Saudi Arabia Use of Islamic Dates – Confusion and Misunderstanding

newmoon1

Unlike most of the world which uses the gregorian calendar, Saudi Arabia on the other hand goes by the Islamic or Hijri calendar for its official use. The islamic calendar can be a little bit confusing to follow when not accustomed to it. The islamic calendar is a lunar calendar having 12 lunar months in a year of about 354 days. Because this lunar year is about 11 days shorter than the solar year, Islamic holy days, although celebrated on fixed dates in their own calendar, usually shift 11 days earlier each successive solar year, such as a year of the Gregorian calendar. Islamic years are also called Hijra years because the first year was the year during which the Hijra occurred—Islamic prophet Muhammad‘s emigration from Mecca to Medina.

january-march

The Islamic or Hijri calendar does have 12 months the same as the gregorian calendar. These months are identified as:

1. Muharram محرّم (or Muarram al aram)

2. Safar صفر (or afar al Muzaffar)

3. Rabi’ al-awwal (Rabī’ I) ربيع الأول

4. Rabi’ al-thani (or Rabī’ al Thānī, or Rabī’ al-Akhir) (Rabī’ II) ربيع الآخر أو ربيع الثاني

5. Jumada al-awwal (Jumādā I) جمادى الاولى

6. Jumada al-thani (or Jumādā al-akhir) (Jumādā II) جمادى الآخر أو جمادى الثاني

7. Rajab رجب (or Rajab al Murajab)

8. Sha’aban شعبان (or Sha’abān al Moazam)

9. Ramadan رمضان (or Ramzān, long form: Ramaān al Mubarak)

10. Shawwal شوّال (or Shawwal al Mukarram)

11. Dhu al-Qi’dah ذو القعدة

12. Dhu al-Hijjah ذو الحجة

april-june

Now where the islamic calendar can become confusing is say for example, one looks at the sixth month, jumada al-thani. Because it is the sixth month one may mistakenly assume that it correlates to the sixth month of the gregorian calendar which is June. But because the islamic calendar is a lunar calendar where the days shift each year, the sixth month will actually rotate as well. It will always be the sixth month of the islamic calendar but unlike the gregorian, will not always fall at the same time or season of the year. To further explain, jumada al-thani may correlate with the gregorian month of June one year but several years later it may be Rabi al thani which correlates to the gregorian month of June.

july-september

Problems have occurred with conversion from hijri to islamic dates particularly when it comes to official documents such as passports, visas, national identity cards, marriage licenses, drivers licenses and other documents too. For example a Saudi travels outside of the Kingdom as a student and needs to obtain a local drivers license or wishes to apply for a credit card. If he or she is in the western world, the application must be completed in the host country language and most applications will require date of birth. This is where the Saudi will have to figure out the calculation from hijri to gregorian date. All official Saudi documents in the Arabic language naturally have the hijri date. It is not unusual for a Saudi to inadvertantly age oneself as either more advanced in years or younger in year due to miscalculations between hijri and gregorian dates. Or the year may have been converted correctly but the month or day will be incorrect. Most of the Saudis whom I have met and had the opportunity to check their identity cards or other documents which needed to be in English usually have a mistake made with the date whether it be the month, day or year.

octobber-december

One may not think this may pose a big problem but given how so much data is entered today in various databases, mistaken dates could also lead to problems with mistaken identity, particularly when taking into account how Saudi and other Arab names can be very common.

Note I included images of 2009 Gergorian Calendar vs Hijri Calendar to provide readers with a refernce for dates. The Hijri dates are the smaller font.

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37 Responses

  1. I have a Hejira year/Gregorian year calendar in the kitchen, it took some getting used to

  2. I can only imagine a Saudi with a name similar to one on the “no fly list” and documents with different dates on them due to calculation errors, or multiple versions of their name due to slightly different transliterations into various western languages:

    Just where do you think you’re going Youssef Mohamed, Yusuf Muhamad, Youssuf Mahamad born April 4 1990, June 5 1990, August 8 1991? :-)

    But then my Irish-Canadian friend whose name is as common as “Tommy Fitzgerald” finds himself on the newest version of the “no fly list” and is thinking of getting an Irish passport in Gaelic to avoid the hassle of “the list” :-)

  3. When you receive documents or if you are working in the kingdom and are required to prepare correspondence, is it assumed you always use the Islamic calender, or is there some sort of prefix you use after the date so you know what calender the sender/receiver is using?

