Friday Sermon: New Year


By Babatunde Jose

The New Year was celebrated all over the world, not as a religious ceremony but with jollification and much fanfare, such as we witnessed on CNN and other media that brought to our living rooms the ushering of the New Year in cities all over the world according to their time-zones. If these were all, it would have been a non-issue. But we noticed that some of our Muslim clerics, fundamentalists, Hadith-thumpers and bigots have come out strong against the marking of the Gregorian calendar new year on the self-righteous claims that it is ‘pagan’ in origin; heaping curses on Muslims who partook in the celebration and labelling them as apostates and candidates of hell fire: Haba!

The most pungent condemnation came from Imam Murtadha Muhammad Gusau, from Okene Kogi State, Nigeria. An erudite Islamic scholar, whose articles in the vanguard newspaper is usually interesting and educative; came on smoking on why he believed Muslims should not celebrate the New Year. Quoting copiously from the Quran and hadîths; Quran 5:3, 3:19, 98:6, 25:72; howbeit, some out of context and some a stretch too far from the words of God, he condemned participants to hell fire. Yet, in no Sura of the 114 Books of the Quran is celebration of New Year mentioned! All the hadîths quoted were a compendium of antagonism against other faiths, which in the Quran are regarded as ‘sister faiths’, that is, ‘People of the Books’.   He now added the clincher:

“And whoever desires other than Islam as religion — never will it be accepted from him, and he, in the Hereafter, will be among the losers.” (Quran, 3:85)

Unfortunately, the celebration of a festival such as New Year does not make a man an apostate. Though New Year has non Islamic, non Christian origins, it has undergone a metamorphosis that it is now a widely celebrated occasion to mark the new calendar Year, and as we shall soon see, the date for its celebration varies from culture to culture; but the bottom line is that it marks the beginning of a new calendar year. The whole hiatus over the New Year celebration therefore smacks of hypocrisy, religious intolerance and spiritual rascality. Most of these noise makers are mischievous; to the extent that we live in a clime where all our daily lives are regulated by the Gregorian Calendar: From the date in our birth certificates to that on our death certificates. The origins of the days of the week are also non-Islamic.

New Year’s Day, is observed on January 1, the first day of the year on the modern Gregorian calendar, as well as the Julian calendar.

In pre-Christian Rome under the Julian calendar, the day was dedicated to Janus, god of gateways and beginnings, for whom January is also named. In present day, with most countries now using the Gregorian calendar as their de facto calendar, New Year’s Day is probably the most celebrated public holiday. Other global New Year’s Day traditions include making New Year’s resolutions and calling one’s friends and family.

Mesopotamia (Iraq) instituted the concept of celebrating the New Year in 2000 BC, around the time of the vernal equinox, in mid-March. The early Roman calendar designated March 1 as the New Year. The calendar had just ten months, beginning with March. That the New Year once began with the month of March is still reflected in some of the names of the months; September through December, our ninth through twelfth months, were originally positioned as the seventh through tenth months. (Septem is Latin for “seven”; octo, “eight”; novem, “nine”; and decem, “ten”.) Roman legend usually credited their second king Numa with the establishment of the months of January and February. These were first placed at the end of the year, but at some point came to be considered the first two months instead.

The January Kalends (Latin: Kalendae Ianuariae) came to be celebrated as the new year at some point after it became the day for  inaugurating new consuls in 153 BC. Incidentally, in AD 567, the Council of Tours formally abolished January 1 as the beginning of the year. At various times and in various places throughout medieval Christian Europe, the new year was celebrated on December 25 in honor of the birth of Jesus; March 1 in the old Roman style; March 25 in honor of Lady Day and the Feast of the Annunciation; and on the movable feast of Easter. These days were also astronomically and astrologically significant since, at the time of the Julian reform, March 25 had been understood as the spring equinox and December 25 as the winter solstice. (The Julian calendar’s small disagreement with the solar year, however, shifted these days earlier before the Council of Nicaea which formed the basis of the calculations used during the Gregorian reform of the calendar.) Medieval calendars nonetheless often continued to display the months running from January to December, despite their readers reckoning the transition from one year to the next on a different day.

Because of the leap year error in the Julian calendar, the date of Easter had drifted backward since the First Council of Nicaea decided the computation of the date of Easter in 325. By the sixteenth century, the drift from the observed equinox had become unacceptable. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII declared the Gregorian calendar widely used today, correcting the error by a deletion of 10 days. The Gregorian calendar reform also (in effect) restored January 1 as New Year’s Day.

Most nations of Western Europe officially adopted 1 January as New Year’s Day. Until the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar in 1752, the first day of the new year was the Western Christian Feast of the Annunciation, on 25 March., also called “Lady Day”.

Some countries concurrently use the Gregorian and another calendar; New Year’s Day in the alternative calendar attracts alternative celebrations of that New Year:

African, Egypt and Ethiopia: Nayrouz and Enkutatash are the New Year’s Days of the Coptic Egyptians and the Ethiopians, respectively; both occur on September 11 in most years and on September 12 in the years before Gregorian leap years. They preserve the legacy of the ancient Egyptian new year, Wepet Renpet, which originally marked the onset of the Nile flood but which wandered through the seasons until the introduction of leap years to the traditional calendar by Augustus in the 20s BC. In Ethiopia, the new year is held to mark the end of the summer rainy season.

Philadelphia: The Odunde Festival also called the “African New Year” is celebrated in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the United States on the second Sunday of June. While the name was based on the Yoruba African culture, its celebration marks the largest African celebration in the world, which more or less was started by a local tradition.

East Asia, China, Vietnam, South Korea: Chinese New Year is celebrated in many countries around the world. It is the first day of the lunar calendar and is corrected for the solar every three years. The holiday normally falls between January 20 and February 20.

