The Millenium Bug

By Khalid Baig

"It is He who made the sun to be a shining glory and the moon to be a light of beauty and measured out stages for it that you might know the number of years and the count of time." [Yunus 10:5]

Celebrations! Celebrations! Celebrations! A new year. A new century. A new millenium. Soon Muslims will be celebrating Eid 2000, the first of three Eids that will fall in that year. While there are plenty of ways for celebrating by those who are "religiously challenged," they have not forgotten their religiously inclined brethren either. One can already see travel agencies advertising packages for Hajj 2000.

Of course, all this is nonsense at several levels. First the year 2000 is not the beginning of a new century or a new millenium in any calendar system. A century consists of a hundred years and a millenium consists of a thousand years. Unless they started counting years with zero (a number that Romans were not even familiar with and had no way of representing in their primitive numbering system) the first century consisted of the years 1-100, the first millenium consisted of the years 1-1000. The second millenium consists of the years 1001-2000 and the third millenium will consist of the years 2001-3000. Similarly, the 21st century will run from 2001-2100. (Of course, this "minor mathematical inconvenience" will not deter any dedicated partyer. They celebrated the beginning of the 20th century at the end of 1899 and again at the end of 1900. They will do the same thing again. So wait for another big celebration for the new century and the new millenium at the end of December 2000. Pagan souls just love celebrations.)

Second, the Gregorian calendar is a Christian calendar, decreed by Pope Gregory XIII in a papal bull on 24 February 1582. Its predecessor, the Julian calendar was introduced by Julius Caesar in what would later be called the year 45 BCE. The Julian calendar was also a Christian calendar and some Orthodox churches use it to this day. Simple arithmetic will show that Hajj 2000 is 580 years away.

Third, the idea of festivities or celebrations for the new year/century/millenium, is foreign to Islam. It asks us to keep track of the passage of time and maintain the Hijrah calendar, but it does not ordain or permit any celebrations related to the beginning of a new year even in the Hijrah calendar, let alone in a Christian calendar. Moreover, the form these festivities take comes straight from pagan ideas. The lights, fireworks, and all other festivities are considered by pagans to ward off evil spirits! Islam declares paganism as the greatest sin and would not permit its followers to have even the remotest connection to its symbols and practices.

Fourth, the idea that the new millenium can bring disaster and Armageddon, is also a Jewish/Christian idea. It is absurd for any person to give any weight to these ideas while calling himself a Muslim.

Yet we are living in an age of media and globalization. And what would easily be recognized as ridiculous under normal times is increasingly becoming commonplace. And more. We are also witnessing a transition from the secular/pagan festivities of the New Year to the Christian/pagan festivities of Christmas. In countries like Pakistan and Turkey, for example, Christmas trees and Christmas decorations are showing up on store shelves. Even Christmas music and icons like Santa Claus are becoming familiar. And the preoccupation with the Christian millenium seems overwhelming.

For thirteen centuries the Hijrah calendar ruled the Muslim world. As Muslim countries lost political control over their own lands, they lost their calendar as well. In Turkey, the seat of the Khilafah, Gregorian calendar was introduced on 1 January 1927, soon after the Khilafah was disbanded. Today only Saudi Arabia uses the Hijrah calendar as its official calendar. The great majority of Muslims in the world today have been living under the Gregorian calendar all their lives. Consequently, there is a common misconception that the latter is simpler, more exact, or more scientific.

These myths need to be dispelled. A primer on calendar systems devotes 20 pages to describing the Christian calendar, while only two pages for the Hijrah calendar. There is no prejudice here. Each system has been devoted the space needed based on its complexity. A description of the calculation for Easter alone takes several pages. Contrast this with the Hijrah calendar: There are twelve months in a year and each month starts with the observation of the new moon. No leap years. No complicated adjustments. No complex algorithms.

The problems of the Gregorian calendar stem from the fact that a tropical year (The time from one solstice or equinox to another) is not an exact multiple of the number of days. (Currently it is 365.242190 days. A century later it is expected to be 365.242184 days). The Julian calendar provided one leap year every four years to accommodate the fractional part. But that turned out to be one leap year too many every 128 years. The Gregorian calendar then introduced the 400 year rule so among the whole centuries only those divisible by 400 would be considered leap years. Even that does not provide an exact solution for the mathematical problem.

What about the month lengths? Is there any cosmic reason that dictated that February would be 28 days long while both July and August would be 31? Actually emperor Augustus decided to honor himself and Julius Caesar by providing 31 days each for the months named after them He borrowed the two days from February. Very scientific!

The simplicity and beauty of the Islamic calendar is not a coincidence. This calendar was commanded by the Creator of the Universe. "The number of months in the sight of Allah is twelve in a year so ordained by Him the day He created the heavens and the earth." [At-Taubah 9:36] "They ask you concerning the new moons. Say they are but signs to mark fixed periods of time in the affairs of men. And for Pilgrimage." [Al-Baqarah 2:189]. This decrees a pure lunar calendar. Since the lunar year is shorter than the tropical year, the lunar calendar travels all through the seasons, making a complete cycle in about 33 years. This provides for all religious observances including fasting and Hajj to occur in all seasons during a person's life.

Today we can see other advantages as well. Our ways of keeping track of time (and that is what a calendar is all about) do affect our ways of thinking and feeling about it. If Muslim countries were using the Hijrah calendar in daily life, then the Christian New Year would have as much resonance there as does the Chinese New Year. Even independence day celebrations would be drastically different in Pakistan, the country carved out in the name of Islam, if it marked 27 Ramadan instead of 14 August as its official independence day. That date alone shows that it has not achieved true independence. Neither has most of the Muslim world. Isn't it about time?