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Renewal

 

Was it not that I were married on New Year’s Day, January 1st would bear no significance for observation.  Just as the American Thanksgiving is rife with historical baggage I care not to honor in celebration, the particularly Christian and Pagan origins of New Year’s Day leave me absent a compelling reason to hang a streamer.  However, the Christian New Year will be celebrated around the world by people who both know and know not the history for which their celebrations will validate. No longer is January 1st commemorated as the day of Jesus’ circumcision, the death of Judaism, or a day of celebratory orgies. Rather in the modern Western memory, the New Year commemorates a new beginning- out with the old in with the new. Taken at face value, New Years Day is an opportunity to reflect on one’s life over the past year and resolve to start anew. 

 

Was it not that I were married on New Year’s Day, January 1st would bear no significance for observation. Just as the American Thanksgiving is rife with historical baggage I care not to honor in celebration, the particularly Christian and Pagan origins of New Year’s Day leave me absent a compelling reason to hang a streamer.

 

Despite the history of New Year’s Day, the Muslim would be remiss not to find meaning or opportunity in the symbolism of the day.  Janus, in Roman mythology, was the god of gates and new beginnings.  Physically represented as a god with two heads, Janus was said to have possessed the ability to simultaneously look to the past and the future-to reflect and move forward.  It is fair to say that despite its pagan origins, the establishment of January 1st as a point reflection and renewal is an additional opportunity for the Muslim for self-reflection and to reflect on society in general.  It is convenient for Muslims to be dismissive of non-Islamic holidays and celebrations as bidah.  However, if we are to heed the Quranic direction, we must continue to take stock. O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise each other). Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things) (Quran 49:13).

Understanding and acknowledging cultures around us and that preceded us is an Islamic obligation. This does not mean that one should engage in similar celebrations.  However, it is appropriate for the Muslim to use these celebrations to draw nearer to the understanding of  various cultural practices and what these symbolize in the context of Islamic understanding. Without devolving  into historical accounts of the period, Sura ar-Rum (The Romans) is significant in the discussion of the Pagan origin of the New Year. It allows the Muslim to reflect upon past societies and civilizations and what it means for the ordering of our own present day lives.

Do they not travel through the earth, and see what was the end of those before them? They were superior to them in strength: they tilled the soil and populated it in greater numbers than these have done: there came to them their apostles with Clear (Signs). (Which they rejected, to their own destruction): It was not Allah Who wronged them, but they wronged their own souls (Quran 30:9).  Appropriately, this verse comes from Sura Ar-Rum (The Romans).

In this sura, Allah fortells the defeat of the Romans and details the salient conditions that contributed to their defeat. Though the Romans exerted much power and strength, their defeat was a result of their Godlessness or rather their god fullness. The following four verses, as does the entire sura, calls the Muslim to reflect on the signs of Allah through a critique of this ancient society.

 

As a Western American Muslim, it is important for me to engage with the culture of my society in a way that honors both my culture and Islamic sensibilities. New Year’s Day is significant in my life only in that it allows me to reflect upon the wisdom of Allah.

 

Turn ye back in repentance to Him, and fear Him: establish regular prayers, and be not ye among those who join gods with Allah (Quran 30:31)

When trouble touches men, they cry to their Lord, turning back to Him in repentance: but when He gives them a taste of Mercy as from Himself, behold, some of them pay part worship to other gods besides their Lord (Quran 30:33).

See they not that Allah enlarges the provision and restricts it, to whomsoever He pleases? Verily in that are signs for those who reflect (Quran 30:37)

Say: Travel through the earth and see what was the end of those before (you):  most of them worshipped others besides Allah (Quran 30:42)

As a Western American Muslim, it is important for me to engage with the culture of my society in a way that honors both my culture and Islamic sensibilities.  New Year’s Day is significant in my life only in that it allows me to reflect upon the wisdom of Allah. If Muslims are to be the example for others in society, it is important to demonstrate how to contextualize one’s own cultural outlook in an Islamic framework.  Therefore, the pagan tradition of the New Year reminds me to evaluate not only the past year, but also the past histories from an Islamic perspective. 

In Islamic Solutions to World’s Problems , Dr. Muhammad al’Mahdi  explains that Islamic scholars have historically defined man’s duty as Khalifah as having only three major responsibilities:

To perfect himself, To perfect society, and To perfect the physical world of space and time. These responsibilities imply that Muslims must always be engaged actions that strive towards perfecting one’s environment on all levels.  It is not merely enough to reject cultural practices that are inconsistent with Islamic framework but one must also provide her society with a better way of understanding itself.

