Ashura: Commemoration

Quick Facts

  • Summary: an Islamic festival commemorating several significant events, including the death of Husayn ibn Ali and the saving of the Israelites from the Egyptians
  • 2019 Date: 9th September (starting at sunset on 8th September)
  • Celebrated by: Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims (although for different reasons), many Islamic countries as a national holiday
  • Linked Holidays: Mourning of Muharram, Eid al-Ghadir (Islam), Yom Kippur (Judaism)

Background and Theological Significance

Ashura (in Arabic, عاشوراء‎عاشوراء) is an important Islamic festival that falls on the tenth day of the month of Muharram. The name ‘Ashura’ literally translates as ‘the tenth day’. The day is considered by Muslims to commemorate several significant events within their liturgical and political history. Sunni Muslims typically observe Ashura as a memorial of the day that Allah opened the Red Sea to save the Israelites from Pharaoh’s army. However, Shi’a Muslims predominantly associate Ashura with the death of Husayn ibn Ali, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, during the Battle of Karbala in 680 CE. Shi’ites believe that Husayn’s father Ali ibn Abi Talib (Muhammad’s son-in-law) and his family were the rightful successors to the Prophet, in opposition to the many other claimants to the leadership following his death. Ali was assassinated in 661 CE and was replaced as caliph by his opponent Muawiya and later Muawiya’s son Yazid. Husayn refused to accept the legitimacy of Yazid’s rule and faced him in the Battle of Karbala. His fearlessness and devotion to the Shi’a cause led to his being considered a martyr. The death of Husayn is thought to have occurred on the day of Ashura, and is considered to mark the splitting of the Sunni and Shi’ite traditions. For Shi’ite Muslims Ashura is the focal point of the Mourning of Muharram, a series of rituals to commemorate Husayn’s death and the Battle of Karbala.

The festival of Ashura is celebrated by almost all Muslims, although the differences between Sunni and Shi’a observances demonstrate one of the primary reasons for their historical division. Ashura has often been compared to the Jewish observance of Yom Kippur, as according to Islamic tradition the Prophet Muhammad was influenced to establish Ashura as a fast day after witnessing Jews observing Yom Kippur. In the modern day, both festivals act as times for remembrance and repentance within the communities.

History

According to the ‘sunnah’ (Islamic oral tradition), when the Prophet Muhammad came to Medina he found the local Jewish population observing the Yom Kippur fast in honour of the Prophet Musa (Moses) and in thanks to G-d for saving the Israelites from Pharaoh and the Egyptians. Muhammad encouraged his followers to share in this tradition by fasting on the tenth day of Muharram. However, due to changes in the calendar calculations, the observance of Ashura later became distinct from Yom Kippur. Muhammad established the month of Ramadan as a compulsory fast, with the fast of Ashura being made voluntary, although it continued to be a recognised festival. Throughout the centuries Ashura gradually became associated with many other important religious events, such as the day when Noah first left the Ark, in addition to celebrating the arrival of Muhammad in Medina following the Hijra.

Following the death of Husayn ibn Ali at the Battle of Karbala on the day of Ashura, the day quickly took on an additional significance for Shi’ite Muslims. Husayn’s grave became a place of pilgrimage for his followers, and rituals of remembrance developed for public gatherings on Ashura. The first ten days of Muharram became an extended period of mourning for Shi’ites, with rituals including processions, pilgrimage to Husayn’s tomb and self-flagellation. This understanding of Ashura as a day of sorrow and penitence remains to this day within Shi’a Islam, whereas it is perceived as a day of celebration for Allah’s deliverance of Moses within Sunni Islam. Due to this division, Ashura has often been a politically charged festival and a focus for sectarian violence over the centuries.

The day of Ashura occurs on the tenth day of Muharram, which is the first month in the Islamic Hijri calendar. The Hijri calendar is approximately eleven days shorter than the Gregorian calendar due to being based on twelve lunar months rather than one full solar cycle. Accordingly, the dates for the month of Muharram and therefore for Ashura move forward by eleven days every year according to the Gregorian calendar.

What Happens?

The observances associated with Ashura depend upon whether it is observed by Sunnis or Shi’ites. Sunni Muslims typically celebrate Ashura as a memorial of Allah’s saving of the Israelites. Although fasting is not compulsory, many Sunnis fast on Ashura and the day beforehand (the ninth and tenth of Muharram), just as the Prophet Muhammad himself did. Some Sunnis also make a point of recalling the death of Husayn, who is regarded as a brave and selfless man. However, these observances pale compared to the significance within Shi’a Islam. The ninth and tenth days of Muharram (Tasua and Ashura) are a time for sorrowful recollection of the events of Karbala. It is typical to wear mourning clothes and to take part in prayer rituals and passion plays to honour Husayn and his followers. Music, dance and other indications of joy are forbidden, and it is prohibited to plan weddings or celebrations on Ashura. Many Shi’a Muslims will make a pilgrimage to the Mashhad al-Husayn (Husayn’s tomb) in Karbala in order to pay their respects. Another significant custom is to take part in solemn public processions on the day of Ashura. Some Shi’a men demonstrate their devotion by self-flagellating with scourges and swords, to share in the bloodletting of Karbala. However, this practice has been condemned by many Muslim leaders, who have instead encouraged people to donate blood to those in need.

For Shi’ite Muslims, Ashura is a day of great significance. Not only is it a time to remember the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, it is a symbol of the ongoing struggle against injustice and oppression. Although Sunni Islam has different theological understanding of Ashura, it shares with Shi’a Islam a liturgical sense of the division between wordly tyranny and the will of Allah. Both traditions can encourage their followers to stand up against oppression and to commit themselves once again to their faith even in the face of suffering.

Mourning of Muharram in cities and villages of Iran-342 16 (48)‘ by Payam Moeim is licensed under CC by S.A 4.0

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