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Islamic Holidays and Other Days of Note

The feasts and festivals of Islam follow the Islamic calendar, which is a lunar calendar. It began in the year 622, when the Prophet Muhammad moved from Mecca to Medina (hijra, migration). A lunar year is 10 to 11 days shorter than the solar year, so for every 33 solar years there is an extra lunar year. The end of November 2011 was the beginning of the Islamic calendar year 1433. The months of the Islamic hijri year, which correspond to the months of the lunar year, are known in Arabic as: Muharram, Safar, Rabi’ al-awwal, Rabi’ al-thani, Jumada al-ula, Jumada al-thani, Rajab, Sha’aban, Ramadan, Shawwal, Dhu al-Qi’dah and Dhu al-Hijjah. The names of the months were agreed among Arab tribes in the 460s, or approximately 150 years before Muhammad became the Prophet. The Islamic view is that night precedes day; that is, that each 24-hour period goes from sunset to sunset.


In Islam, the word ’id (or Eid) means an Assembly Day that is repeated. That weekly Assembly Day is Friday, when Muslims around the world gather for Friday prayers (salat al-jum’a) in a mosque or some other place of assembly whenever it is possible to do so shortly after noon. The prayer is preceded by a sermon (khutbah), which is given by the leader of the prayers, an imam.


Every year, two main festivals are celebrated: Eid al-Adha (festival of the sacrifice) and Eid al-Fitr (Feast of Breaking the Fast). In addition to these, there are other days of note in the Islamic calendar.

New Year (1st day of the month Muharram)

Islamic reckoning begins from the year 622, when the prophet Muhammad moved from Mecca to Medina (hijra, migration). The Prophet Muhammad arrived in Medina on the 12th day of the month Rabi’ al-awwal, the day that symbolizes the establishment of a Muslim society. The introduction of the Islamic numbering of years was decreed by the second Caliph Umar ibn al Khattab.


In Muslim countries, Hijra is a holiday. On that day children are told about the Prophet Muhammad travelling from Mecca to Medina.

Day of Ashura (10th day of the month Muharram)
When the Prophet Muhammad arrived in Medina, he reported that the Jews of Medina were fasting and celebrating this day in memory of Moses’s victory over the Egyptian Pharaoh. He called on Muslims to also fast on that day and the day before it, because Moses is considered to be a prophet of Islam. The Day of Ashura is also deemed to be the day Noah’s Ark reached land, and also the day that Abraham was spared from fire.

Ashura is particularly important to the Shia people. It is a day of mourning to commemorate the day the Prophet Muhammad’s grandchild Husain was martyred.

Commemoration of the Birth of the Prophet (at the beginning of the month Rabi al-awwal)
It is known that the Prophet Muhammad was born on a Monday in the month Rabi al-awwal. Many people consider the 12th to be the Prophet’s birthday, but according to Islamic sources it is more likely that he was born on Monday the 9th day of Rabi al-awwal. But the 12th day of that month is known as the day when the Prophet Muhammad arrived in Medina and as the day of his death. Marking the Prophet’s birthday on the 12th was introduced in Egypt during the Fatimid Caliphate in the Middle Ages, and is still celebrated on that day in some Muslim countries and by some Muslims.

Ramadan – the month of fasting
The practice of Islam is based on the so-called Five Pillars. Fasting is the fourth pillar of Islam. The other pillars are the confession of faith, prayer, giving of alms, and pilgrimage. The month of Ramadan is the 9th month of the Islamic calendar. Ramadan begins, as do other Islamic months, when the crescent moon is visible in the sky. A month is 29–30 days long and is also marked by when the new moon is visible.


Throughout the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. It helps if they eat something before daybreak to give themselves the energy to get through the day. Their fasting means they don’t eat or drink anything at all during daylight hours. After sunset, it is customary first to eat some dates, often an odd number of them, and to drink water or milk. Dates give a quick boost to their blood sugar. After that they pray the maghrib, the next-to-last of the day’s five prayers. The time spent in prayer is good for the stomach, as the dates and liquid prepare it to receive food after the day’s fast. The first proper meal after each day’s fast is called iftar, which means ‘breaking the fast’. The fast is broken by eating. Each evening of Ramadan is a daily celebration and guests, in particular, are treated to festive meals. However, it is not healthy to overeat after a day’s fast.


During Ramadan, Muslims strive to avoid all vices and forego all bodily desires during the daylight hours. The aim of the fast is to teach endurance and patience and strengthen faith. Fasting is thought to cleanse the soul and body. It also helps the person who fasts to develop empathy and compassion for people who are poor and hungry.

Muslims who are physically and mentally well, and have passed puberty, have a duty to observe the fast. Old people are exempt from fasting but, instead, give alms to the poor. Ill people and menstruating, pregnant or breastfeeding women do not fast, but will at some later date make up the missed days of fasting.


During Ramadan there is much reading of the Qur’an. Many people read the Qur’an from cover to cover, some even several times. During the evenings of the month of Ramadan, long community prayers, called tarawih, are recited in mosques. Tarawih can also be prayed at home. The month of Ramadan is also called the Month of the Qur’an and there is also the Night of the Qur’an.


