A Brief Introduction to the Muslim Calendar and Major Muslim Festivals and Religious Observances

The Muslim Calendar

Muslim festivals and special religious observances are held generally according to the dates determined by reference to the Muslim Calendar. This calendar is a lunar one, having twelve months which are calculated from the day on which the new moon is sighted to the next sighting. The names of the months are as follows:

1. Muharram
2. Safar
3. Rabi’ al-Awwal
4. Rabi’ al-Thani
5. Jumada al-Awwal
6. Jumada al-Thani
7. Rajab
8. Sha‘ban
9. Ramadan
10. Shawwal
11. Dhul-Qa’da
12. Dhul-Hijjah

The average interval between the similar phases of the moon is twenty nine days, twelve hours and forty four minutes. The extra forty four minutes each month amount to 11 days over a period of 33 years and as a result the calendar is arranged in such a manner that there are 11 leap years during each thirty year period. There being twelve months in the calendar, the number of days in a Muslim year is 354 or 355 in a leap year. As the Muslim year is 10 or 11 days shorter than the solar year, it means that the months rotate around the seasons. Therefore, the timings of a festival and observances also varies from year to year in relation to a solar year.

Muslim festivals and observances mark many events which occurred during the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad (SAWS) and members of his immediate household (ahl al-bayt) during the course of the history of Islam. The Faith of Islam embraces many countries and races and throughout its history special rites and customs have developed which vary from country to country. Thus, whilst there is conformity on the importance and spiritual significance of the events they commemorate, the festivals and other religious observances are celebrated according to the countries’ customs and traditions. The festivals are called ‘Id which is an Arabic word from the root ‘aud explained as ‘periodic returning’. Thus ‘Id indicates a periodic festivity or something that gives pleasure and inner contentment through a ceremony.

Yaum al-jum’a (the Day of Assembly) – Friday

This is the sixth day of the week, i.e. Friday. The name al-jum’a comes from the root jama’a meaning ‘bring together’, ‘congregation’ or ‘collect’. Thus amongst the Muslims, the principal congregational prayer of the week is offered on Friday when there is a large assembly in the mosque. In the Holy Qur’an, Allah says:

“O you who have attained to faith. When the call to prayer is sounded on the day of congregation (Friday), hasten to the remembrance of God, and leave all worldly commerce: this is for your own good, if you but knew it.” — Holy Qur’an, 62:9

Friday congregational prayer is a weekly demonstration of brotherhood, unity and sharing of the spiritual state of a combined communion with Allah. It is important to note that in Islam, communion with Allah in the form of a ritual prayer (salat) is obligatory throughout the day at the appointed time during the lifetime of the individual. Thus throughout the week, the day is punctuated with devotional prayer in addition to the mundane tasks that are performed to earn physical and material comforts of daily existence. Through this dual activity, the individual brings about a balance by which personal duties and responsibilities in both spheres of life are fulfilled. This is alluded in the following verse (ayah) of the Qur’an:

“And when the prayer (i.e. Friday congregational prayer) is ended, disperse freely on earth and seek to obtain (something) of God’s bounty; but remember God often, so that you might attain to a happy state.” — Holy Qur’an, 62:10

Unlike the Jewish Sabbath, which is a day of rest, a Muslim is allowed to peruse his daily business activities on Friday. As a result, apart from the special congregational prayer offered on this day, the rest of the day is spent in the pursuit of daily activities.

Contemplative meditation and worship (‘ibadah) are also encouraged in order to seek spiritual enhancement through such activities other than the ritualistic prayer.

The twelve month of the Muslim Calendar and major Muslim festivals. Image by Simerg.

Muharram – The Muslim New Year

The Muslim New Year begins with the month of Muharram. In most of the countries, the celebrations are not marked by a public holiday. However, the coming of the New Year is observed by offering of special prayers at night and reflection on the life and times of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (SAWS). His emigration (Hijrah) from Mecca to Medina in the year 622 AC was a significant event and later adopted to mark the beginning of the Muslim Era.

