Of Dogs and Men

Of Dogs and Men

I’ve been getting some questions about Chinese New Year from non-Chinese Muslims who are either curious about the origins of Chinese New Year, or, would like to know if Chinese Muslims celebrate New Year. In short, Chinese New Year (CNY) is a holiday based on the Chinese calendar – a lunisolar calendar. Additionally, this calendar is steeped in tradition, superstition and formalities. But more importantly, what does it mean to say that 2018 is the “Year of the Dog?”

According to Chinese mythology, The Jade Emperor, a heavenly god, ordered a race. Based on the order of their arrival, all the animals who made it in time were included in the celestial calendar. Chinese tradition dictates that there are specific animals assigned to a repeating 12 year cycle. Each animal represents certain traits and behaviors. Some animals are likely to get along with other animals while other animals are believed to be incompatible with each other. Hence, if you were born in the year of that animal, you inherit certain animalistic traits that are in your favor. You can also have certain predilections that could cause your downfall, by virtue of being born in that year. While it seems similar to its counterpart, the Western Zodiac – based on months, it is wholly unique because the Chinese Zodiac is based on years and not months. There are a total of 12 animals and they are:

  1. Rat
  2. Ox
  3. Tiger
  4. Rabbit
  5. Dragon
  6. Snake
  7. Horse
  8. Goat
  9. Monkey
  10. Rooster
  11. Dog
  12. Pig

Therefore, because 2018 is the year of the Dog, 2017 would be the year of the Rooster, 2019 would be the year of the Pig and 2020 would be the year of the Rat. The overwhelming majority of Chinese people use this system to know who is born on what year. For example, 1950 is the year of the Tiger. So, instead of saying what year they are born in, they would say, I was born in the year of the Horse. That could mean 1954. Therefore across generations, you can have a grandparent who is born in the year of the Tiger, but 5 full cycles after or, 60 years, their grandchild is also born in the year of tiger. From an Islamic perspective, I do not see any problem with using this system to help keep track of who is born on what year. One may argue that stating the year is an easy alternative. But this goes back to custom. Using this form of calculation is too common in Chinese culture and thus there is no problem from an Islamic perspective if meant to help remember. After all, it is less likely that you confused someone with being born in a different animal year. But you could be confused if they were born in 1978 or 1979. But what is likely problematic is when people use this folklore system to its fullest to determine lucky numbers, colors, flowers and whom to marry. This would fall into shirk and one should stay away from it.

Importantly, Chinese mythology states that there is a dangerous beast called Nian (Year) that terrorizes the local population when the new year comes in. So in order to protect themselves, Chinese people would use firecrackers, lion dances and the use of red in almost everything to scare the beast away. Chinese people would also clean and sweep their houses, not necessarily for spring cleaning per say, but because a clean house wards evil spirits away. While many Chinese people do not necessarily think much about the historical and theological background of Chinese New Year or Nian, many have secularized the holiday as a time to get together with family for meals and good times. It is the equivalent of Thanksgiving and Christmas wrapped in one.

In short, I would not say that a Chinese Muslim who travels to see his family and enjoys a good meal at home during this time is in the red (no pun intended). Additionally, I would not condemn someone who uses the Chinese Zodiac to identify birth years. But no one should be believing that because you are born in the year of the Dragon, therefore you are lucky on this year but deeply unlucky in another year. I would also not participate in Chinese New Year celebrations because they are deeply influenced by paganism, idolatry and folklore religion. If you are not Chinese, you have no reason to dabble in any of these.