The Night of the Qur’an, Laylat al-Qadr
(the odd nights of Ramadan: 21st, 23rd, 25th, 27th and 29th)

Al-Qadr translates variously as Force, Power, Fate or Destiny. The first verses of the Qur’an (96:1–5) were given to the Prophet Muhammad on the 21st night of Ramadan. Which is why it is called the Night of the Qur’an, a blessed night.


In the Islamic world, Laylat al-Qadr falls on the 27th night of Ramadan, but according to tradition (hadith) it could fall on some other night within the last ten days of Ramadan. More prayers are said on this night than on any other night of Ramadan or at any other time. As the exact date is uncertain, Muslims strive to devote themselves to prayer and to serving God in other ways during the last ten nights of Ramadan. The Qur’an says that Laylat al-Qadr is better than a thousand months, so prayers said at that time have greater value.

Eid al-Fitr (1st to 3rd day of Shawwal)
Eid al Fitr translates as the Feast of Breaking the Fast. On the first day of Eid al Fitr, fasting is forbidden and it is the most important of the days of Eid. It is a day for Muslims to celebrate their successful fasting. It is a day of gratitude to God for having been allowed to fulfil one of the obligations of Islam, one of the Five Pillars. In the morning, after sunrise, Muslims all pray the Eid prayer together. The short prayer is followed by a sermon. Before the prayer, alms (zakat al-fitr) are given, so that those who are poor can also celebrate. The alms correspond to the amount of money spent on food for one day.


During the festivities people visit each other and get in touch with their relatives. As is natural at a party, people – children in particular – dress up in their finest clothes. Parents usually give their children money or some other gift. In Finland, gifts are also exchanged between friends and children, who look forward to the gifts just as people do at Christmas. However, in Islam there is no religious significance to the giving of gifts just on this day. (According to tradition giving presents is said to increase love, so it is done year round).

In the Islamic world, all three days of Eid are holidays. At Eid, Muslims wish each other Eid mubarak, which means blessed or good feast.

Arafa, Day of Pilgrimage (9th day of Dhu al-hijja)
Pilgrimage is the final pillar of the Five Pillars of Islam. The other pillars are the confession of faith, prayer, giving of alms, and fasting. Dhu al-hijja is the twelfth and final month of the Islamic calendar. All Muslims who are able, can afford to and whose health allows it, are obliged to make the pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca once in their lifetime. Mecca is the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad. In the centre of the Holy Mosque is a cube-shaped building, the Ka’aba, which is symbolic of one God. During hajj, pilgrims take part in tawaf (circumambulation) or walking counter-clockwise seven times around the Ka’aba, which is the direction of prayer for all Muslims. During hajj the pilgrims also walk seven times between the hills of Al-Safa and Al-Marwah (sa’i). This is to remember the mother of the Prophet Ismail son on Ibrahim, Hajar, who sought water for her son between the two hills. She found the Zamzam Well, which to this day still gives water.


Every year, some 2.5 million Muslims make hajj. It is the world’s largest annual peace event. Muslims from around the world and different classes of society gather in Mecca in response to God’s call. All dress modestly, and men tend to wear ihram, two white sheets of cloth. Hajj strengthens the sense of cohesion and equality among Muslims, as well as a feeling of mutual brotherhood and sisterhood. When Muslims have made hajj in good faith, God forgives their sins.


The pilgrimage begins on the eighth day of Dhu al-hijja and culminates on the ninth day of the month, when all the pilgrims gather on the plains of Arafat outside Mecca, where they pray from afternoon until sunset. The pilgrimage ends on the twelfth or thirteenth day of Dhu al-hijja. Those who do not make the pilgrimage in a year usually fast on the Day of Arafa. After the month of Ramadan, it is the best day for fasting.

Eid al-Adha, Feast of the Sacrifice (10th to 13th of Dhu al-hijja)
The Feast of Sacrifice, known as Eid al-Adha, comes the day after Arafa. On the first day of Eid al-Adha the Eid prayer is recited in the morning and the end of the hajj or pilgrimage is celebrated. Also on this day Muslims remember Ishmael, son of Abraham, who was rescued from being sacrificed. Muslims usually sacrifice a sheep, which is divided into three parts: the first is eaten by the family, the second is given to relatives and the third part is given to the poor. Those who are making their pilgrimage to Mecca make the sacrifice, but otherwise Eid is not celebrated there in the same way as non-pilgrims.


Like Eid al-Fitr, the Eid al-Adha is a festival marked by visiting and getting in touch with relatives and members of the extended family. In Finland, it is also customary to give children gifts on this day. In Muslim countries the practice varies: in some parts of the world children are only given gifts at Eid al-Adha. It is also known as Eid al-Kabir, or the Major Festival. For Eid al-Adha, Muslims also wish one another Eid mubarak, a blessed or good feast.


Eid al-Adha lasts for four days, during which there must be no fasting for non-pilgrims.