What Is The Islamic New Year? Muslim World Gears Up For Al-Hijra Holiday Amid Security Fears

On September 1, Muslims across the world looked to the moon and celebrated the beginning of Eid al-Adha—the feast of sacrifice. Just several weeks later, the Islamic world will mark another holy event with another sighting of the moon, the Islamic New Year. It marks the beginning of Muharram, the first month of the Muslim lunar calendar.

On the night of Thursday September 29, the holy calendar will bring Muslims into a new calendar year, but the event is less-celebrated and less well-known than Eid al-Adha and the earlier festival Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan and when Muslims give thanks to Allah after four weeks of fasting. 

So what is the Islamic New Year and what, if any, significance does it hold for Muslims around the world?

The first day of the Islamic New Year and the month of Muharram is known as Al-Hijra, which will end on September 22. This day represents the journey of the Prophet Muhammed from two of the holiest sites in Islam, from Mecca to Medina, in 624CE. Hijra itself means “migration” in Arabic.

09_20_Ashura_New_Year An Iraqi Shiite man shouts slogans as he takes part in the Ashura religious ritual during which participants cut their scalps with machetes on October 24, 2015 in the holy city of Najaf. The Ashura rituals commemorate the killing of Imam Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Mohammed, by armies of the Sunni caliph Yazid in 680. Haidar Hamdani/AFP/Getty

Muharram itself is one of the four sacred months of the Islamic lunar calendar, of which there are 12 in total, and the second most important after Ramadan. The month moves from year-to-year as it does not follow the Gregorian calendar but moon phases. 

As in the western new year, Muslims often make resolutions on Al-Hijra, but the Islamic New Year and the wider sacred month are worshipped differently in the two predominant strands of Islam: Shiite and Sunni. 

For Shiites, he fact that the day coincides with the anniversary of the Battle of Karbala, which took place in the southern Iraqi city in 680, is significant. Shiites argue that only relatives of the Prophet Muhammad should succeed as caliph, which sparked the split between Shiite and Sunni after the Muhammed's death. 

Mohammed's first cousin, Ali, was murdered in 661 and at Karbala, his grandson Hussein Ibn Ali was killed by an army sent by Sunni caliph Yazid I. His defeat marked the ascendance of Sunni Islam over the Shiites, a discourse that is very much present in modern politics today, with Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran battling for influence in the Muslim world. 

09_20_Ashura_Lebanon Members of Muslim Shiite Mehdi scout movement take part in a march organised by Lebanon's Hezbollah for the commemoration of Ashura in a southern Beirut suburb on October 12, 2016. Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty

Shiites now mourn Hussain’s death for the first ten days of Muharram and take part in reenactments of the battle. Of particular significance is the tenth day of the month, known as Ashura, the day that Hussein was killed. 

Shiite Muslims fast and pray in the build-up to Ashura on what will be the Year 1438 AH, which stands for the year of “Hijra.” Millions of Shiite pilgrims travel to their holiest sites for the commemoration, located in both Iran and Iraq, particularly Karbala, which is situated 100 kilometers south of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.

They mourn, beat their chests in what is called Latyma, and self-flaggelate, cutting incisions into their heads with machetes.

Sunni Muslims, instead of mourning, fast on the day of Ashura to celebrate the victory of Moses over an Egyptian pharaoh on the 10th day of the sacred month.

09_20_Ashura_Iran_2 Iranian Shiite Muslims burn a tent during a ritual at Tehran's Grand Bazaar on November 25, 2012, as they take part in Ashura commemorations marking the 7th century killing of Imam Hussein, grandson of Islam's Prophet Mohammed, in the battle of Karbala. AFP/Getty

But in recent years, Sunni Islamist extremists have carried out several attacks, including suicide bombs on mosques and truck bombs on pilgrims taking part in the holiday.

Last year, the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) claimed a mass shooting that killed at least 18 worshippers at a shrine in the Afghan capital, Kabul, and fears of further attacks by the jihadist group against worshippers during the holiday remain

The attacks have led to heavy security where pilgrims or Shiite Muslims celebrate, from Pakistan to Turkey, Afghanistan and Lebanon. 

This year, in addition to Iraqi, Iranian and Lebanese authorities beefing up their security, Indian and Pakistani police have said they will deploy extra police onto the streets to prevent any militant attacks against Shiite minorities in the cities of Meerut and Islamabad where dozens of Shiite processions are anticipated.

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