Amongst the Shi’a Muslims, the first part of the month of Muharram is also an occasion which is marked with a sense of sorrow and solemnity. The 10th of Muharram was the day when Hazrat Imam Husayn (AS) together with most of the members of his family and close companions were martyred on the fields of Karbala.

Miladun-Nabi  – The Birth Anniversary of Prophet Muhammad (SAWS)

The birthday anniversary (miladun-nabi) of the Prophet is traditionally celebrated on 12th Rabi ‘ul-Awwal. The festivities on this auspicious occasion differ greatly from one country to another. The occasion is marked by readings from the Holy Qur’an, devotional songs and praises in favour of the Prophetand many other festivities. In some countries, the birthday anniversary is marked by a public holiday, as in Pakistan.

Yaum e-Ali – The Birth Anniversary of Hazrat Imam Ali (AS)

The birthday anniversary of Hazrat Imam Ali (AS) is commemorated on the 13th Rajab. This festival is celebrated by the Shi’te communities and is observed as an occasion to reflect upon the life and teachings of their first Imam. According to the Shi’a doctrine and tradition, Hazrat Ali  was the foundation (asas) of the institution of Imamah. His designation (nass) by the Prophet upon the Command of Allah (al-amr), to guide the believers after the termination of the institution of Nabuwah is central to the Shi’a theology. The Imam’s function is to continue the teaching (ta’lim) and interpretation (ta’wil) of Allah’s Final Message after the demise of the Prophet.

Today, the Shi’a Ismaili Muslims, in addition to the celebration of Yaum e-Ali, commemorate the birthday anniversary (Salgirah) of their present living Imam (Mawlana Hazar Imam) who is the direct lineal descendent of Prophet Muhammad (SAWS) through Hazart Ali (AS) and Bibi Fatima (AS).

Mi’raj-e-Rasul – The Night Journey of the Prophet Muhammad (SAWS)

The night journey (al-isra) and the ascension (al-mi’raj) of the Prophet is observed on the 27th Rajab. This is an event of great spiritual significance because the exalted spiritual experience of Prophet Muhammad is viewed by all Muslims as an example of his elevated status. Significant events of this nature in the life of the Prophet are a source of inspiration for the believers to excel in their quest for spiritual enlightenment and also serve as a model for the believers to emulate. The attainment of this exalted status is possible for every believer who through the correct practice of his Faith and tulfilment of his duties, both in physical and spiritual matters, does so in view of proper guidance of Allah through His Prophet and designated successors (i.e. Imams).

Ramadan – The Month of Fasting

The entire ninth month of the Muslim Calendar is associated with the observance of fast (saum). Fasting involves total abstinence from food, drink and conjugal relations from dawn to sunset. A believer is expected to stay away from unethical activities during the observance of the fast. Moreover, he is required to glorify Allah by indulging in prayers, contemplation and meditation. The main purpose for abstention from the activities referred to above, is to bring about internal purificationof his soul so that the individual is in a position to receive blessings (barakah) of this holy month. The fast begins at dawn with a meal (sahiri) and is terminated at sunset by partaking a sweet meal or drink before offering the evening prayer (maghrib salat). Those who are sick, travellers, expectant mothers and very young children are exempt from fasting. However, adults are required to compensate the lost days by fasting at other times in the year, as indicated in the following:

“The month of Ramadan [is that] in which was sent down the Qur’an, a Guidance for mankind and Clear Evidence of guidance and discrimination (for the Right and Wrong); so whosoever of you witness the month, he shall fast therein; and whosoever is ill or on a journey (he shall fast) the same number of other days; God desires ease for you and He desires not for you hardship that you shall complete the (prescribed) number (of days) and that you may glorify God for His guiding you and that you may be thankful (to Him).” — Holy Qur’an, 2:185

As it is clear from the above ayah of the Holy Qur’an, Ramadan is associated with very significant events in the history of Islam, i.e. the start of the revelation of the Holy Qur’an and the appointment of Muhammad as the prophet of Allah. Both these events took place during the month of Ramadan and are observed by Muslims with a sense of great humility and thankfulness to Allah for having bestowed upon mankind a source of guidance by which man could achieve salvation. The night on which the first revelation of the Holy Qur’an was conveyed to the Prophet  is commemorated as the Night of Power or Majesty or Destiny (Lailat al-Qadr). This night is observed as an occasion for seeking forgiveness and offering of special prayers.