  4. Actually, all of my husbands current documents, such as National ID, Driver’s licencse, work papers, our daughter’s birth certificate, passport, etc. all have regualr Gregorian dates, as well as Islamic dates for some of them. Maybe they have updated the system a little:) We did have a problem for a few years with my hubby’s passport having the wrong birthday, which needed to be fixed to do some business in the USA, and we found out that it is very common amongst Saudis to have the WRONG birthday on very important documents. My advice is to check, double check, then check again when getting any legal or important documents done here!

  5. Another great post from you, Carol. I personally know expats who could not enter the kingdom after a vacation because they assumed that the re-entry date was as per Gregorian calendar. I just wish that atleast for administration purposes the Gregorian calendar is followed uniformly. This link may be useful to your readers for converting from Gregorian to Hijra dates and vice versa.

    http://www.islamicfinder.org/dateConversion.php

  6. Most places in Saudi Arabia will cite both the Gregorian AND Islamic date on documents. It is a mandatory requirement where I work for example.

    Yes, even the important documents such as ID, passports, birth certificates may indeed have both dates, if they are Saudi issued, you can be relatively certain the Islamic date is correct but no so for the Gregorian. Even some of my own Saudi family members have documents where the gregorian date is incorrect and unfortunately it is not a quick and easy fix to get this documents corrected.

    Thanks for the great link expatguru.

  7. To make things even more confusing, there are *two* Hijri calendars.

    One is the official Um Al Qurra Calendar; dating from the days when the Ottomans ruled much of Saudi Arabia, this calendar has calculated the dates, month length, and Gregorian equivalent up to the year 2029 AD. This is the official calendar used by all government documents. Being from so long ago, this calendar is not very accurate astronomically speaking, but doubt over it’s accuracy has only been recently shed.

    The other is the “religious” calendar that is used for religious purposes (such as determining the first day of Ramadan) and is determined “on the fly” by personally observing the phases of the moon. This has it’s own problems. Reliant on error prone human sight, unreliable witnesses (there is no “official moon sighting committee” or such) and outside influences (such as the weather). This has meant that Muslims almost never fast or celebrate Eid on the same day. There have recently been lots of cries by many moderates to reform the system by using modern astronomic methods. Conservative clerics however maintain that only human sight is permissible.

    These two calendars are often unsynchronized. So it becomes very possible for me to fast the 2nd day of Ramadan, but write 1st of Ramadan on official paperwork. Saudi newspapers often have two hijri dates on their issues.

  8. i just wanted to say that i love your blog! keep up the great work!!

  9. Now it only follows Carol that you follow up this post with a post about the Arabs complete inability to keep up with time. Ive personally not come across a Bahraini that can arrive on time for anything…whether it be work…appointments…parties or meetings etc…or even dinner etc. So one would have to assume they use the hijri “clock” as well…always a little behind…lol.

    btw…Im not poking fun (well maybe a little) but it does get irritating when you are constantly kept waiting because 8:00 am to an American (or whomever) means 7:55 am generally….but to a Bahraini it can mean anything from 8:15 am to noon…and not necessarily the same day either….aarrrrgh!

  10. I actually had decided to that I would throw my fiance a lovely first western birthday party, including cakes, presents, party hats etc.. and invited all of our friends around on the day as a surprise… Imagine my embarrassment when he walked in and advised “actually shinowa (my nickname).. my birthday is in June, not January….
    Me: well why did you say January…
    Him: because I actually never checked it’s just not that important…I don’t know your calander!! LOL
    Needless to say we now tongue in cheek celebrate 2 birthdays!!

    Coolred, since my fiance has been here we began having arab time and Australian time…… needless to say if we actually managed to turn up to anything at the time that we are now told I am sure that we would be turning up 2 hours early!! Friends and family now compensate for arab time!

    Totally know where you are coming from on that one!!

  11. Aussiegirl – how funny! Fortunately my husband’s “gregorian day” is correct but the year on his documents is off as compared to the hijri date so we do manage to celebrate it accordingly! I just tease him about how many candles I should “really” put on the cake! (LOL)

    Yes…hubby and I will consult when going to a function because depending on who is hosting (Saudi or Westerner) we again adapt accordingly!

