Jul 162015


In 639 CE, Caliph ‘Umar I started the Islamic calendar counting it from the lunar month, Muharram, in the year of the Prophet’s migration to Medina, 16 July in 622 CE (according to the Julian/Gregorian calendar).

Sheikh Abdel-Rahman El-Gabarti, chronicler of late 18th- and early 19th-century Egypt, recounted that Umar Ibn Al-Khattab was the first “setter of dates” of the Islamic era. According to his account, Abu Moussa Al-Ash’ari wrote to Umar Ibn Al-Khattab in distress: “Letters have reached us from the Commander of the Faithful, but we do not know which to obey. We read a document dated [month of] Sha’ban, but we do not know which of the Sha’bans is meant: is it the month that has passed, or that which is to come?” Umar is then said to have gathered the Companions of the Prophet and told them: “Money is flowing in, and what we have apportioned bears no date. How are we to reach a way of regulating this matter?”

In the medieval Islamic world there had been a great deal of confusion (as also in the Christian world) concerning dates because different states used different systems to calculate years – regnal years being very common (starting when the current ruler ascended and ending when he died or was replaced). What was needed was an absolute dating system so that people in different regions and states could agree.

Almost all calendars fix the starting year of the system on a notable date in the culture – the supposed dates of Jesus’ birth, the creation of the world, the founding of Rome etc. The council which fixed the Islamic calendar agreed that Islamic history would begin with the Prophet’s Flight to Medina (the Hijra), because none of those present disagreed on the date of that event, whereas other dates such as his birth, and when exactly he had received the first Divine message, aroused controversy. They agreed on the date of his death (https://www.bookofdaystales.com/death-muhammad/ ) but this was deemed too gloomy as a starting point.

The Islamic calendar is a true lunar calendar with months reckoned according to lunar cycles with no intercalation (added days) to align it with the solar calendar. Intercalation is specifically forbidden in the Qur’an (sura 9:36–37):

Know that intercalation (nasi) is an addition to disbelief. Those who disbelieve are led to error thereby, making it lawful in one year and forbidden in another in order to adjust the number of (the months) made sacred by God and make the sacred ones permissible. The evil of their course appears pleasing to them. But God gives no guidance to those who disbelieve.


This prohibition was mentioned by Muhammad during the farewell sermon which was delivered on 9 Dhu al-Hijjah 10 AH (Julian date Friday 6 March, AD 632) on Mount Arafat during the farewell pilgrimage to Mecca.

Certainly the Nasi’ is an impious addition, which has led the infidels into error. One year they authorise the Nasi’, another year they forbid it. They observe the divine precept with respect to the number of the sacred months, but in fact they profane that which God has declared to be inviolable, and sanctify that which God has declared to be profane. Assuredly time, in its revolution, has returned to such as it was at the creation of the heavens and the earth. In the eyes of God the number of the months is twelve. Among these twelve months four are sacred, namely, Rajab, which stands alone, and three others which are consecutive.

Hence the Islamic calendar, which is approximately 11 days shorter than the solar calendar, migrates backwards in relation to the Gregorian calendar, and, therefore, religious festivals can occur at any time of the solar year. Beginnings of months were originally determined by actual observations of the moon, and in some countries still are. But various factors, including the moon being obscured by clouds, have led many countries to adopt a fixed (mathematically calculated) monthly dating system. The original observational method was one of the reasons that medieval Islamic cultures became interested in astronomy to the eventual benefit of all cultures.


As I write in 2015, the holy month of Ramadan is coming to an end.It’s a hot time of year, so after sundown it’s nice to have something cooling.  So, here’s my basic idea for kulfi, a kind of ice cream popular in India and surrounds.


In the conventional sense, kulfi is not really ice cream because it is not churned.  Rather, it is a dense frozen milk product that is simply flavored and frozen in special molds.  When served it is quite hard and you need a sturdy knife to cut it.

You begin with khoya which I imagine you can buy, but I always made it myself. You start with about a gallon of full cream whole milk which you put in a non-stick vessel of some sort.  In the long, long cooking process the milk tends to stick, so you have to stir pretty regularly.  I used a thermostatically controlled electric wok with a very durable non-stick surface, so need not be quite so vigilant.  Still, I had to be close at hand at all times. Heat the milk to a very gentle simmer and reduce it to about one-fifth the original volume.  This can take anywhere from 3 to 5 hours, and it must be carefully watched at the end to avoid burning.  The finished product is sweetly caramelized and I did not find I needed to add flavoring.  But some people add saffron or mango pulp as the khoya is cooling.  If you don’t want to do this you can substitute equal parts of sweetened condensed milk,  evaporated milk, and heavy cream.  It’s nowhere near as good though.  Homemade khoya is buttery rich and indescribably delicious.

Kulfi molds are cylindrical with tapered edges.  You can use any molds, however.  Put chopped pistachios in the bottom, and fill them with the cooled khoya.  Freeze overnight.  Place the molds in warm water for a minute or two, and the khoya should slide out.