Origin of Navroz and Ismailism

Mumtaz Ali Tajddin S. Ali is an popular author, He has written many books on history and culture of Islam and Ismailism, Origin of Navroz and Ismailism is taken from his popular book Encyclopedia of Ismailism, must read about Other Ismaili Occasions, Ismaili Imams, Ismaili history, culture and Tradition.

Navroz is a Persian word, meaning new day of the year. The Arabs pronounced it as Niruz or Nairuz. The Sogdians called it Nau-Sard (the new year), and also is called Nishat Afroz Jashan in Iran. It is a spring festival, beginning with the first day of the Persian solar year, corresponding to the vernal equinox and the entry of the sun into the sign of Aries, and continued until the 6th day of the month. The last day was known as the Great New Year"s Day (al-Niruz al-Akbar).

On the day of Navroz the sun completes its cycle of passing through all the Celestial Stations which are twelve in number, and enters the first one which is known as haml. A celestial station is known in Arabic as buruj. The names of the twelve celestial stations through which the celestial bodies (the planets) annually pass are given below along with the Zodiac signs:-

1. Haml - Ram - Aries 31 days
2. Thaur - Bull - Taurus. 31 days
3. Jauz - Twins - Cemini. 31 days
4. Sarthan - Crab - Cancer. 31 days
5. Asad - Lion - Leo. 31 days
6. Sumbula - Virgin - Virgo. 31 days
7. Mizan - Balance - Libra. 30 days
8. Aqrab - Scorpion - Scorpio. 30 days
9. Quas - Archer - Sagittarius. 30 days
10.Jadi - Goat - Capricorn. 30 days
11.Dalv - Water-bearer - Aquarius 30 days
12.Huth - Fishes - Pisces. 29 days

The days when the sun completes its stay in the last celestial station, i.e. huth and enters the first celestial station, i.e. haml, this day falls on 21st March, and is known as Navroz.

The Koran says: "Factually the number of months in the eyes of God, in the Book of God from the day He created the earth and the heaven, are twelve." (9:36)

The astrologers and astronomers have divided the year into twelve parts, taking into account the movement of the earth and the sun and each such part is known as the celestial station. After the entry of the sun in the celestial station (haml), it passes through all the other stations mentioned above and also the durations as stated above. It takes the sun 365 days and nights, 5 hours, 28 minutes and 50 seconds to complete the full circuit and to return to the celestial station (haml). This entry of the sun is known as the Tahweel-e-Shams (Sun"s entry). The first day of the sun"s entry in the celestial station (haml) falls on 21st March, and is a new year"s day and is Eid-e-Navroz.

Considerable importance is attached to this day, for it was on this day that the sun shone brightly from the celestial station (haml). On this day, God created the earth, the universe, the cold winds started to blow, and the earth became fertile to bear trees, vegetables and fruits, and other necessities for mankind.

In 3266 B.C. reigned the first king of Iran, called Kumers. He determined the days and the seasons in a year and he also determined the first day of the sun in the celestial station (haml). The dates and the years came to be accounted since then, and he ordered all learned people to pronounce and to proclaim the importance of that day. About hundred years after Kumers, Jamshed became the king of Iran, and he called this day Navroz. He celebrated his coronation on this day, and observed the day as a festival of Eid.

Muhammad Bakir Majlisi quotes a number of traditions from the Imam in the 14th volume of his Bihar al-Anwar, who reports a tradition related by Moalla bin Khunais that Imam Jafar Sadik said: "It was on Navroz that Adam was created, that God made a covenant with the souls, that Abraham destroyed the pagan idols, that the Prophet of Islam received first revelation, that the Prophet took Ali on his shoulders to smash 360 idols in Mecca, and most important of all, that he declared Ali as his legitimate successor."

Navroz was marked in Damascus by exchange of gifts during the period of the Umayyads. Yaqubi (2:366) writes that caliph Umar II abolished the Navroz and Mihrjan gifts through a royal decree he issued. Later, caliph Yazid II re-introduced in the state.

The Abbasid caliphs used also to give importance to this day. Caliph Mansur declared this day as Eid and greetings were exchanged in the court to celebrate Eid-e-Navroz. The people during the Abbasid period rose early in the morning and went to the wells or streams, drew water in a vase and poured it over themselves. Tabari (3:2163) writes that they also sprinkled water on each other. In the time of caliph Mutawakkil, the Navroz was celebrated with great pomp and rejoicing. He is said to have struck five million dhirams, painted in various colours and showered them upon his officials. Masked actors (ashab al-samaja) appeared before the caliph, who flung coins to them and distributed roses fashioned from red amber. Ibn Zubayr reports that at one Navroz, the play of samaja was arranged for the caliph Mutadid, which cost 13,000 dinars. A variety of sweet dishes, such as sabuniyya and lawzinaj were cooked, and the people then distributed them to one another. Under caliph Mutawakkil, according to Tabari (3:1448), the poet Buhturi says: "the Navroz day has again become the same as was instituted by Ardasher." Not unlike the Persian kings, the Abbasid caliphs used to appear in their chambers, clad in gorgeous attire, in order to receive the present personally." It was also marked by an exchange of gifts. Tanakhi (d. 384/994) writes in his Nishwar al-Muhadara (8:145) that caliph Mutawakkil used to sit in his chamber from morning to the evening, accepting the gifts offered to him by the high officials and other dignitaries.

