Wednesday,22 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1251, (18 - 24 June 2015)
Wednesday,22 November, 2017
Issue 1251, (18 - 24 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Day of Zachariah in Iraq

Once a time for prayers for children, the Day of the Prophet Zachariah in Iraq is now a time for hopes of peace and national reconciliation, writes Nermeen Al-Mufti in Baghdad

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The first Sunday in the eighth month of the Islamic (lunar) calendar Sha’aban is called the Day of the Prophet Zachariah in Iraq, a day on which all Iraqis, regardless of religion or sect, celebrate in special ceremonies.

In the Holy Quran, the Prophet Zachariah is the father of Yahya (John), born as a gift of God although he and his wife were 90 years old at the time. Verse seven from Surah Maryam in the Holy Quran says, “O Zachariah, indeed We give you good tidings of a boy whose name will be John. We have not assigned to any before [this] name.”

There is a verse with a similar meaning in the Gospel of St Luke in the Bible (1: 12-13), “and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth.”

“The Day of Zachariah is a very Iraqi day. I don’t think that other nations celebrate it,” says Jinan Ali, a specialist in Iraqi traditions and heritage. He added that “we don’t know why it is on the first Sunday of Shaaban. Maybe it was the day when the Almighty sent the angel to tell him about the coming son, saying that he should fast and not speak to others for three days.”

“The Day of Zachariah began centuries ago when a woman fasted and did not speak on the first Sunday of Shaaban and asked the Almighty for a son, vowing that she would celebrate the day next year and distribute food and sweets,” said Layla Hassan, a housewife, who had had her son after lighting a candle the year before.

“The traditional tray is the most beautiful and exciting part of the ceremonies,” she added.

To prepare the tray, which is placed in the middle of a guest room or garden, candles of different sizes, sweets, nuts and pottery mugs and drums are all arranged. A housewife prepares a tray to fulfil her vows, placing candles for each member of the family, saucers with candies and nuts, a small bowel of henna, and pottery mugs for each son on it.

If the woman is a Muslim, there will also be a Holy Quran and a prayer mat with a jug of water beside the tray. A tradition says the Prophet Zachariah will come by the house at dawn using the water for ablutions before prayer, reading the Quran, and giving his blessing to the house. The tray will also include further places for other candles to be lighted when vows are made. 

“Years ago, this Day was one of joy and happiness,” says Eqbal Aziz, a 75-year-old grandmother, adding, “I remember as if it was yesterday when the children used to chant, ‘O Zachariah, come back to me, I will prepare the tray for you,’ while the older boys used to bang pottery drums.”

“On such days, women would make a vow to have a child if they did not have one, or mothers would make a vow to have a son if they only had daughters. Sometimes young women used to light candles hoping to get married before the Day came around again the following year,” she said.

Aziz said she used to celebrate the Day like her late mother did before her until the Iran-Iraq War began in the 1980s and her eldest son became a soldier. Then she lighted candles praying for his safety. “As one war came after another, this Day that had been one of joy and thankfulness and blessed ceremonies became a day of tears when every mother lighted candles for the safety of her sons.”

The Day of the Prophet Zachariah is not a religious day, but is an inherited tradition in Iraq. In the magazine Al-Turath Al-Shaabi, a heritage publication, the late scholar Abdel-Hamid Alwachi wrote that “Iraqi women rely on their memory to show their commitment to reviving religious and folk heritage events. They know the dates and days by heart without referring to the calendar.”

Regarding the characteristic tray, he wrote that “childless women should prepare the tray themselves, as should a mother who wants a son.” It should be decorated with myrtle and orange leaves, he added.

This year, Iraqi markets, especially the Shorja market in Baghdad, are full of the colourful goods used on the Day of Zachariah.

But the ongoing violence and the suffering of the internally displaced people in Iraq have meant that the joy associated with the Day has been attenuated, with many vowing to pursue peace and national reconciliation on this traditional day.

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