    Cross cultural relationships are so much fun!

  12. Carol,
    By adjusting do you mean ‘they are Arabs so they won’t be there anyway so we might as well not rush’ or has it become rude to actually show up on time? If an Arab is having you over for dinner to their house and they tell you it’s at 8 what time would you show up? What time would you actually eat? What if it was a non-Arab that invited you?

  13. Cross cultural time adventures:

    To quote my Arab sister-in-law: “The post wedding luncheon will be at noon [pausing while looking at me]…that means 2pm”

    Or my husband on arriving at 6:30 pm for an Arab organization’s dinner in Canada: “Oh they’re doing this Arab style—we won’t start eating for hours, and I have to go to work tomorrow!”

    Me to a subSaharan friend: “We’ll meet at 7pm –that’s Canadian time not African time”

    My subSaharan friend: “Oh you’re doing this Canadian style, you’re asking me two weeks in advance instead of the same day”

  14. Chiara covered it well, Lynn. If an Arab is having you over for dinner and says 8 (or typically they’ll say come anytime after the last prayer) one can show up around 10. The Arab style is to visit for several hours, serve the meal, have tea and then folks take their departure. Bear in mind, in some homes, the meal may not be served till after midnight.

    I remember when my husband and I were entertaining Arabs and Westerners and in typical American fashion, I was passing around finger foods and various other hot snacks. One Saudi guest (male) came over to my husband with an astonished look on his face saying “We’re eating NOW?” (meaning the evening just started and you’re wanting to get rid of us?!)

    I typically have a light snack before going to a Saudi home for dinner as I find it difficult to eat so late and if going to a wedding, don’t show up before 11pm at the earliest!!! (and yes, the invite will likely say 8 but it’ll be you and the catering crew….)

  15. Oh no I mistyped my e-mail address and lost my beautiful avatar! Hopefully it’s back. :-)

    American Bedu–hilarious, and I agree with your strategy of a light snack because one never knows when “real food” will be served.

    I had an order of fries and a small sandwich on the beach at 11:30 before the above luncheon, because I was part of the “catering crew”, and it was a good thing because the real guests arrived at 3-4 and we lunched at 4ish.

    We were once invited for a “Couscous” by Moroccan friends in Canada. The husband told us to come around 2, we got there at 2:30 (thinking we were splitting the “cultural lateness” difference). We were served juice and then Moroccan tea and sweets–clearly not pre-couscous fare, plus no major kitchen activity. We asked if we had mistaken the time and offered to leave and come back, but were reassured, no, no, stay we’ll be eating in a little while. Others receiving the same invitation drifted in at 4, 4:30, 5 pm. , and we did indeed have a wonderful couscous dinner, at 7:30– standard Moroccan dinner time.

    In my experiences when newly married Arab brides are bragging about their wedding they talk about how late it went. Thinking I was flattering a sister-in-law I said “Well yours went on to 5-5:30 am” ” Oh no”, says she “it went on until 6:30-7″ “Oh I guess we left early then”, said I, choosing concession, as the better part of familial valour, over the truth.

    Cross cultural time adventures still get us involved in “discussions”! :-)

    One last one:

    Him (in Morocco) Let’s get married in the summer.
    Me (in Canada). Well, let’s do it in the spring when I’m on a break.
    Him: Well, summer would be best.
    Me (starting to think nefarious psychoanalytic thoughts about why he is trying to delay the marriage): Well, what’s wrong with the spring?
    Him: Nothing, summer is good.
    Me (suppressing nefarious thoughts and trying to stay calm): Well, I find out where I will be come July in mid-uary so why don’t we get married in the spring right after I know for sure.
    Him: Right, summer, February-March.
    Me: Fine!

    Okay now, avatar, come back!

  16. edit: “come July in mid-February”

    Thank you avatar for coming back.

  17. Sorry, I find all this quaint cultural stuff stupid beyond belief. It’s like the USA adhering to the old English measurement system instead of the world wide metric system. Even the UK doesn’t use it anymore!!!

    Time to dump the Islamic calendar!! The clerics can let us know when Ramadan et al. is for the year. Or better yet we can make those dates stationary…perhaps reflecting better when they originally took place.

    I think writing the Islamic date on official documents and beginning all speeches and endeavors (including meals) with Bismallah…. is rather superstitious and ostentatious. It’s a sort of holier than thou effort.
    Your ever faithful, somewhat disgruntled saudiette signing off.

