Merry Sufi Christmas and a Happy Chinese New Year! – Globalising Religion

First up, I want to wish all my loyal readers (and any new-comers to the fold) health, happiness and prosperity in the New Year, the Year of Our Lord, 2011. Uh oh, hang on a minute – let me adjust that – 2011 CE. It was a measure of the grip globalisation has on us all, that midnight, December 31st was celebrated with parties and festivities from Sydney to Seoul; from Auckland to Amritsar and Allahabad; in Times Square, New York, and Times Square, Hong Kong; that the world’s most expensive Christmas tree was to be found in Abu Dhabi, and the tallest New Year fireworks display, in Dubai, on the 828 metre Burj Khalifa. Even the Chinese joined the party, despite the fact that their new year, the Year of the Rabbit, incidentally, and 4707, 4708, or 4647, depending on who’s counting, will not click over until February 3rd.
Burj Khalifa Tower, Dubai

I kind of liked that. I’ve never been a big capitalist, but you have to respect the power of an idea to bring people together, don’t you! Socialism has been dead and buried for a few years now, and life is getting increasingly difficult for religious fanatics. But Mammon is hard at work out there, binding Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, atheists and reformed Communists into one big happy family. It’s pretty clear that there’s never been an ‘–ism’ like it!

However, in the midst of all the Santa Clauses, Father Christmases, New Year pyrotechnics and what not, another date slipped by pretty much unnoticed . . . the 17th of December. I hope the Sufis among you will forgive my stating the obvious, but that day marked the 737th anniversary of the death of Mevlana Jalal al-din Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet, jurist, theologian, philosopher and Sufi mystic, known in the West more simply as Rumi. I have to admit, though, I might have missed the date too, if one of my students hadn’t pointed it out to me. Nevertheless, once it was drawn to my attention, it got me thinking . . .

Those of you who read this column regularly will know how much I love my adoptive home, the Republic of Turkey, and the respect I have for my Muslim brothers and sisters who have become my friends, neighbours and even family. You will perhaps have marvelled that the son of a nation which once joined a military invasion to subdue this land, could have stayed so long, and developed such affection for former enemies. But there it is, and I make no apologies.

Still, if there is one thing I can’t get my head around, it’s the lunar calendar. I’m a firm believer in a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay – but I like holidays, nonetheless. I’m used to my Christmases and Easters and New Years and Labour Days and Queen’s Birthdays, and all that stuff we take as an inalienable human right back in New Zealand. I may have seemed to take it for granted when I was younger, but I have always been grateful to those nameless activists who fought to ensure that, even though no one was exactly sure when Jesus was nailed to that tree, we would get a Friday and a Monday off school or work every year in sympathy. No doubt those in the know always got together on the correct day to cheer Elizabeth Regina as she blew out her birthday candles – but we in New Zealand could always count on the first Monday in June as the day for honouring our sovereign lady queen.

It therefore seems to me that no one would suffer much harm, and the devout could continue to sacrifice and fast, if the Muslim holy times of Ramadan and Eid al-Adha (Kurban Bayram) were similarly fixed, perhaps sometime in autumn and spring. I understand that, for tribes living in a harsh desert environment not much conducive to sowing and harvesting, solar seasons were pretty irrelevant, and the phases of the moon seemed as good a measure of the passing of time as any other. If you can sleep through the heat of a desert day, fasting from dawn till dusk may not be such a trial. If you’re not bound to the five-day working week, it may not matter much if your days of feasting fall on weekends or weekdays. But these days, when we are all, to a greater or lesser extent in the clutches of the above-mentioned Mammon-ism, it makes a big difference. We need to feel that we can plan our lives (including our holidays) and that important festivals will take place at stable and predictable times each year – and, for better or worse, that means the solar year.

Sure, I know what you’re thinking. Those Islamic months are set in stone. God gave the Koran to the Angel Gabriel, who gave it to the Prophet Mohammed, and that’s it, end of story. No amendments, no interpretations, no alterations. Lunar months are ordained by God. The Ramazan month of fasting will start when the ‘Hilal’ crescent at the beginning of the ninth lunar month is spotted by the official ‘spotter’. Any government of a Muslim country that tried to ‘rationalise’ the calendar for the modern world would be committing political suicide. But spare a thought for the poor school kids, who will soon face an academic year without a break because the religious holidays all fall during the summer vacation. What of the employed faithful who will have to work through 30 summer days without letting a sip of water pass their lips? Anyway, with Muslims spread all over the globe, there’s no way that one ‘spotter’ can do the job for the whole community any more.

