History Of Calendars

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Allah Ta’ala says, ‘It is He Who made the sun a shining object and the moon as a light and measured out its (their) stages, that you might know the number of years and the reckoning. Allah did not create this but in truth. He explains the verses in detail for people who have knowledge.’ (10:6)

Throughout history, different civilizations have devised numerous ways of keeping track of time, and documenting the days as they pass, culminating into various calendar systems. The following article recounts the development of many of these calendars and shows how they are tied to the religious beliefs of the people.

Of the variety of calendars in use today, probably the most well known,are the Chinese, Hebrew, Islamic, and Gregorian time keeping systems. While each of these systems is unique in how it is used, they all share a set of common features, even borrowing from each other in ways that are not easily recognized. Like all great efforts that require the dedicated collective work of a group of people, the establishment of a time-keeping system is no trivial matter. It required knowing how to make observations, knowing which observations to make, and knowing how to keep records over a long period of time.

The kinds of observations involved in these cases are movements, appearances, and locations of objects in the sky that sometimes took months and even years to be seen just once. In order to recognize and establish patterns of movements, observations had to be recorded and passed on to succeeding generations. What makes this process especially remarkable is that since it took so long, it required people in later generations who were actually interested enough to sustain the observations. If certain key observations were not recorded, then critical links in the chain of observations would be missing, thus fragmenting people’s understanding and lengthening the process considerably.

A very big incentive, whose importance was well understood among certain individuals, must have existed to stimulate so much interest.


At stake was the capability to anticipate the future and plan for it. Those individuals who diligently did this work were held in high regard. Not only did they have to possess the skills to make and record the observations, but also they had to be intelligent enough to derive a solid understanding of the results and have the ability to provide a clear explanation to others.

It is no accident that these individuals, in the case of the earliest calendars to be used by humanity, were mostly “priests.” About 5000 years ago, on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, people who held this position were responsible for administering the land on behalf of the gods and of the gods’ earthly representative, the king. This was not an easy job, because to build a civilization out of the mixture of swamp and desert that made up lower Mesopotamia, a network of dikes and ditches for drainage, and irrigation was needed.

Building and maintaining these systems required the coordinated labor of a lot of men. Unfortunately, these people rejected the guidance given them, and believed that false gods were responsible for the prosperity of the kingdom. They thought that these gods had to be appeased with prayer and sacrifice on certain “holy days,” and that these ceremonies had to be held on the same day in each town.

For all of this to work, a time-keeping system was essential. The fusion of religion and time-keeping began more than 5000 years ago, and still exists today. The driving forces of anticipating the future, preparing for it, and coordinating the work of people are ever significant and so pervasive in a society. A study of any of the calendars in use today anywhere in the world will reveal the dynamic interoperability of these driving forces. All of the time-keeping systems continue to undergo refinement in their implementation primarily because of these important issues.

The importance does not come from what we usually think of when we routinely use a calendar. “Let’s bring together a group of people who are concerned about the way things are going on this project next week – Thursday, the 12th of May, at 6 p.m.,” are the words that a manager might use. In this case, we normally say that all we really care about is that everyone understands when we’re supposed to meet. We say that the name of the day or month, and the particular time-keeping system that we use, is really not important.

Try changing the name of the day or the month. Or try using a different time-keeping system, then see what happens.

As an example of the importance of the names used in time-keeping systems, consider some of the events surrounding the Roman Emperor Constantine’s impact on the calendar in use during his day. One of the first major changes that he made was to decree the reordering of the calendar, establishing Sunday as the first day in a seven-day week.

This decree led to controversy because it blatantly rejected the long-held observance of Saturday as the Sabbath by Jews and Roman pagans, who had set aside Saturday – Saturn’s day – as a day to rest and worship. Among other reasons, the seven-day week was popular among the Romans because of its astrological significance. In Constantine’s time, seven was thought to be important because it matched the number of planets (including the sun and the moon) then thought to be in the sky.

It was thought that each planet “controlled” a day of the week. The Romans replaced these names with their own planet-gods. For instance, the day of Nabu, the Babylonian god of the scribes, became in Latin the day of Mercurius, the Roman god of communication. This name survives today as Mercredi in French, miercoles in Spanish, and so on across the Roman languages.

In English, however, the day of Nabu is known as Wednesday. This seems to come from the fact that the seven-day week did not become established in Britain until the era of the Anglo-Saxon conquests in the fifth century. These invaders wanted to take on some of the Roman practices, but kept their own pagan religion and gods.

Consequently, Nabu in Babylon became Mercurius in Rome, but became Woden the god of poetry in Britain. Centuries later this Mesopotamian-Roman-German-British astrological connection has spread to scores of countries around the world, as people from Hong Kong to Hawaii pay tribute to otherwise forgotten gods every time they mention the word Wednesday.

It might seem that today people don’t actually care about religious issues and time-keeping, therefore it should be easy to pull out whatever religious issues that has been traditionally part of this time- keeping system and put them into a separate system of its own. Try that, and see what happens.

Khalil Ahmad
Al-Jumu’ah Vol.11 Issue1