Religion 101

With the end of the annual Hajj period fast approaching, Muslims today (as I write, Friday, October 26) are celebrating the first day of a major multi-day Islamic holiday.

The conclusion of the Hajj, or pilgrimage at Mecca, is marked by the celebration of one of Islam’s two most important holiday festivals, the one known as Eid al-Adha (“Feast of Sacrifice”).

(The other major Islamic holiday festival, Eid al-Fitr [“Feast of Fast-Breaking”] is celebrated at the end of the month-long fast during Ramadan, which occurred in August of this year.)

Bringing to a festive yet pious conclusion the events of the annual Hajj, Eid al-Adha is a three-day holiday celebrated not only in Mecca, but globally — by all Muslims everywhere (it’s not just for the pilgrims in Mecca alone).

On the Islamic lunar calendar, Eid al-Adha always runs from the 10th to the 12th days of the lunar month of Dhu al-Hijjah. This year, those dates coincide with Oct 26 – 28, 2012 on the Western or Gregorian calendar.

(Technically speaking, since the Islamic calendar reckons “days” as beginning and ending at sunset, Eid al-Adha actually began at sunset last night, on Thursday, October 25.)

Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice, commemorates the faithfulness of the patriarch Abraham (Ibrahim in the Arabic of the Quran), who at God’s command was willing to sacrifice his own son (per the Quran, his first-born son Ishmael, rather than his younger son Isaac, as in the Bible) in a dramatic test of faith.

During Eid, Muslims worldwide will purify themselves, put on their best clothing, recite ritual prayers, and sacrifice an animal, thereby following the example set by Abraham when God substituted a ram in place of his son Ishmael as the sacrificial offering. The meat of animals sacrificed during Eid is eaten and shared communally with others, including the poor.

To Muslims everywhere, may I wish you Eid Mubarak (Arabic for “Blessed Eid!”) and Eid Saeed (“Happy Eid!”)


Today (as I write, Wednesday, October 24), millions of Muslims from all over the world are arriving in the holy city of Mecca, in Saudi Arabia. They are converging upon this holiest of Islamic holy cities on the eve of the annual period set aside each year to accommodate the millions of Muslim pilgrims who converge here each year in order to fulfill one of the mandatory “Five Pillars” of Islam: the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca.

This pilgrimage is a mandatory religious duty, which must be completed at least once in the lifetime of every Muslim who is both physically and financially able to make the journey. This year (2012), some 3.4 million pilgrims are expected to attend.

The Hajj (Arabic for “pilgrimage”) occurs each year during the twelfth and final month of the Islamic calendar, a month referred to by its Arabic name of Dhu al-Hijjah. More narrowly, the precise period of time which is specifically set aside during this month to accommodate the annual pilgrimage runs from the 8th to the 12th days of Dhu al-Hijjah.

On the Western (or Gregorian) calendar for 2012, tomorrow — Thursday, October 25 — corresponds to the Islamic calendar’s 8th day of Dhu al-Hijjah. So, it is tomorrow that the five-day Hajj itself will formally begin.

The Islamic calendar, unlike the Western Gregorian calendar, is a lunar calendar. Because of differences in the lengths of months, and in precisely when months begin and end, there is a certain amount of inbuilt “drift” between the two calendars; their respective months are not always in sync with each other.

This means that Islamic calendar months, such as the month of Ramadan or the month of Dhu al-Hijjah, do not always correspond to the same days or months each year on the Gregorian calendar. Last year, for example, the month of the Hajj (Dhu al-Hijjah) fell upon Oct 28 through Nov 25, 2011. Next year, by contrast, the month of the Hajj will occur Oct 6 through Nov 4, 2013.

This year, however, the lunar month of Dhu al-Hijjah will coincide with October 17 through November 14, 2012. And the specific five-day Hajj period itself will run October 25 – 29, 2012. (Last year, due to Gregorian/Islamic calendar “drift,” the Hajj ran November 4 – 7, 2011)

During this brief time frame, over three million Muslim pilgrims from around the globe will participate in one of the world’s largest religious pilgrimages. Islam’s holy prophet Muhammad himself performed the Hajj, but the roots of this ritual pilgrimage at Mecca are also believed by Muslims to stretch all the way back to the time of the ancient patriarch Abraham.

