Islamic Holy Days Define What's Important for Muslims

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Holy Days, Holidays, and Religious Beliefs

A religion's holidays, or holy days, tell us a lot about what adherents value most. Religions don't establish holidays to celebrate or commemorate minor, tangential, or irrelevant events; a day is holy because it marks something that must be set aside for special reverence by all believers. Islam is thus defined in part by what Muslims consider holy; understanding Islam means understanding how and why it sets certain objects, days, or times aside as holy.

Criticism of Islam thus depends on understanding what is holy in Islam and can often be directed specifically at Islam's conception of holiness.

Islam’s Lunar Calendar

The Muslim calendar is lunar-based, with 12 months of 29 or 30 days and a year of 354 days. A lunar year is shorter than a solar year, so Muslim holy days cycle backwards through the Western calendar. The Islamic lunar calendar differs from the moon’s actual cycle by one day every 2,570 years, so it is only a little less accurate than the solar calendar. The Arabic names are:

  1. Muharram
  2. Safar
  3. Rabiulawal (or Rabi I)
  4. Rabiulakhir (or Rabi II)
  5. Jamadilawal (or Jumada I)
  6. Jamadilakhir (or Jumada II)
  7. Rajab
  8. Shaban
  9. Ramadan
  10. Shawwal
  11. Zul-Kadah
  12. Zul-Hijjah

Al-Hijra (Rabi Al-Awwal)

Al-Hijra, the 1st of Muharram, marks the beginning of the Muslim New Year. Al-Hijra was chosen as the beginning of the year because it is is also the anniversary of Muhammad’s hijra to Medina, an important event theologically because once in Medina, Muhammad was able to establish control over a civil and political community which would become the foundation for the spread of Islam across the Middle East.

Commemoration of Muhammad's control over Medina helps reinforce the importance for Muslims of Islam's unification with civil and political authority, i.e. that mosque and state should not be separate.


‘Ashura, the 10th of Muharram, is the anniversary of the death of Muhammad’s grandson Husain.

Sunnis don’t recognize Husain’s claim as Muhammad' successor, so mostly Shi’ites celebrate it. Muslims also believe that on ‘Ashura Noah’s ark came to rest, Abraham was born, and the Kaaba was built. Placing these events on the same day helps connect Islam with Judaism. Shi’ite celebrations include fasting, passion plays of his martyrdom, some mourners beat their chests in grief, and replicas of his tomb are profusely decorated. This emphasis on his martyrdom may encourage belief in the value of martyrdom today.

Mawlid al-Nabi

Mawlid al-Nabim, the 12th of Rabiulawal, commemorates Muhammad’s birth in 570. Mawlid al-Nabi was first celebrated in the 13th century with a month-long festival, but today the focus is on the date itself with sermons, gift giving, and a feast. Conservative sects like the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia condemn such a celebration as idolatrous, but most nations have many celebrations. Aside from revealing the differences within Islam, Mawlid al-Nabi signifies just how important Muhammad is in Islam — and thus why criticisms of Muhammad as a person are relevant as criticisms of Islam as a religion.

Laylat Al-Isra wa Al-Miraj (Isra wa Al-Miraj)

Literally “the night journey and ascension,” the 27th of Rajab is when Muslims believe Muhammad traveled from Mecca to Jerusalem, ascended to heaven (from a rock in the Dome of the Rock), and returned to Mecca in one night.

On this night Muhammad established Islam’s five daily prayers and prayed with Abraham, Moses, and Jesus in Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque, showing that Muslims, Christians, and Jews follow one god. Making this night holy reinforces the belief that the Dome of the Rock is holy, encouraging conflict between Jews and Muslims over the site, while also promoting belief that Islam directly follows Judaism.

Ramadan (Ramadhan, Ramazan)

Ramadan, the 9th month of the Muslim year, is celebrated from beginning to end as holy; many regard it as the holiest time of the Muslim year. Muslims are expected to fast all day, every day. Traditionally the times of fast are marked as whenever a white thread can be distinguished from a black thread. Once they can no longer be told apart, eating is permitted. Other prohibitions during Ramadan include bans on sexual intercourse and irreligious sights.

This is all designed to promote ritual purity, but the obsession with purity has been an important factor in many violent movements through history.

Eid Al- Adhha

This “feast of sacrifice,” celebrated from the 10th through the 13th of Zul-Hijjah, marks the anniversary of Abraham’s attempt to sacrifice his son Ishmael on God’s orders (Jews and Christians believe it was Isaac). At this time Muslims make a Haj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. Celebrations begin with an animal sacrifice to commemorate the angel Gabriel giving Abraham a lamb as a substitute. Some Muslims see Abraham as the first Muslim because he was willing to submit to God even to the point of killing his son. Celebrating an attempted human sacrifice demonstrates the problems in an ideology of absolute submission.

Yom Arafat

Yom Arafat, the 9th of Dhu Al-Hijja, occurs just before the celebration of Eid Al-Adhha. People on the Haj assemble for the “standing” on the plain of Arafat, located near Mecca. Muslims elsewhere in the world gather at a local mosque for prayer and solidarity on Yom Arafat. Thus even Muslims who cannot make the Haj that year are participating in celebrations over a man's willingness to kill his son because he believed a god instructed him to. This is consistent with the belief that one has an absolute obligation to submit to whatever God wants, but it's inconsistent with basic ethical principles.

Laylat Al-Baraa

Laylat Al-Baraa, or “night of repentance,” commemorates the night when all who repent are granted forgiveness. Muslims believe that on this night, God sets each person’s path for the coming year, i.e. that they are pre-destined by God to some particular fate that is outside their control. Muslims ask God for forgiveness for past sins and blessings in the coming year, but this belief that God determines what will happen and what they will do is inconsistent with most principles of justice or ethics. How can one be held legally or morally responsible for their acts that are pre-determined by God?