The Ottoman way of celebrating the Islamic New Year

Muslims in the Ottomam Empire celebrated the New Year on the 1st of Muharrem, the first month of the Islamic Hijri calendar.

The Ottoman way of celebrating the Islamic New Year

Emre Gul / World Bulletin

The Islamic calendar, known as the Hijri calendar, was started in 622 CE, marking the emigration of the first Muslims in Mecca to Medina. Referred to as the 'Hijra', this exodus was taken as a basis to start the Islamic calendar by the second caliph Omar.

The Islamic calendar is based on a different set of conventions than the solar-based Gregorian calendar. Each month has either 29 or 30 days, but usually in no discernible order. Traditionally, the first day of each month is the day of the first sighting of the hilal (crescent moon) shortly after sunset. Determining the most likely day that the hilal could be observed was a motivation for the Muslims' interest in astronomy, which put Islam at the forefront of that particular science for many centuries.

The Islamic New Year is the 1st of Muharrem, a month during which many historical events having deep implications took place. Embraced by the Ottomans, the Hijri calendar had been used as the official calendar until the present-day Republic was establshed and decided to use the solar calendar as a part of its westernization efforts.

By adopting this new calendar, the leaders of newly established Turkish Republic ended the Ottoman traditions of celebrating the Islamic New Year. Instead, citizens living under the new regime started to celebrate the 1st of January as the New Year, like the western Christian world.

Indeed there are drastic differences in the mentality of celebrating new years in these two diverse traditions. While the ‘new’ New Year still has not recognized by a considerable large part of Turkish society, the beginning of the New Year according to the Hijra calendar had a special place for Muslims in the Ottoman society and was celebrated widely.

According to a report which appeared in the Ikdam Newspaper in 1901, senior officials, Islamic scholars and prominent figures in the society extended their New Year greetings to the Ottoman Sultan. 

The Ottoman palace was at the center of the 1st of Muharrem celebrations. Islamic scholars, senior bureaucrats and representatives of non-Muslim communities in the society demonstrated a harmonious coexistence by annually visiting the Sultan’s Palace in Istanbul as they did for other religious fests to extend their warm wishes. During the celebrations at the palace, attendees prayed that the new year would bring fortune and victories to the state. As a response, officials in the palace distributed specially-minted golden and silver coins named ‘Muharremiyelik’ and ‘Abundance of the Year’ to the visitors.

In another report in the Ikdam Newspaper said the new year was celebrated by Ottoman diplomatic representatives and ambassadors abroad, such as Abbas Hilmi Pasha, the governor of Egypt, and the ruler of Mecca, Avnu’r Refik Pasha. Similarly, foreign diplomats and their interpreters also extended their New Year greetings to the Sultan.

On New Year's Day, it was considered that wearing new clothes would bring good luck. Thus Muslim women chose to dress in a more elegant manner. Poems were written for the the Sultan regarding the New Year.

Despite the joy and excitement, there was also some caution in order to prevented the celebrations from being exaggerated out of respect for the Prophet's grandson Hussain, who was martyred in this month. As an indication of this sensitiveness, the call to prayer was voiced in a special tone called Hussaini.

A POEM

A poem written by Ahmed Tevfik, the administrator of the port in Marmara Ereglisi, was dedicated to the Sultan Abdulhamid II. He described how glad the Ottoman society was to have such a generous ruler like him and expressed his wishes for him to remain in power.

Prominent Turkish writer Faruk Nafız Camlibel explained: “Actually the major celebrations were organized on the tenth of Muhrarem. Ao we recognize the beginning of the New Year on the day of Ashura, the 10th of Muharram, the day the grandson of the Prophet fell martyr in Kerbala several centuries ago. This day coincided with such a cruel act. With the aim of boosting the morale but at the same time not losing respect, people traditionally prepared Ashura...a food known as Noah’s Pudding in the west. However, it is not sufficient to recover from the suffering stemming from Hussain’s assassination. Therefore, we start the first month of the New Year with sorrow.

Although Christian Ottomans joined their Muslim fellows in celebrating Hijri New Year, they were completely free to celebrate the Christian New Year without any disturbing interference from Muslims.

Hasene Ilgaz, a Turkish deputy who grew up in the 1910s, told of his recollection of the new year: “The religious fests were very fun and pleasurable days for us. For us, there was no Christmas. We recognized Christmas approaching from the preparations made by our non-Muslim neighbors who sent gifts to our homes. Colored eggs, vasilopittas and lavenders were among the gifts we received. We responded to them by giving Turkish delight and sherbet (a sweet drink).”

Last Mod: 11 Ocak 2014, 23:48
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