Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 05/2011

"Time Sticks": How Islam and Other Cultures Have Measured Time

Barbara Freyer Stowasser

April 2011

Center for Contemporary Arab Studies


Time is essential to the very structure of Muslim communal life. Times of ritual and worship of Muslim obligation are regulated according to celestial events, both lunar and solar, meaning that they are always place-specific and are seasonally adjusted on a daily basis. The sun measures the day with its four daylight prayers and—by the length of its absence—also controls the fifth, the night prayer. The moon measures the months and so also the year with its seasons of ritual celebrations. The Islamic calendar is an essential but oft-forgotten institution that has held the Islamic world together over wide geographic distances and for well-nigh a millennium and a half. One of its greatest advantages may have been that it was so low maintenance. By adopting a strictly lunar calendaric system, the beginnings (and thereby the ends) of the twelve months of the year, and therefore the year as a whole, could be determined empirically, anywhere, by way of sighting of the new moon that signaled a new month’s beginning.