  18. My theory is that the USA has been using weights and measures to distinguish themselves since the American Revolution. Eg.:
    1 American gallon< 1 Imperial gallon
    1 American ton< 1 Imperian tonne

    And now they don’t change to metric because they don’t have to–others will accomodate them. Or its a plot to isolate their Canadian neighbours to the North (we switched to metric in the 80’s) with the eventual goal of taking us over–or maybe not :-)

  19. Ive never understood the late night delight among Arabs…the later the better in everything. Ive been to weddings in which I left long before the bride ever showed up…and I left around 2 am…

    Ive been invited to meals “after Isha” only to be kept waiting for hours…sometimes as late as midnight…for the meal…hard to enjoy a meal when your nodding your head and trying to keep your eyes from closing…sigh. Been here 22 years and I still havent been able to adjust my inner clock.

  20. Interesting post! It seems the Arabs are like the Latinos. I often hear of “Latin time” because they think nothing of showing up later than you had planned or told them to arrive. (My sister’s husband is from Venezuela.) I think that is true also in many other cultures so maybe we Americans and Canadians are the oddities on that. ;-)

  21. Americans also write the dates differently than the rest of the world, right? Like today is January 17, 2009 here, but 17 January 2009 in most other places. Are we the only ones like that? Does anyone know where that comes from? I tried looking it up online one time.

    Anyway…off to a birthday party. Thankfully, we eat before 2 AM over here. :-D I am dead asleep by that time of night!

  22. I have always interpreted the writing of the date as 17 Jan 09 as “military” or “government” format, but that is my own explanation. I’d have to do a little research to see if there is any official explanation.

    It does mean that one always has to double check closely when pertaining to dates and if in doubt, ASK!

    Yes, somehow Americans, Canadians, Germans, Swiss and Japanese have become know for their punctuality and close attention to time….while other nationalities are a bit more flexible.

  23. I have no problems with it,,,,as I am not the ‘punctual’ type :) I enjoy some confusion…….At least some cannot tell my age quickly enough…..they get lost in the conversion….lol

  24. Gigigirls…does the conversion fall in your favour or not…lol?

  25. According to todays calculation, I am younger in the Gregorian calender by 1 year,,,1 month and 10 days!!
    Amazing …..:))) I think I’d better stick by that!

  26. When I met my husband, he was three months older than me, according to the date on his Saudi passport. But he told me that he actually celebrates his birthday at the very end of Ramadan because that’s when he was born. This date changes every year. Then when he got his US passport, they had changed his official date of birth so that he was five months younger than me!!! So my husband has three different birthdays every year, so I figure he’s MUCH older than I am now, since I only have one!

  27. @Susie LOL Tell him he’s your combination boy toy/sugar daddy.

  28. Susie – how funny! Out of curiosity who was it that changed his date of birth on his US passport?

  29. Someone in the US government interpreted his Hijri date differently than the Saudi Government had – we were shocked when he got his paperwork back with the different date. He tried to have it changed, but got nowhere. So far it hasn’t been a problem, but I’m sure it will be one day…

  30. geez…..that is frustrating as I guess you would have to appeal to the passport office for a correction. Perhaps when it is time to renew his passport?

  31. is today frist day of zail hajj 1430 ah please confirm in due course of time by now???reply is immediately requrised…

  32. Hajj takes place 25 – 30 November.

  33. [...] Arabia follows the Hijri (Islamic Year) whereas most other places in the world follow the Gregorian calendar year.  Since I have [...]

  34. [...] of Dhu’l Qi’dah when ends with Eid al Adha. Since my blog runs on the Gregorian rather than the Islamic calendar, I thought it would be a good time to review what is going on and promote some of the upcoming [...]

  35. Try applying these dates to the requirements for maintaining Patents and Trademarks in Saudi.
    No fun at all.

  36. Assalamu alaikum..
    There is any one tell me 1990 on 13 january.. Islamic hijri on 1410
    I have ni i idea.! so which date on 13 january so any one replay me..
    my Id is anwarkhan845@gmail.com
    Thnak’s..

  37. [...] world.  The majority of the world uses the Gregorian dates and has little understanding of the Hijri calendar.   The Islamic or Hijri calendar is a lunar calendar based on phases of the moon and [...]

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