And there’s another thing – the reason I brought up Mevlana Rumi in the first place, in case you were wondering. Did you notice that date, 17 December, 1273? And did you wonder, as I did, why it wasn’t 6 Jumada al-Thani, 672 A.H.? Well, again, I have to admit, I found a site on the Internet to do the conversion for me, but you get the point I want to make. There was a guy who was born, lived and died a Muslim in important cities in an Islamic empire at a time when that religion was assuredly in the ascendant. Thousands of devout Muslims visit his tomb in the Turkish city of Konya every year. Without doubt, the date on his tombstone would read (if we could read Arabic) 672, and not 1273. Yet every year, around 17 December, a clearly non-lunar date, Muslim Turks welcome the faithful and the interested, to join them in commemorating the passing on of the great Sufi mystic.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m glad to find there is one other ‘–ism’ with an interest in bringing folks together, rather than tearing them apart. I don’t want to get into the debate about whether Islam is a religion of war or peace. It seems to me that, depending on where you’re starting from, you could argue either way, just as you could for most other religions and ideologies.

Mevlana Rumi, however, was ‘. . . not a Muslim of the orthodox type. His doctrine advocates unlimited tolerance, positive reasoning, goodness, charity and awareness through love. To him and to his disciples all religions are more or less truth. Looking with the same eye on Muslim, Jew and Christian alike, his peaceful and tolerant teaching has appealed to [people] of all sects and creeds.’

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) organised events to commemorate, in 2007, the 800th anniversary of the birth of Mevlana Rumi. They did this because they believed that his ideas and ideals coincided with the ideals of UNESCO, which you can find on their website:

UNESCO works to create the conditions for dialogue among civilizations, cultures and peoples, based upon respect for commonly shared values. It is through this dialogue that the world can achieve global visions of sustainable development encompassing observance of human rights, mutual respect and the alleviation of poverty, all of which are at the heart of UNESCO’S mission and activities.
UNESCO’s mission is to contribute to the building of peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development and intercultural dialogue through education, the sciences, culture, communication and information.

Pretty good stuff, you have to admit. And if Rumi believed in that, then I’m with him, even if he was a Muslim.

One thought on “Merry Sufi Christmas and a Happy Chinese New Year! – Globalising Religion

  1. Dear Alan, Fine job on the new blog entry. As one who has grown up with the vagaries of the lunar calendar, I thought I'd comment. Judaism, as you know, also runs by the cycle of the moon. Early on, as a Jewish child, you get used to planning the future using two different calendars. And you quickly learn, especially in a country like the US, that is in lockstep with Christian holidays, that the orderly progression of time is quite relative. This often leads to confusion and disruption, particularly in our politically correct times, where we are ever so careful not to plan our various school-based programs to coincide with any of the meandering dates of the major Jewish or Islamic calendars. Kind friends and enlightened administrators check the calendar before signing off on the scheduling of important lectures or school dances. However, it's not enough to know a date…you have to know if you are referring to the day the holiday begins, or the previous sunset, as the beginning of the holiday. Even those of us who celebrate the holiday need to double check on whether a mentioned date for a holiday assumes that one knows that it begins the previous sundown. Confusing to be sure. The most famous calendar collision in my memory was the baseball World Series of 1965 when Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax sat out Game 1 because it was Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish year. The Dodgers won the Series. Draw your own conclusions! And Koufax was named MVP (Most Valuable Player).

    While I agree with you that it would simplify things for everyone to have a universal set of agreed upon dates, to me there would be something lacking. I have come to appreciate the added layer of exoticism, for lack of a better word, that having two calendars provides. It brings mind the richness of a diverse human experience – if time itself is not fixed in one form, then there there is yet an added dimension of mystery in a world where two astronomical entities coexist as the engines of chronos. I have come to appreciate, as an adult, the interweaving and interplay of the two systems. In a secular and technologically- driven world, it's a reminder of the complexity of the natural world and of spiritually-based realms, an echo of ancient times. In an ironic twist, I have a moon app on my iPhone so I can be sure to know which phase of the moon we are in, to be mindful of the drama of the slow return of the moon from hiding during its cycle.

    Alan, in a curiously coincidental way, in Jewish temples around the world this past week the chapter from Exodus was read in which God shows Moses the crescent moon and sets in place the lunar calendar for the Jewish people.

    Right now I am watching the sun rise, the appearance of 'rosy- fingered dawn', the beginning of a new day. But in actuality the day began at midnight…when did that practice start? So many systems to be aware of!!

    As well, I'm a sucker for watching for three stars to appear in the night sky to mark the end of Yom Kippur. I value the liberation from the tyranny of the watch, clock, and now iPhone and computer to know when that moment has come. It's one of the few times that I feel completely in touch with the natural world.

    Thank you for giving me this opportunity to reflect on something I've experienced for a lifetime but have never had occasion to think about in a deeper way. Of course, I can't close without also suggesting that women's lives are dominated by a cycle during their reproductive years as well, so that no matter how fixed the calendar, our bodies have calendars of their own that play out sometimes in the most inconvenient ways! So perhaps the duality of the solar/lunar calendars has a familiarity to a woman that it doesn't have to a man. We need Perin to weigh in on the gender issues!!!

    With best regards on Monday this 10th day of January 2011 and 5th day of Shevat 5771 and Yaumul Ithnain 5 Safar 1432 A.H. (I hope I got that right!)

    Multicalendar Margie

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