocate because somebody had intentions to execute him. Consequently, the Prophet chose to go to a town known as Yathrib, which was 320 km north of Mecca. Yathrib is known today as Medina, in nowadays Saudi Arabia, which translates to ‘the city’.

2. Freedom and brotherhood in Medina

Hijrah signified freedom from suffering for the Muslims in Mecca. When the Prophet emigrated to Medina, Muslims there were indirectly saved from further persecution by the Meccan pagans. After the Hijrah, it was then declared by the Prophet in the Constitution of Medina that Muslims are a universal brotherhood with a unique identity in faith and ideology.

In this time, the Prophet restructured the state administration. Jews and Muslims lived in harmony, and, for the first time in world history, a multi-racial and multi-religious state performed and adhered to laws by which all races had equal rights and citizenship.

The stability and strength of the community depended on stable economy and education and so the Prophet made necessary efforts to end economic exploitation and to educate the Muslim community.

3. In Mecca, the Muslims were gracious in victory

Back in Mecca, however, religious tensions were still high between Meccans and Muslims. The Battle of Badr was a significant conflict in 624 AD between the two groups. The Muslims won despite having a much smaller infantry and cavalry.

The Prophet allowed a redemption period for Meccan captives after the Battle of Badr by allowing the literate to become teachers of Muslim children. If they taught 10 children to read and write, they would be freed (or if they paid a ransom).  This led to the production of Muslim scholars who then built a civilisation that benefited both the Muslims and non-Muslims. Knowledge was no longer a privilege but accessible to all.

4. How Awal Muharram is celebrated in Malaysia

This month is the best time for voluntary fasts and for charitable acts as described by Prophet Mohammed:


Every fast of Muharram is equivalent to a whole month of fasts.
– Tabarani-fil-Saghir, V2, P87, Hadith 1580

During religious gatherings in Malaysia, on Awal Muharram, believers discuss verses from the Quran, sing religious tunes, and compose extraordinary petitions and different sermons both in private and in mosques. Revellers prepare sweet rice, referred to as Bubur Asyura (Asyura porridge), and eat it together with friends and relatives for breakfast.

Awal Muharram is a solemn occasion for self-reflection and prayer – quite the opposite to the frivolity of New Year’s Day celebrations according to the Gregorian calendar on 1st January!


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