In Baghdad, the common people, on this festive occasion, illuminated their houses with cotton pods (habb al-qutn) and clay censers (al-majamir al-tin), vide Nishwar al-Muhadara (1:143). The royal houses, at the same time, would be illuminated with pods of costly materials, such as zahri cloth (the light cloths) soaked in oil of balsam (dahn al-balsan), and other fragrant and expensive oils were burned in censers of stone (al-majamir al-biram).

During the six days of Navroz festival, the people in Baghdad gathered in the streets and lit fires. Tabari (3:2163) writes that in 284/897, caliph Mutadid tried to prevent the unrestrained rejoicing in the streets during the summer weather, but after two days he was obliged to let public resume their customary practice. Ibn Hawkal (d. 367/ ) writes that in the 10th century in Jibal, the people celebrated Navroz festival for seven consecutive days with much enthusiasm and gaiety. They cooked a number of delicious dishes and donned elaborate costumes and spent a lot of money on the festivities. They also indulged in various sports, organized singing parties, and feasted even on the roofs of their buildings. Prof, Tritton quotes a passage in Sketches of Life under the Caliphs (MW, LXII, 1972, p. 145) from an unpublished text of Hilal al-Sabi"s Kitab al-Hafawat about the Navroz during the Abbasid period at Baghdad. Sabit notes that the people in Baghdad hired a special cook to work during the night to have the dishes fresh in the morning, and gave parties for relatives and friends, at which they served green melons, plums, peaches and dates. Women made a point of buying perfumes for the day, and tortoises were brought in to drive devils from the house. Eggs were dyed in various colours. To sprinkle perfume on a man and tread seven times on him was a means of driving away the evil eye, laziness and fever. Antimony or rue was used to improve the sight during the coming year; it was a good day for taking medicine. Respectable people hit each other with water-skins or threw water about in their houses or gardens, while common folk did this in the streets. Makrizi writes in his Khitat that the Abbasid caliph Mutawwakil struck five million dhirams painted in various colours, red, yellow and black, for showering upon his officials. Masked actors, too, appeared before the ruler who flung coins at them.

Navroz was celebrated also in Syria and Egypt under the Fatimids, vide Makrizi"s al-Khitat (4:241-2). Its celebration in Cairo appears to have been well established at the time of the Fatimid conquest of Egypt. On that occasion, the Imam rode to the Azhar mosque under a golden parasol (mizalla mudhahhaba), carrying the staff (qadib), wearing a white turban and a cowl (taylasan), and girded with a sword. He was accompanied by five thousand men in a procession. The Imam also presented costumes with siglaton robes. A grand banquet was then followed. The chief steward (sahib al-ma"ida) and his servants carried trays from the palace, containing one hundred collections of wide bowls covered by silk round pieces, on top of which were mats scented with a light musk (misk fatih). When the banquet was over, each person took what was left over "for honour and blessing" (al-sharaf wal-baraka). Prince Tamim (337-374/948-984), the eldest son of Imam al-Muizz was one of the renowned poets. In his Diwan (ed. M.M. al-A"zami, Cairo, 1957), he eulogizes the Imam that:-

If Navroz is a festival of joy and delight, it is through your light that it has come to be so.

In Egypt, the festival of Navroz was celebrated with great pomp. It must be known that Egypt under the Fatimid remained largely a Sunni country and Ismailism won only a limited following among the population. Cairo alone housed a large Sunni population. When Imam al-Muizz found that the general Muslims took less interest publicly in the festival, he prohibited public festivities on Navroz in 363/974. Thus, the celebration first moved to the streets of Cairo, to the Azhar, and, finally, to the palace itself. These changes show in part how a popular celebration moved progressively close to the Ismaili centre of Cairo and ultimately was assimilated into the ceremonial of the court. The general population probably did not desist from its customary practices on the festival, but the ceremony that took place at court was stripped of all popular elements.

The Ottoman Turks had adopted it for the feast which ended the fast, which was called the Feast of Sugar (sheker-bairami). It was originally held at the summer solstice, on the 21st June, but gradually, in consequence of the difficulty of correcting the calendar, it was shifted towards the spring equinox, and the reform of Jalaluddin Malik Shah fixed it on the 21st March, the date which the Nauruz-i Sultani has kept to the present.