The observance of Ramadan varies from one place to another but the objective is the same throughout i.e. the fulfilment of Allah’s Commands of discipline, piety and collective worship leading to the purification of the body and soul through these sanctimonious acts.

Id ul-Fitr – Festival of Fast Breaking

The fast of Ramadan ends with the Festival of Breaking Fast, ‘Id ul-Fir, on the first day of the following month of Shawwal. The festival is also known as Bairam or ‘Id Ramadan. It is an occasion for celebration and rejoicing for Allah’s Bounty upon mankind for His revelation of the Qur’an. It is also a time for individuals to express their gratitude to Allah for having given them the strength, courage and resilience to complete the fast, and thus fulfilling the duty enjoined upon them by Allah.

The Festival begins with a festive prayer (Salatul-Fitr) with all the believers congregating at their respective mosques. It is also an occasion for socialising and meeting with other Muslims and for fostering a sense of brotherhood and unity amongst the community (ummah). After the communal prayer, families gather together at home with relatives and friends and participate in exchanging gifts and partaking a meal.

Hajj – The Annual Pilgrimage

Pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca is undertaken once in a lifetime by those Muslims who can physically and financially perform this act. Hajj is normally undertaken in the month of Dhul-Hijjah; other pilgrimages (known as ‘umrah) can be made at any other times in the year.

The annual pilgrimage to the city of Mecca consists of a series of rites and ceremonies in and around the city; the central point of activities is the holy shrine of Ka’ba. All the rites and ceremonies are performed in the physical and spiritual state of ihram which involves consecrating oneself to Allah. As with all religious activities, the purity of intention (niyyah) is paramount. The whole purpose of performing the pilgrimage is to sacrifice and leave behind the worldly activities and make an ardent effort to seek spiritual enlightenment. In the physical sense, the pilgrims make their way to Ka’ba to be in the presence of the House of Allah. Spiritually, this journey is made internally to seek inner peace and satisfaction. This is done by the pilgrim in solemn practice of dhikr (remembrance) of Allah and through acts such as sincere supplications and seeking of forgiveness (tawba) from the Almighty. In this manner, the essence of the pilgrimage is achieved and the pilgrim through these devotional acts aspires to rise to a station of spiritual perfection.

The pilgrimage rites and ceremonies end with the celebration of the Festival of Sacrifice (Id al-Adha).

‘Id al-Adha – Festival of Sacrifice

This is the Festival of sacrifice and is observed at the time of the culmination of the annual pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca. The festival, also known as ‘Id al-Adha or ‘Id al-Kabir (the Great Festival), is held on the 10th day of the twelfth month of ‘DhuI-Hijjah.

Although all Muslims do not make the pilgrimage to Mecca every year, the festival is traditionally celebrated at the same time by all wherever they are residing. The festival is marked in Muslim countries by offering and sacrifice of animals (such as cattle, sheep or camels) in an act of remembrance of the willingness of Hazrat Ibrahim (AS) to sacrifice his son, Hazrat Ismail (AS) in the way of Allah. This sacrifice is symbolic of total obedience and submission to the Will of Allah (Islam) and readiness to give up one’s desires, attachments and worldly possessions for Allah’s sake, if required to do so.

‘Id al-Adha is the occasion when a believer is reminded of the commitment to offer sacrifice in the way of Allah. The offer of sacrifice in whatever manner possible, is a duty bound upon every Muslim. The concept ot sacrifice permeates throughout all the aspects of individual’s life. Every act of sacrifice whether it be tangible (includes such things as giving up time, resources and worldly possessions) or intangible (such as giving up ties of love and affection, likes and dislikes, views and opinions, and personal ego) is a demonstration of strengthening of one’s ties with Allah and consolidation of one’s belief (Iman) in the Almighty to which the individual surrenders everything. The act ot sacrifice, whether it is carried out in a physical manner with mental conviction, is a way of transforming into reality the principle of sacrifice. This is the essence of Islam.

