Let the once dead earth be a sign to them. We gave it life, and from it produced grain for their sustenance. We planted it with palm and the vine and watered it with gushing springs, so that men might feed on its fruit. It was not their hands that made all this. Should they not give thanks?
Spring and all its flowers
now joyously break their vow of silence.
It is time for celebration, not for lying low;
You too — weed out those roots of sadness from your heart.
Hafiz (Poetry Chaikhana)
Nowruz, or No Ruz, (Navroz) meaning ‘new day,’ is the first day of the first month (Farvardin) in the Persian calendar also marking the arrival of Spring. Although the festival, which dates to the sixth century BCE, is observed by many cultures and countries along the Silk Road, its earliest origin lies in Zoroastrianism, one of the oldest monotheistic religions, founded by the Prophet Zoroaster in Persia about 3,500 years ago.
Since ancient times, Spring has been a celebration when the Sun begins to overcome Winter’s cold and darkness and there is a renewal of growth in nature.
Mary Boyce notes that Zoroaster taught:
“Our “limited time” will … be succeeded by the “Time of Long Dominion” (virtually eternity), with the world and all that is in it restored to the perfect state in which it was created by Ahura Mazda [God]. A traditional spring festival, ushering in the loveliest season of the year with joyous festivities, could thus, be renamed the “(festival of the) New Day” and celebrated with religious rites, be a recurrent reminder of the unique “New Day” which will eventually bring everlasting bliss; and so this observance could aid faith and deepen understanding of doctrine” (Nowruz In the Pre-Islamic Period).
Ancient Persian scriptures suggest that there were several feasts to celebrate the many seasons such as mid-Spring, mid-Summer, return of cattle from pastures, crop harvesting, among others. Boyce states that “the first of them, mid-Spring, celebrated the first creation, sky; and so on through the year, with homage to water, earth, plants, and cattle…and the sixth feast commemorated the creation of man…. The seventh feast, No Ruz, which honours fire, celebrated the creation which brought life and energy to all the rest…” (A Persian Stronghold of Zoroastrianism, p 206).
In preparation for New Day in ancient Persia, seven kinds of seeds were sown beforehand, whose shoots came up green and fresh on the day of No Ruz/Nawruz, symbolising new growth. The growing of barley was viewed as a particular blessing.
Nawruz has been observed by agrarian people deeply connected to the land for thousands of years to welcome the resurgence of life in the fields, offer gratitude for the blessings, and celebrate the spirit of hope and renewal. Today, the Persian New Year is celebrated on March 21, which coincides with the Spring equinox in the northern hemisphere.
In Fatimid Egypt (909-1171), “Navroz was observed as a national festival with all its Persian rituals: wearing new clothes, sprinkling water, kindling fire, carnivals, singing and playing music, official public receptions, exchanges of gifts, recitation of congratulatory poems, and distributing alms.”1
Unlike other religious festivals that remember an event or a person Nawruz focuses on nature and spirit; it is tied to the changing of the season and the renewal of the land. In the Qur’an, God has entrusted humans with two tasks: to be His servant, and to be the stewards of His creation. Nawruz is a time for spiritual renewal and a time to reflect on humankind’s responsibility towards God’s magnificent creation.
In esoteric traditions, Shafique Virani states:
“…At the exact moment of the equinox, the Sun crosses the celestial equator, marking in the northern hemisphere when day begins to gain ascendancy over night, and light over darkness. The moment has had tremendous symbolic signiﬁcance throughout history in the art, architecture, ritual and literature of many cultures across the globe.
In al-Athar al-baqiya (‘Vestiges of the Past’) and al-Mahasin wa’l-addad (‘Book of Beauties and Contraries‘), after discussing the Prophet’s positive opinion of giving gifts that sow love in the hearts of people, al-Biruni (d. 440/1048) records:
It is reported that the Commander of the Faithful, ‘Ali (upon whom be peace) was approached by a group of Persian chieftains, who presented him with gifts of silver bowls ﬁlled with sweets. He asked, ‘What are these for?’ They replied, ‘Today is Nawruz.’ He replied, ‘May all of our days be Nawruz!’ They ate the sweets, which he served his sitting companions, dividing the bowls among the Muslims (“Spring’s Equinox, Nawruz in Ismaili Thought,” Intellectual Interactions in the Islamic World p 456).
Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq is reported to have said:
“…the day of Nawruz is the day God accepted the covenants of his servants to worship him and not to associate anything with Him and to believe in His prophets and Proofs and to believe in the imams. It is the first day upon which the sun rose and the winds blew and the splendour of the world was created. It is the day Noah’s Ark grounded upon Mount Ararat…. It is the day on which Gabriel came down to the Messenger of God… It is the day on which the Prophet ordered his companions to pledge allegiance to Ali as Commander of the Faithful… (Ibid p 457).
The writings of Fatimid intellectuals, including such figures as Abu Ya’qub al-Sijistani (d. after 361/971). al-Qadi al-Nu’man (d. 363/974), Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani (d. after 411/1020), al-Mu’ayyad fi’l-Din al-Shirazi (d. 470/1078), and Hakim Nasir-i Khusraw (d. after 462/1070), emphasise the importance of understanding the world and faith by maintaining a proper balance between their exterior, physical, literal and apparent forms (their zahir) and their esoteric, spiritual, symbolic and intellectual realities (their batin)… (Ibid. p 459).
“…Hakim Nasir-i Khusraw said that by revelation or tanzil, literally ‘descent,’ intellectual matters are expressed in a perceptible form. Meanwhile, by the process of symbolic interpretation, or ta’wil, the perceptible forms are taken back to their original intellectual state” (Ibid. p 459-460).
1al-Ṣayyād, pp. 115-26, citing Qalqašandi, Maqrizi, and Nowayri, NOWRUZ ii. In the Islamic Period, Encyclopædia Iranica
Mary Boyce, NOWRUZ i. In the Pre-Islamic Period, Encyclopædia Iranica,
Mary Boyce, A Persian Stronghold of Zoroastrianism, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1977
Shafique N. Virani, “Spring’s Equinox: Nawruz in Ismaili Thought” published in Intellectual Interactions in the Islamic World, Edited by Orkhan Mir-Kasimov, I.B. Tauris, London, 2020
Contributed by Nimira Dewji. Nimira is an invited writer although she has contributed several articles in the past (view previous articles). She also has her own blog – Nimirasblog – where she posts short articles on Ismaili history and Muslim civilisations. When not researching and writing, Nimira volunteers at a shelter for the unhoused, and at a women’s shelter. She can be reached at email@example.com.