The Navroz was also celebrated in India during the period of the Mughal empire. On the occasion of Navroz, the most picturesque ceremony in the court was the weighing of emperor Akbar against seven kinds of grain, coral and gold. Emperor Akbar and Jhangir festiviated with great pomp, but Aurengzeb had abolished it. He substituted for Navroz another imperial feast, which was to begin in the month of Ramazan and to continue upto the Eid al-Fitr. This was called as Nishat Afroz Jashan. But the later Mughal emperors revived the Navroz festival, which was celebrated for nine days. On the first day, the emperor gave away a gold chain of an elephant in alms and sit on the weighing scale. In the court, he occupied the peacock throne, and pearls and rubies were scattered among those present. Outside the court, the procession of the elephants and horses passed before the emperor. The nobles presented gifts. On one occasion, Shams ad-Dawla Khan-i Dauran Mansur Jang, offered the emperor Muhammad Shah, one lac of rupees and a garland of pearls worth of twenty-five thousand of rupees each. The emperor on his part honored them with the khilats. Next day, the emperor again took his seat on the throne and the nobles again offered presents who missed on the first day. On the third day again the emperor took his seat on the throne and witnessed dance and music party. Thus, during these nine days all sorts of recreative festivities were organized and gifts were exchanged.

Navroz is seen to be celebrated by a number of Shi"ites and the Sufis. The Bektashi Sufi order in present day in Turkey, for instance, celebrate Navroz (pronounced nevruz in Turkish) not because of the new year it is to herald, but to commemorate the birthday of Imam Ali bin Abu Talib, also in his capacity as the symbolic founder of most Sufi orders throughout Islamic history. Navroz is observed among the Turks of Anatolia at the time of the equinox, on the ninth day of March.

The eight Ismaili Imams flourished in Alamut in Iran for about 171 years. The eighteen Imams then also resided in different villages during post-Alamut period for about 582 years. Iran is the original home of Navroz celebration, and it is most probable that the Iranian Ismailis continued to celebrate Navroz with other Shi"ites. Thence, it appears that the ceremony took its root in Syria, Central Asia and India.

Today the essence of Navroz is captured in its nation-wide celebrations which are spread over more than two weeks of holidays when all Iranians, irrespective of their religion, ethnic origins or age participate in festivities. It commences frfom the last Wednesday of the year popularly called Chahar-shambeh suri until the thirteenth day called sizdah-bedar after the New Year. The perpetual bringers of the tidings of New Year are the clowns of the traditional folk theatre called Haji Firuz. Apparelled in red jester-like satin costumes, with faces blackened by charcoal, and playing a tambourine, several persons dressed as Haji Firuz dance through the torchlit streets during the Navroz period singing and dancing to the rhythm of the tambourine, from street to street and town to town, to the delight of all. In some province of Iran, starting a month before Navroz, special troupes of singers move from province to province singing special songs heralding the joyous coming of the New Year.

On New Year"s eve, the exact second of the change of the old to the new year, known as Mowqey-e-tahwil-e-sa"l is astrologically calculated and noted. To await this moment, all family members dressed in new clothes and finery must be together. For this occasion, the house is full of the heavy scent of the burning of aloe-wood and other fragrant incenses. Typical Iranian music emanating from the tar (a lute with long neck and six springs), santur (dulcimer played with two sticks) and ney (reed flute) entertains the guests. Sugar-plums, pistachio-nuts, almonds and takhmeh (melon seeds) are distributed to all eagerly awaiting the New Year. As the chimes of the clock broadcast over the radio or television, toll out the old year, recitation of Koranic verses and special prayers usher in the New one. At this moment, family members approach each other, embrace, kiss and congratulate one another with greetings of Eid-e-shoma Mubarak, Sa"l-e-shoma Mubarak (may your Eid and New Year be blessed), Tabrik arz Mikonam (accept my New Year wishes). Everyone resolves to bury their differences of the past 12 months and to start afresh. Gifts are exchanged and all gather round the banquet table for a feast. It is customary to lay on a table a ceremonial display called Sufreye-Nawruz, consisting of a mirror, a copy of the Koran, live goldfish in a bowl, green sprouts of wheat grain and lentils, coloured eggs, and Haft-Sin, which is a large platter filled with seven dishes (haft sin). Each dish bears in haft-sin the name, beginning with the Persian letter sin i.e., sib (apple), sir (garlic), sumak (sumac), sinjib (jujbe), samanu (a kind of sweet-dish), sirka (vinger) and sabzi (greens), which are placed on a cloth spread on the floor in front of a mirror and candles in company with dishes of certain foods.

The Navroz holidays officially last 13 days when all Iranians visit many friends as possible and exchange Eidy or festive gifts. The first day is reserved for respected elders of the family who in turn return the visit. Everywhere a festive mood prevails; tea, sweetmeats, ajil (dried fruits and nuts), conversation and music flow.

The thirteenth day of Navroz called sizdah bedar (thirteenth out of doors) is traditional spent out in the woods or parks. Every Iranian family leaves home early in the morning, and equipped with mats, picnic materials and musical instruments, search pleasant sites. Each family has brought the sprouted wheat and lentils from their Navroz Sufreh, which they will cast away for good luck. It is considered lucky to eat a special thick soup ash, made from noodles on this day. The soup and its accompanying garnish fried onions, garlic, yoghurt, white cheese, sauce and vinegar is taken along. At lunch time, meat and an array of vegetable stews to eat with rice, simmered with delicate spices to a rich goodness, are laid out. To round off the substantial meal is an assorted collection of freshly-picked fruits (miveh), grapes, pears, apples and cherries. The thirteenth of Navroz is never complete without young girls tying knots in the grass found in the plains to ensure they will find husbands during the New Year.