How to understand the Islamic new year, the crescent moon and Muslim seasonality
In the Islamic calendar, today is the 1st of Muharram, of the year 1434 After Hijrah. It’s the first day of the Islamic year, and so we’re taking a look at how the calendar works, how and why it’s different from the Gregorian calendar, and what seasonality to look out for.
The power of the moon
The Islamic calendar is based on the lunar cycle, which means that each month is either 29 or 30 days (but never 28 or 31). Compared to the Western Gregorian calendar that makes it shorter by 10 or 11 days each year. The result is that every year the Islamic calendar ‘moves back’ compared to the Western year. For example, while the Islamic year begins today 15th November 2012, next year it will most likely begin around the 5th of November.
I say ‘around’, because that brings us to one of the most salient features of the Islamic calendar: the lack of specificity of exact dates, because they are dependent on when the new moon appears in the sky.
According to Islamic tradition, a new month or a new year can only be announced when the new crescent moon appears in the night sky and is seen by two reliable witnesses.
This means that it some countries the moon may be seen and the new month begins before other locations. That’s why you might read about Eid being celebrated on different days in different places.
Marketers need to know that this lack of agreement on dates is a point of contention across the Muslim world and being cautious to avoid declaring the exact dates of events like Eid, as this is the role of scholars, religious bodies and governments. However, Muslims themselves are often frustrated – even joke about it through gritted teeth – by the lack of agreement. But in a global world connected night and day across geographic boundaries, there seems to be little to do other than embrace the uncertainty and variation.
One of the major effects of the lunar calendar is that the major events of the Islamic year move backwards by 10 or 11 days each year, which mean that when they happen in the seasons changes. For example, the month of fasting moves throughout the year which means that at times it will be in winter, with shorter fasts, and at other times it will be in the summer with longer fasts. This is important to note when it comes to the seasonality which affects Muslim consumers.
A new starting point
The Islamic calendar begins in 622 Anno Domini, when the Prophet Muhammad fled from Makkah as a result of being persecuted for preaching the new religion of Islam. He had received an invitation from a town then known as Yathrib for amnesty and to expand his preaching of Islam. When he set off on this journey, which is known as ‘hijrah’, the official Islamic calendar begins, and hence Islamic dates are referenced as ‘after hijrah’ or A.H. Yathrib is now known as ‘Medina’ which means ‘city’ referring to it as the city of the Prophet. The Islamic year that has just started is 1434 A.H.
The ebb and flow of the Muslim year
Like all calendars the Muslim year is affected by seasonality. Ramadan is perhaps the most pronounced, when there is a heightened sense of Muslim identity. Food consumption patterns change, more shopping and stocking up takes place in advance. Governments often have to step in to clamp down on price inflation. As people become more active in the evenings internet usage patterns change to reflect the times for breaking fast, and late night eating called suhoor. And as Eid ul Fitr takes place there is shopping in advance, but also other seasonal changes we’ve discussed in detail here like increased holiday-taking, countries being on national holidays for several days or an aspiration to get fit after the holy month. We ask, after Ramadan has passed, what now for brands? Similarly, the hajj pilgrimage is a marker of Muslim travel, but also affects savings, and spending. And on a smaller cycle, Fridays are the start of the weekend in Muslim countries, marked by family time, eating out but also rituals such as prayer, beautification and perfuming. One study even looked that the effect of the Islamic calendar on twelve stock markets.
Should I wish my Muslim colleagues happy new year?
Whilst it may be surprising to many, there is no celebration to mark the Islamic year, although some Muslim countries do have an official holiday. It is generally an unremarked event. So whilst you may feel enlightened to know that a new cycle has begun in the Muslim world, and that the first month of the calendar is called ‘Muharram’, there’s no pressing need to offer congratulations. If anything, the passing of time is something that is often sobering for Muslims as a time to reflect on what has already gone, and how they should seize the opportunities for the future.