The Islamic Hijrah calendar follows the phases of the moon.
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“Hari Raya lasts for an entire month,” is a phrase often thrown around a lot here in Malaysia, describing how the day of celebration for Aidilfitri can last for the whole month of Syawal.
But did you know that according to Islam, the length of time that passes in a single ‘month’ can either be shorter of longer depending on where we are?
This is all thanks to our closest astronomical neighbour, the moon!
Follow the moon
Generally speaking, one month is equal to the time it takes for the moon to orbit around our planet Earth. This journey will take it roughly 27 days to complete. During which, the moon will go through all of its eight different phases as it passes through the night sky.
Now it takes around 29 and a half days for the moon to completely cycle through all of its phases.
This corresponds to the length of almost a calendar month according to our modern ‘solar’ based Gregorian calendar.
The Islamic calendar or Hijrah calendar is synchronized exactly according to the phases of the moon.
The beginning of each Islamic calendar month will start with each new ‘waxing crescent moon’ or the first time the moon would be visible in the sky. In Islam, this is called the Hilal and it can only be seen after the ‘new moon’ phase.
The crescent moon is also known locally here in Malaysia as the ‘anak bulan’.
Now in most cultures that use a lunar-based calendar, the appearance of the new moon usually marks the beginning of a new lunar cycle or simply the start of a new month.
Because of this difference, the new moon will always fall towards the end of the month on or on the 27th, 28th and 29th day of the Islamic calendar.
As it takes around 29 and a half days for the moon to go through all of its phases, the Islamic calendar simply relies on the moon to determine if that particular month needs to be 29 days long or 30 days long – to make up for the half days that it took for the new crescent moon to appear.
How it works?
On the 29th of each Islamic calendar month, Muslims will look to see if the crescent moon is visible in the sky after sunset.
If they can see the moon, then the new month will begin tomorrow and that month only lasts 29 days.
If the crescent moon can’t be seen in the sky, then it means that the month that they’re in now will extend to 30 full days.
Sighting of the moon
Every year, Islamic religious authorities – along with a few amateur astronomers – would traditionally participate in the annual moon sighting or ‘rukyah’ events hosted across the country to determine when the following Islamic calendar month will begin.
Because the moon will appear in a different position in the sky depending on where we are, this is done to more accurately determine the dates of big celebrations we have here in Malaysia like the first day of the month of Ramadan and of course Hari Raya Aidilfitri.
And each year, the Keeper of the Rulers’ Seal will take into account these sightings with calculations also known as the ‘hisab‘ to announce the official date of Hari Raya celebrations.
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