Today is 1 Muharram, or new year in the lunar Muslim calendar.
But the Muslim new year isn’t Muhammad’s birthday— Islam paid little attention to that. It isn’t the revelation in the cave near the end of Ramadhan— though Muslims call that the Night of Power, that sacred event was still ten years before what would be the starting point of the Muslim calendar of history.
It was that one heartbreaking year when two of his loved ones who most supported his safety died. That year, seven of his elder relatives tried to kill him in his sleep. Without the clout of his non-Muslim uncle and beloved badass older wife, he was vulnerable, and so were the Muslims. Muhammad escaped murder because he snuck out to an agricultural town, responding to an invitation to negotiate peace between their quarrelling tribes. (Several of them had met him in Mecca before and something about him inspired them to try this out). It worked: They all sat with Muhammad and came to a multiparty treaty. And because he pulled this off, the persecuted Muslim minorities of Mecca had a safe place to move to, and each migrant family was assigned a Yathribi townsperson to help them start a new life.
When Muslims eventually created their own calendar a dozen years later, they looked back and decided this was the year it began.
A vulnerable minority group migrating safely from one town to another was the turning point in their history that divided all of time into before the Hijra and after— the birth of a community and a change of perspective. Tamim Ansary writes in Destiny Disrupted: A History Of The World Through Islamic Eyes:
Before the Hijra, Mohammed was a preacher with individual followers. After the Hijra, he was the leader of a community that looked to him for legislation, political direction, and social guidance. The word hijra means “severing of ties.” People who joined the community in Medina renounced tribal bonds and accepted this new group as their transcendent affiliation.
And what were they supposed to do together without these tribal bonds? From the start of its calendar year, Islam was not just a religion, it was a sociopolitical project. Tamim Ansary again:
... instead of focusing on isolated individual salvation, Islam presents a plan for building a righteous community. Individuals earn their place in heaven by participating as members of that community and engaging in the Islamic social project, which is to build a world in which orphans won’t feel abandoned and in which widows won’t ever be homeless, hungry, or afraid.
1442 years later, I wonder if 2020 is my year 1: my queer Muslim new year.
The year I wrote down as a child when I heard ‘Wawasan 2020’ as a national slogan everywhere— “2020. I am 33? What is it like to be that old?” (Spoiler alert past Liy: You’re never going to be ideal for traditional employment and the man behind that perfect-vision slogan is now the oldest political patriarch in the world who just started a new party, so have fun gradually realising all the systemic shit that makes that possible!)
The year of a pandemic and its physical, psychological, and political provocations pulsing through us. A solitude of scrolling through the saddest news. The year where the way I’ve had to work to survive for years— from home, remotely, online— is suddenly warped into anxious new dimensions, challenging the ways I used to think about myself and what I work towards, what is needed of me now.
Maybe it’s not just my queer Muslim new year, it’s a new year for spiritually diverse wellbeing. I’ve been feeling ready to shift from seeing myself as an isolated “individual” to embodying the next logical consequence of all the interconnected actions that got me here. Maybe this is the lunar calendar year to start really deeply thinking about collective care.
I watch us all run ourselves into the ground to find and make pockets of warmth away from violence, and what comes up again and again for me is being a queer Muslim ancestor: What if we could approach queer Muslim collective care as being part of a whole generation that doesn’t want the next to feel they’re starting on empty like we did? I also didn’t think I had queer Muslim elders until my 30s. I didn’t know who to turn to. What if we see it as care for the queer elders we’ll become, and trying our best to see as many of us get there?
Any year before this one, I would have dreaded being someone’s first thorough exposure to Islam.
I have no interest in converting atheists or retraumatising ex-Muslims. I am new to disclosing how I see my faith with anyone. But this year, I’ve made a long-term commitment to share. My life partner wasn’t Muslim last year, and is a new Muslim now on this Muslim new year. I asked him how that felt:
It’s very engaging. I had an awareness of God before, and I love that now I can see building a relationship with God as part of a social project. I like the adventure of dealing with a very crusty male-dominated paradigm, but reading the Quran and knowing there are all kinds of diverse Muslims out there claiming it and God for themselves... I want to be a part of that. There’s so much to learn, but I know this is for the long haul. I can be patient.
This new moon, I can remember that I am full and alive in an unprecedented point in generations of queer Muslim history, an unprecedented point of emphasis on activist wellbeing, that inspiration comes from somewhere beyond ourselves, unshaken by human power or violence. I too can be patient.