Annually on 21st March, Ismaili Muslims celebrate the festival of Navruz alongside millions of people from different cultures and faith communities across the globe. Navruz is a Persian word and it literally means “new day,” heralding renewal of life and new beginnings and marks the spring equinox threshold, after which the days begin to lengthen – signifying not only a season of bounty, but a time for renewed optimism, a time of joy, a time of happiness, and a time of celebration. Navruz is referred interchangeably as Navroz, Nevroz or Nauruz, and marks the beginning of the year in the Persian calendar.
The Qur’an says:
“The number of months in the sight of Allah is twelve (in a year) – so ordained by Him the day He created the heavens and the earth; ….” [9:36]
The notion of ‘new beginnings’ is a common thread that runs through all celebrations of Navruz across its long history, starting in pre-Islamic Persia and stretching into many locales. In Fatimid Egypt and in India during the Mughal period, for example, Navruz was observed as a national festival, during which people wore new clothes, sang and played music, recited poetry, and distributed alms. In modern-day Badakhshan, Navruz is known as ‘the Great Festival,’ symbolizing friendship and renewal of all beings.
With the spread of Islam around the world and a greater convergence of cultures and customs, Muslims adopted local customs and rituals as their own. The cultural festival of Navruz was no exception. It was celebrated during the Fatimid period and today it is celebrated by many Muslims throughout the world, including those in Central Asia, Egypt, India, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria and Turkey. On this day we gather with the community to have special prayers, and recite munajats, hamd, naat, qasidas or ginans.
Navruz signals the coming of Spring and the first day of the year in many of the world’s solar calendars, corresponding to the vernal equinox and the entry of the sun into the sign of Aries (al-Hamal/Ram), 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). Winter is a season that is seen as a sign of darkness. With the arrival of Spring, nature blossoms and there is an awakening of the natural world. Spring symbolizes rebirth and rejuvenation after the lifeless darkness of winter. We make a fresh start in our lives just like the new leaves, buds and flowers in spring. We look forward to the new year with hope that it will be a happy one.
The celebration of Navruz is diverse across the globe, incorporating local traditions and customs, but the notion of nature and reflection runs through all celebrations. In Iran, for example, Navruz celebrations last for several days and people mark Navruz with different customs. Important among them is the custom of setting up the Haft Seen “Seven Items”, the names of which start with the Persian alphabet “seen“, such as soeb, meaning apple, sirkeh, that is vinegar, and sabzeh meaning wheat, are arranged on a table or in a corner in their homes. These seven items, for many, are symbolic reminders of God’s infinite blessings and grace.
Now joyously break their vow of silence.
It is a time for celebration, not lying low.
You too – weed out those roots of sadness from your heart.
This verse from a poem by Shams-ud Din Hafiz (1315-1390), a Persian Sufi poet, evokes the spirit of Navruz celebration.
A poem by Prince Tamim al-Fatimi (948-984), the son of Mawlana al-Mu’izz (a.s), in his Diwan (ed. M.M. al-A’zami, Cairo, 1957), eloquently links the Imam-Murid relationship with Navruz “You are born for grace and eminence, and such gifts are indeed innate to your nature… You are the light from which we seek illumination, the gracious beloved for whom ransom is given. Through you, our days of tyranny turn to order, and the unconquerable, deceitful time is humbled. If Navruz is a festival of joy and delight, it is through your light that it has come to be so… O son of the Prophet, God’s blessing be on you! You are a time-tested blade to fight life’s sorrows.”
The question we must all ask of ourselves is: “What does Navruz mean to me?” It is a day of renewal and hope. With the advent of spring, we can observe the bounties of God all around us. Observing creatures and vegetation awakening from a long winter’s sleep, prompts us to awaken ourselves spiritually. This idea of transformation and awakening is beautifully reflected in the Holy Qur’an [50:9-11] where Allah says:
“And We send down from the sky rain-water charged with blessing, and We produce therewith gardens and grain for harvests; and tall palm-trees with shoots of fruit stalks piled one over another; as sustenance for (Allah’s) servants; and We give (new) life therewith to land that is dead; thus will be the resurrection”.
