As we celebrate the Vernal Equinox, the Islamic Solar New Year,
commonly known in the West as the Persian New Year, controversies abound
as to its origin and re-identification.
The year was 1073 CE when
Sultan Jallaluddin Malikshah I commissioned a counsel of astronomers,
headed by the renowned Omar Khayyam of Nishapur, in the observatory of
Isfahan to solve the problem of the ebb and flow of seasonal drift in
the Islamic lunar calendar.
This counsel of the brightest Muslim
scientists studied for six years the principles of the ancient Indian
Surya Siddhanta, the Chinese-Uighur calendar systems, and the many
mathematically calculated solar calendars at the time and integrated
them with the astronomical calculations that the Muslim scientists had
perfected and thus created the world's most scientific calendar with an
accuracy rating that surpassed every calendar known to humanity at the
time. The year was computed from the northern vernal equinox, and each
month was determined by the transit of the sun into the corresponding
zodiac region, i.e. the position of the earth in relation to the sun in
its solar orbit. "Omar Khayyam compiled many astronomical tables and
performed a reformation of the calendar which was more accurate than the
Julian and came close to the Gregorian (sic). An amazing feat was his
calculation of the year to be 365.24219858156 days long, which is
accurate to the 6th decimal place!"
The solar calendar was
adopted on 15 March 1079 as the Jallali Calendar in recognition of the
royal patronage of Sultan Jalaluddin Malikshah I and was given its
Islamic character as it was retroactively reckoned from the year of
Prophet Muhammad's migration to Medina, making 622 CE as the year zero
and its first year as the year 457 AH. Conventions were established to
use the designations HS for Hijri Shamsi, 'solar hijri' for the use in
government administration and HQ for Hijri Qamari, 'lunar hijri,' to be
used primarily for rites and rituals in religious holidays. For
centuries the Jalali Calendar was used alongside the Islamic Lunar
The decline in the use of the solar hijri came with the
rise to power of the Safavids in Persia in the 16th century. Perhaps
with a hint from Christian Europe, the Safavids 'ideologized' Persia's
political culture, emphasizing a 'nation state' distinct from the rest
of the Muslim world: They adopted the (Twelver) Shi'ism as their state
religion and force-converted some 65% of their Sunni subjects. They
patronized Persian as their official language and Persianized the entire
population linguistically, and they renamed the Jallali calendar as
Furthermore, they claimed as 'Persian' every
significant personality or entity from the vast pool of common Islamic
heritage that could be linked to 16th century Persia through language,
geography, history, ethnicity, etc. This polarization brought them into a
devastating rivalry with the Ottomans for centuries. The rift continues
to fuel the Shi'i-Sunni schism and political rivalry to this day.
Safavid chauvinism alienated neighboring Muslim states and institutions
who soon relinquished the use of Persian language and along with it the
use of the Jallali Calendar and began to use the lunar calendar for
both government and religious affairs.
Fast forward to the 20th
century when the rising trend of European nationalism reached the
Northern Tier countries among the Ottomans, the Persians, and the
Afghans. In the wake of the Constitutionalist Reforms in Persia, the
parliament officially claimed the Jallali Calendar as 'Persian' in 1911.
Afghanistan officially re-adopted the Jallali Calendar in 1922
retaining the original Arabic names for the months as devised by Khayyam
and established their equivalents in Pashto years later. In an attempt
to even out the variations in month lengths and simplify the astronomic
computations, the calendar was further modified in Persia in 1925 and in
Afghanistan in 1957.
In 1925, Officer Reza Khan, the first ethnic
Persian ruler of Persia in nearly a millennium, claimed Sassanid
connection and called himself 'the Pahlavi.' With the persuasion of the
Nazis who needed to root their Aryan claim in a nation state, the
Pahlavi court tapped onto referential points in the common literary
history of the region and laid claim to the Aryan heritage in 1935 and
formally renamed Persia as Iran--a derivative of Aryan.
European inspired nationalism, it was a foregone conclusion that the
revival of Zoroastrian traits and traditions would come at the expense
of the country's Islamic heritage. To that end the Pahlavi court
eliminated the Arabic names of the astronomical zodiac signs that
Khayyam had assigned to the Jallali Calendar and replaced them with
corresponding Avestan or Middle Persian names whose consonantal clusters
had to be modified to accommodate the modern Persian phonetic system.
The final push of this 'cultural chauvinism came during the 2500th
anniversary of the founding of the Persian monarchy in October 1971
when Muhammad Reza Pahlavi attempted to abandon the Islamic character of
the hijri calendar and reckon it with the establishment of the
Calendars are generally associated with religious
traditions and cultural communities and not with nation states.
Therefore, the term 'Persian Calendar', in contradistinction to the
renamed Jallali calendar, implies a calendar of the Persian religious
community, the Parsis or Zoroastrians and not necessarily the Persian
state. This is particularly so when that state had already abandoned the
name 'Persia' in favor of 'Iran.' Not to mention the fact that the word
'Iran' too has cultural and historical implications far beyond the
geographic boundaries of modern day Republic of Iran.
Be that as
it may, the renaming of the Jallali Shamsi Calendar as 'Persian
calendar' eclipses the real Persian Calendar(s) of the Parsis, the
Zoroastrian religious communities in the world. The rightfully named
Persian Calendar of the Zoroastrians was drawn on the Sumerian,
Babylonian, and Egyptian calendars. It was largely based on Zoroastrian
cosmology that dates to the later Achaemenid period (650 to 330 BCE),
the Parthian calendar dated of 248 BCE, and the Sassanid calendar
modified in 224 CE. The calendar was certainly not astronomically
calculated as was the Jallali Calendar, instead months of uneven length
accommodated seasonal change in the solar cycle. It had many intercalary
days to be added every now and then and each of the 30 days of each 12
month--as well as the days of the week--had a name of religious
significance. There were an additional 5 days (gathas) added to the 12th
month to make a 365-day year.
The real Persian or Khorshidi
Calendars are still used by the Zoroastrian communities in India,
Persia, and around the world and have gone through several seasonal
adjustments and alignments from as far back as 1006 CE to as recently as
1990. The modern manifestation of these ancient traditions appears as
three distinct calendars: Yazdegirdi (Shahenshahi), Qadimi, and Fasli.
this cultural tug-of-war and one-upmanship these politically redefined
identities have created chaos and confusion whose inevitable prevalence
persistently stirs up political sensitivities. The more the Iranians
claim the traits of the common culture as 'Persian/Iranian', the more
their neighboring states abandon them.
Many Muslims, primarily
Arab states who were deprived of the use of one of their greatest
scientific achievements, the Jallali Calendar, began using the Christian
Gregorian calendar instead. The Turks, for instance, have renamed the
Gregorian months in Arabic, Aramaic, Latin, and Turkish.
the most well-known cultural traditions of the Jallali Solar Calendar
like the solstices and equinoxes that were celebrated by the people of
Central Asia are now viewed with suspicion and considered non-Islamic,
Zoroastrian, heretic, or blasphemous. A case in point is the tragic
attack on Afghan New Year festivities in 2013.
The Islamic solar
calendar had a great start, but unfortunately it got caught up in the
entanglement of the post 16th century malaise of the Muslim world. Ever
since the commonalities of cultural heritage are confined to
nationalistic claims and padding of political identities, i.e. molding
political psyches in the illusion of past glory without building the
present for a sustainable future. This has led to the fragmentation of
the Muslim world that haunts the region to this day.