Many American Muslims speak of their desire to go live in a “Muslim” society so that they would not struggle to live their lives according to Islam. These comments are usually laced with Islamic romanticism of the early community of believers without much thought to the beautiful position we have been placed in by Allah. A Muslim’s struggle to perfect her society through increasing understanding is as essential in a society of non-Muslims as it is in a society of Muslims.  The obligation does not change and is arguably more urgent.  The ability of the Muslim to call upon the non-believer to reflect upon a new meaning of that which is full of false meaning is a gift of wisdom that can help transform a culture’s consciousness.  Looking back at history with a critical eye is as much an act of faith as it is a pursuit of knowledge.

 

The ability of the Muslim to call upon the non-believer to reflect upon a new meaning of that which is full of false meaning is a gift of wisdom that can help transform a culture’s consciousness.

 

Muslims have been chided by the West as being backwards and hostile to modernity.  As all stereotypes, this has both truths and misconceptions depending upon the society in question.  However, recently, I have begun to embrace the title of being a backwards Muslim.  Whenever a claim of backwardness is launched against Muslims, I use the opportunity to address the value of looking back and holding on to past knowledge and practices.  Edmund Burke, a British statesman and philosopher, is famous for saying “Those who do not know history are destined to repeat it.”  This saying has been a critical refrain in American thought as it pertains to implementing and adhering to Constitutional values.  Americans appeal to this form of reason as a means of encouraging forward thinking and a way to move forward from the transgressions of the past. 

This lesson is not lost by the Muslim.  The Believer is called to look to the past frequently.  Seeking the example of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) requires that the Muslim take stock of a longer memory of the past than what just has occurred in the previous year.  There is no new knowledge that is gained that is not built upon knowledge of the past.  Thus, having a longer memory of the past ensures a greater depth to upon which to build the future.  The Quran provides us with a means of reflecting on the New Year by evaluating the Romans.  Should we orient our lives in the New Year according to the example of the Romans?  The Quran warns us against their example.  So why would one choose to commemorate a day established in memory of their false god?

 

The themes of going big in the New Year, have begun to give way to a new collective conscience. It’s becoming a national repentance for past transgressions of promoting the self at the expense of society. The unfettered pursuits of the “American Dream” were found to be just that-dreams.

 

In contrast, the Islamic New Year is celebrated through quiet celebration and reflection upon the hejira. The applicability between the meanings of leaving one physical location in pursuit of a new life, is more in keeping with the modern understanding of the Western New Year.  The connection of this historical event has maintained its original meaning from which appropriate symbols of renewal and reflection can be drawn.  The idea of the Western New Year falls short in that it emphasizes a look at the individual over a limited period of time and connects the modern man with no applicable event upon which to draw universal meaning.  The emphasis on self vs. societal reflection is a result of both the influence of Western capitalism which aggrandizes the role of the individual and the decline of religious practice and observance. 

Over the past two years, following the economic collapse, there has been a strong sense of national self-reflection.  The annual year-in-reviews that pepper the airways following the Christmas holiday are filled with a “back-to-the-basics” tone.   The themes of going big in the New Year, have begun to give way to a new collective conscience.  It’s becoming a national repentance for past transgressions of promoting the self at the expense of society.  The unfettered pursuits of the “American Dream” were found to be just that-dreams.  The economic collapse allowed Americans to wake up from dreaming and face the reality that society had changed while it was sleeping.  The economic veil that covered America’s moral decline was officially lifted and it became evident that it had sold its sould to the almighty dollar.

This year in particular has been a very trying year for the American population in general. With unemployment and home foreclosures continuing to rise, Americans are consumed with an overwhelming sense of uncertainty. The lack of certainty that has pervaded every aspect of American life has been a wakeup call.  The new reality of an economy with growth too slow to bring down the unemployment rate has affected not only the amount of money people have to spend but how they order their lives spiritually, socially, and financially.  

 

As the god of capitalism collapsed, so did the desire to return one’s faith in it despite signs of recovery.

 

Americans have reacted to this “New Normal” by embracing the silver linings of extra time for family, self reflection, and returning to the stability of faith. Whereas the previous two years have been spent in a collective hope of getting America back on track, the collective sentiment that has taken hold is to get America on a different track-one that not only looks to the future but also moves society to a different place.  The fear that the economic collapse has brought into the lives of many has demonstrated in a very real way how far people had gotten from the stability of faith and family in pursuit of wealth and fortune.  As the god of capitalism collapsed, so did the desire to return one’s faith in it despite signs of recovery.

The anticipation of the New Year feels much like a desire for Americans to go to a different place.  The feeling in society is a desire to make a migration towards more stable ground.  If the New Year brings about any new beginning , it will have to begin in a different place that yet grounded in the past.   I pray that we heed the example of the Romans and not turn back now that Allah has given us a taste of mercy.  I pray that the provisions Allah enlarges for us throughout this economic recovery be accompanied by a spiritual recovery. And as Janus represented the gate of new beginnings, so let us as Muslims find renewed meaning in that which we may cast of as falsehood.

 

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