Although the acquisition of wealth (money and worldly possessions) is not despised , the way in which it is used is indicative of the individual’s understanding of the requirements of the practice of the Faith. Spending of resources for the welfare of the less fortunate in the community is viewed upon as an activity which demonstrates visibly the ethical practice of the Faith with a social conscience.

Time is the most precious commodity because nothing one seeks or desires in life can be obtained except by spending time. To spend one’s time in the pursuit of religious duties, spending time to help the needy and carrying out welfare activities in the community as well spending time towards imparting both religious and worldly knowledge are amongst other ways to demonstrate the reality of the concept of sacrifice.

Intangible sacrifices, because they are rooted in the heart and mind, are not as such visible. For example, one’s views and opinions may often be thought of one and the only way of being right. However, the humility to accept another point of view and act accordingly is such as a sacrifice of one’s pride or ego. Self-esteem sometimes lies at the root of many personal situations.

To give up a point of view, unless it is not a matter which may violate Allah’s injunction, is an act of high sacrifice.

‘Id-e-Ghadir – The Designation of Hazrat Ali (AS) as Commander of the Faithful

‘Id-e-Ghadir is celebrated by the Shi ‘ite communities to mark the event that took place at Ghadir Khumm (Valley of the Pond) on the 18th Dhul-Hijjah. This event commemorates the designation (appointment by way of nass) of Hazrat All as the ‘Amir-ul-Mu’minin (commander of the faithful) and Imamul-Muslimin’ (the Imam of the community of believers) at Ghadir-i Khumm when the Prophet (SAWS) was returning from his Last Pilgrimage (hajjatul-wida) in the year 632 AC. On this occasion, the Prophet publicly proclaimed Ali to be his successor [1] in guiding the community after the end of the institution of Nubuwwah. According to the Shi’a doctrine, tradition and interpretation of history, the designation of Hazrat Ali marked the beginning of the institution of Imamah. The designated Imam was to continue the ta’wil (interpretation) and talim (teaching) of Allah’s Final Message, i.e. the Holy Qur’an.

Accordingly, throughout the course of the history, the Shi’a have commemorated this occasion as a mark of recognition and acceptance of Allah’s mercy to mankind by bestowing continued guidance. Each Imam, since the time of Hazrat Ali has designated his successor. The Imam in his time has continued to guide his followers according to the prevailing conditions. His function has always been to look after the welfare of the community both in spiritual and worldly (material) matters. His guidance to his followers is that they should lead their lives in such a way so as to practice their Faith with a sense of balance and harmony, ensuring that there is no conflict between the two aspects of an individual’s life. The practice of the Faith thus becomes the way of life.

Presently, the Shi’a Imami Ismaili Muslims celebrate the day of accession of their present Imam to the office of Imamah as Yaum-e Imamat or Imamat Day. This occasion is celebrated as a mark of gratitude to Allah in having bestowed His mercy and bounty in guiding them through the office of the Imam on Sirat al-Mustaqim (the Straight Path).

Date article posted: Saturday, August 27, 2011



[1] Vagglieri, Ghadir Khumm, The Encyclopedia of Islam, Vol II, E.J. Brill, 1965, pp. 993-994

Article adapted from Ilm, Volume 12, Number 2, December 1989


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4 thoughts on “A Brief Introduction to the Muslim Calendar and Major Muslim Festivals and Religious Observances

  1. A most useful knowledge of our Islamic months, its significance and meaning. Everybody should read and add to his/her knowledge of Islam.

  2. Once again a very interesting article full of knowledge from Simerg.

    It is hoped that other specific Ismaili festivals such as Shukrawari Beej observed by many Ismailis will also be covered in due course. Another observation I wish to make concerns Yaum-e Imamat and whether it dates from the time of the declaration of the Qiyama as mentioned in the history of Syrian Ismailis. If that is accurate, then this is something the Jamat should be informed about as the source of an important observance by the Ismailis.

  3. Thank you very much for this valuable article. I am a teacher with York Region District School Board that respect, honour, facilitate and celebrate multi-culturalism and diversity. We get three annual religious holidays. This article will give a clear synapses of our lunar based calender.

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