Mawlana Rumi sees spring as a symbol of spiritual awareness for it revives beautiful flowers and plants that were buried under the earth and snow. With the arrival of Navruz, the sun fully manifests itself and transforms ice into its original form of water, which results in awakening of life on earth. He compares winter to a person who is only engaged in material life without spiritual awareness. Mawlana Rumi says that, esoterically, the Murshid (teacher) is the spiritual Sun, who brings to life the dead soul of a Murid (believer).
The theme of renewal should be familiar to us, not only from our own celebration of Navruz, but also because it is a repeated theme in the Qur’an which tells us of the great bounty of Allah’s creation. In the Holy Qur’an, Surah Ya-Sin, 33-35, Allah invites human beings to observe nature and reflect on His signs in creation and appreciate the blessings with which we have been endowed.
“A sign for them is the earth that is dead: We do give it life, and produce grain therefrom, of which you do eat. And We produce therein orchards with date-palms and vines, and We cause springs to gush forth therein: that they may enjoy the fruits of this: it was not their hands that made this: will they not then give thanks?”
Such references to the creations on earth in the Holy Qur’an are signs for us to take a meaningful pause to observe the surrounding environment and the elements of nature within it. Such reflective observations may instill in us a feeling of awe and wonder that sparks true gratitude towards God. During his speech at the inauguration of the Aga Khan Garden in Alberta on 16 October 2018 Mawlana Hazar Imam said:
“The symbol of the garden as a spiritual symbol goes back to the Holy Qur’an itself – where the garden ideal is mentioned many times. Down through many centuries, Islamic culture has continued to see the garden as a very special place, where the human meets further proof of the Divine.”
Through the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), Prince Karim Aga Khan has sponsored the regeneration and establishment of a number of gardens that offer beautiful environments for all people to harmoniously engage with and thoughtfully reflect over nature and its significance in our lives. Many of the AKTC projects have utilized natural elements from the environment, such as light, water, green spaces, and natural stones, to highlight the splendor of nature and to remind us of Allah’s beauty, grace and mercy. The gardens and terraces of the Aga Khan Center in London and the many water and landscape features of the Ismaili Centers around the world are reflective of a dialogue between human creativity and divine will.
In many of his speeches the Aga Khan has mentioned water as the source of life that restores, renews and refreshes, as well as the use of light which, he says: ‘speaks to us of the Divine Light of the Creator, reflected in the glow of individual human inspiration and vibrant, transparent community’ (28 May 2010, Toronto, Canada). Thus, there is an encouragement from Hazar Imam for us to think about and care for the environment and the earth on which we live. Navruz being a festival that celebrates renewed life, is an ideal occasion for us to reflect on how we can live in harmony with our fellow beings and the natural environment. When we protect and honor nature, we are fulfilling our duty as guardians and stewards of God’s creation.
In reminding ourselves of the blessings we have received, we also become more aware of the greatest gift of Allah’s rahma, which is the guidance from the Holy Qur’an. Indeed, the celebration of Navruz is intimately linked to Imamat in various communities. The Bektashi Sufis, for example, celebrate this day as the birthday of Imam ‘Ali, (a.s).
Let us take a moment, in the spirit of Navruz, to reflect on the year that has passed and to resolve, once again, to do our best in serving humanity. Let us resolve to be generous, to be united and to live by the ethics of Islam.
It is important to note that our faith is one of joy and happiness, and Navruz/Spring is a wonderful reminder of that. As poet Hafiz tells us in his poem, spring is a time for us to focus on the beauty of the reawakening world around us and to allow that beauty to renew our feelings of joy and happiness.
As we celebrate Navruz, let us seek inspiration from our faith to take care of the environment that God has provided for us and to be grateful for His Divine blessings. Navruz must also be a day of thanksgiving for all that God has given to us; a day on which we count our blessings. Let us recommit to remain united under God’s benevolence and work for the betterment of all humankind as well as the natural world.