Vietnamese New Year (Tết Nguyên Đán or Tết), is the most important and popular holiday and festival in Vietnam, the holiday normally falls between 20 January and 20 February. It marks the arrival of spring based on the Chinese calendar, a lunisolar calendar.

Japan: Japanese New Year is celebrated on January 1 because the Gregorian calendar is now used instead of the Chinese calendar.

Korean New Year, called Seollal (설날), is the first day of the lunar calendar. Koreans also celebrate solar New Year’s Day on January 1 each year, following the Gregorian Calendar. New Year’s Day is a national holiday, so people get the day off while they have a minimum of three days off on Lunar New Year.

Cambodia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Laos: Cambodian New Year (Chaul Chnam Thmey) is celebrated on April 13 or April 14. There are three days for the Khmer New Year.

India: Diwali related New Year’s celebrations include Marwari New Year and Gujrati New Year. Indian New Year’s days has several variations depending on the region and is based on the Hindu calendar.

Nepal Sambat, is the Nepalese New Year celebration, which also coincides with the Diwali festival.The Sikh New Year is celebrated as per the Nanakshahi calendar. New Year’s Day falls annually on what is March 14 in the Gregorian Western calendar.

Sinhalese New Year: The Sinhalese New Year (aluth avurudda), marks the end of harvest season, by the month of Bak (April) between April 13 and April 14.

Tamil New Year (Puthandu) is celebrated on April 13 or April 14. Traditionally, it is celebrated as Chiththirai Thirunaal in parts of Tamil Nadu to mark the event of the Sun entering Aries.

Telugu New Year (Ugadi), Kannada New Year (Yugadi) is celebrated in March (generally), April (occasionally). Traditionally, it is celebrated as Chaitram Chaitra Shuddha Padyami in parts of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka to mark the event of New Year’s Day for the people of the Deccan region of India. It falls on a different day every year because the Hindu calendar is a lunisolar calendar.European Pembrokeshire: In the Gwaun Valley, Pembrokeshire, Wales the new year is celebrated on January 13, based on the Julian calendar.

Middle Eastern: MUHARRAM; Arab League and Israel (for native Arabs), Hijri New Year in the Islamic culture is also known as Islamic new year (Arabic: رأس السنة الهجرية Ras as-Sanah al-Hijriyah) is the day that marks the beginning of a new Islamic calendar year. New Year moves from year to year because the Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar. The first day of the year is observed on the first day of Muharram, the first month in the Islamic calendar.

Iran equinox: Nowruz also known as Persian New Year marks the first day of spring and the beginning of the year in Iranian calendar. It is celebrated on the day of the astronomical vernal equinox, which usually occurs on March 21 or the previous/following day depending on where it is observed. Nowruz has been celebrated for over 3,000 years. The holiday is also celebrated and observed by many parts of Central Asia, South Asia, Northwestern China, Crimea and some groups in the Balkans. As well as being a Zoroastrian holiday and having significance amongst the Zoroastrian ancestors of modern Iranians, the same time is celebrated in the Indian sub-continent as the new year.

Israel: Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, is celebrated by Jews in Israel and throughout the world. The date is not set according to the Gregorian calendar, but it always falls during September or October.

From the foregoing, it would be seen that nowhere have we read of some unwholesome events marking these dates. It is however, pertinent to ask ourselves; whence our own traditional new year? Or, before the advent of Islam and Christianity, were we not celebrating annual festivals or New Year? It is ironic that we have jettisoned our culture and traditions for imported values and today look down with disdain on those values that define our Yorubaness, Igboness, and Africaness. No thanks to our leaders at Independence who succumbed to the erosion of our culture, language and values; including the idiosyncrasies our forefathers had evolved to uphold those values.  Today, we are like the tribe described by Nicholas Monsarrat in the book: The Tribe That Lost Its Head: To the extent that even our schools discouraged the speaking of vernacular and we were punished for speaking our own language. This is an issue we would be looking at in the second part of this discourse.

Unfortunately, we are a colonised people, politically, economically and spiritually, and we now see the world through the prism of either Islam or Christianity. I would not want to go into the supposedly pagan origin of some of these festivals, but we should be reminded that Islam too has it’s not so glorious origins; which we refer to as the ‘Jahiliyyah’ (Arabic: جاهلية‎ ǧāhiliyyah/jāhilīyah “ignorance”), an Islamic concept of the period of time and state of affairs in Arabia before the advent of Islam. The Ashura we celebrate is of Jewish origin: Ashura is the tenth day of Muharram in the Islamic calendar. In Sunni Islam, Ashura also marks the day that Moses and the Israelites were saved from Pharaoh by God when He parted the Sea of Reeds, and is the Islamic equivalent to Yom Kippur. Incidentally, before the initiation of Ramadan fast; after the Prophet emigrated to Medina he found the Jews fasting on the 10th of Muharram (the 1st month), because their Prophet Moses fasted in gratitude to Allah for saving him and his followers from the Pharaoh: There upon he started to fast as well and ordered the Muslims to fast too; until Allah enjoined them to fast during the month of Ramadan.

To all intents and purposes therefore, the New Year holiday is not a Christian nor a religious holiday, but a celebration to mark the beginning of a new calendar year; the calendar which we currently use to number our days; and until there is a change to the contrary, New Year will continue to be celebrated.

Unfortunately, the major sins in Islam are Shirk (associating anything with Allah); Despair of Allah’s mercy; Disobeying parents; Zina (adultery); Sodomy; Theft; Drinking alcoholic beverage and gambling: But definitely not celebrating New Year.

Happy New Year and Barka Juma’at and a happy weekend


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