For Muslims, this once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage experience is a profound, deeply moving, even life-changing event. For additional specific details on the nature of the Hajj itself and what it consists of, please refer to my special article entitled “The Hajj: Pilgrimage to Mecca,” currently featured on the home page.


In a previous series of blog entries, I addressed a common basic question: How MANY religions are there?

In my immediately preceding blog entries, I addressed a followup question: How BIG are the religions?

In this blog entry, I’d like to round out this preliminary overview of the global religious landscape by addressing another followup question: How OLD are the religions?

For the major world religions, the simple answer is: pretty old. Most of them are 2000+ years old.

This bar graph presents the relative ages (in years) of each of the major world faiths. Hinduism is the oldest, with roots stretching back some 4000 years, or more; Sikhism is the youngest, being only about 500 years old.

As the chart indicates, among the very oldest religions are Hinduism, Judaism, and (possibly) Zoroastrianism. The roots of Hinduism stretch back at least to India’s Vedic era, and perhaps even further back, into pre-Vedic times (2000 BC, or earlier). The roots of Judaism stretch back to the time of the patriarch Abraham, traditionally dated at around 1800 BC. The precise age of Zoroastrianism, the religion of ancient Persia, remains a matter of some controversy; conflicting dates suggested for the era of its founding prophet Zoroaster range from the 18th to the 6th centuries BC.

A number of major religions seem to have all gotten their start, in different places around the globe, at roughly the same time: the 6th century BC. Jainism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and possibly Zoroastrianism (if one favors a later rather than an earlier date for Zoroaster) were each born in that religiously creative century. The Tao Te Ching, the foundational text of Taoism, is also traditionally attributed to a 6th-century-BC sage known as Lao Tzu, but more recently scholars have suggested a somewhat later date for its composition.

Christianity, of course, is right at about 2000 years old, having gotten started with the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth (and his apostles, such as Paul) during the 1st century AD. Indeed, our Western (Gregorian, Christian) calendar revolves around the presumed date of the birth of Christ as the axis point which divides all of time and history into two eras, referred to as B.C. (“Before Christ”) and A.D. (Anno Domini, Latin for “In the Year of the Lord”).

As religions go, then, Christianity (at only 2000 years of age) is one of the younger ones. And Islam is even younger still (by about 600 years). Although Muslims point out that the Arabic term islam merely means “submission” to the will of God, and further holds that Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Moses were among the first such “submitters,” Islam as a distinctive religious movement did not appear on the scene until the prophet Muhammad established it in Arabia in the 7th century AD, making Islam in this sense some 1400 years old.

The precise origin of Shinto, the indigenous traditional religion of Japan, is a bit hazy to date with precision; many place its origins at somewhere roughly around perhaps the 8th century AD (or at least that is when written records pertaining to Shinto beliefs and practices first appeared in Japan).

Sikhism, the youngest of the world’s major faiths, was founded in India by Guru Nanak right around 1500 AD.

So, that’s it, at least as far as the major religions are concerned. But what about some of the other, perhaps smaller but nevertheless well-known religions — religions such as Baha’i, Christian Science, Mormonism, Rastafarianism, Scientology, Wicca, or the Unification Church? How old are they?

For them, the simple answer is: not very old. All of those aforementioned faiths are not only far smaller than the major faiths, but also far younger, each of them having been born as recently as the 19th or 20th centuries.

Baha’i was founded by Baha’u’llah in Persia in the mid- to late 1800s. Christian Science was founded in Boston by Mary Baker Eddy in the late 1800s. Mormonism was founded by Joseph Smith in western New York in the early 1800s. Rastafarianism was founded in Jamaica around 1930. Scientology was founded by L. Ron Hubbard in New Jersey in 1953. Wicca is a modern revival or reconstruction of ancient European forms of indigenous paganism, whose varying traditions began to emerge in Britain in the early to mid-1900s. And the Unification Church was founded in South Korea by Sun Myung Moon in 1954.

Most of today’s well-known “alternative” religions are of far more recent vintage than the larger, longer-established faiths — which count their own ages in terms of many centuries, even millennia, rather than in mere decades (or at most a couple of centuries).

However, it is perhaps also wise to remember that even the largest and longest-enduring major religions of today must have also started out at one time as small, young “minority religions” themselves, during their own early formative eras.