When is Ashura (07.05.2018)
Observed in Countries with Shia Muslim populations
Observed on First 10 days of Muharram, the first month in the Islamic calendar
Observed by Primarily Shia Muslims
After the two Eids-Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha- Ashura is the third most important Islamic festival.
The word ashura means “ten” in Arabic; the festival’s name means “the tenth day.” Ashura falls on the 10th day of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar. The day marks the martyrdom of Hussein bin Ali, Muhammad’s grandson and the third Shia imam, at the Battle of Karbala in 680. The Battle of Karbala was a watershed in the history of Islam, because it was fought between Sunni and Shia Muslims over who was Muhammad’s legitimate heir to the leadership of Islam.
For Sunni Muslims Ashura has been observed as a single day of austerity and fasting since the early days of Islam. It commemorates two biblical events: the day Nuh (Noah) left the Ark, and the day that Musa (Moses) was rescued from the Egyptians by God. The Shia, who consider Hussein the true successor to Muhammad, treat Ashura as a somber 10-day event, and every evening for 10 days imams whip devotees into frenzies of guilt and breastbeating.
Plays depicting the death of Hussein bin Ali are also often enacted with as much elaboration as can be managed. On the first day of Muharram, people put on their mourning clothes and do not shave or bathe. The culminating events of the 10-day observance are processions of Shia men in which some of the more devout practice self-mortification and express their grief by beating their chests, flagellating themselves with iron chains, and cutting themselves with swords. In this way participants show their willingness to sacrifice themselves and atone for being too much like the Kufans, who failed to support their would-be leader, allowing him to be butchered by the Umayyad caliph Yazid (c. 645–83). In Karbala, Iraq, Ashura concludes on the 10th day with a procession that ends at the Mashhad al-Hussein, a shrine traditionally recognized as Hussein’s tomb.
People throughout the Muslim world fast on Ashura (either in memory of the martyrs or following Muhammad’s example), maintain a somber mood, and prepare several special dishes to be consumed by families, communities, friends, and acquaintances. Eating food from the same pot creates and maintains harmony, peace, and cordial interpersonal relationships among the individuals.
Origins and History
Karbala, which means “anguish and vexation,” is situated 50 miles southwest of Baghdad and about 6 miles west of the Euphrates River. On the 10th day of the month of Muharram in 680 the political ambitions and thirst for power of Yazid, the Sunni caliph of Damascus, led to the massacre of the Shia imam Hussein bin Ali and his sons, along with 18 relatives, 54 friends, and all the women and children with him. After the death of Muhammad in 632, this battle is considered the second most important event in the history of Islam.
During the pre-Islamic period on the Arabian Peninsula, fighting was prohibited for four months of the year. These months, including what became the first month of the Islamic calendar, were considered sacred. The tradition was maintained even after the advent of Islam, though there were provisions to wage war in special situations. The gory Battle of Karbala was a flagrant violation of this law. The inhabitants on the banks of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates were traditional rivals. Their animosity was controlled to a certain extent by Muhammad. But when his son-in-law Hazrat Ali was made caliph, the old enmity between the groups resurfaced. Hazrat Ali had two descendants, Hazrat Imam Hussein and Hazrat Imam Hassan. The former was the ruler of a kingdom, part of which is now Iran. The other half of the kingdom was made up of the area of modern-day Iraq, which was ruled by the Umayyads.
Hussein was called upon by the Shia of Kufa, a small town in the Umayyad kingdom, to accept their allegiance and claim his place as the leader of the Islamic community. This was vehemently opposed by the Umayyad caliph, Yazid, who instructed his governor Ibn-e-Ziad to take appropriate action. Meanwhile in response to the request of the Shia, Hussein, accompanied by his family, set out for Kufa. When they reached Karbala, en route to Kufa, the forces of the governor ambushed them. Abandoned by the Shia of Kufa, Hussein, his family, including his two sons, and his troops were tortured and brutally killed; Hussein was decapitated, his head was impaled on a spear, and it was carried back to Damascus. His body, however, was buried at Karbala.
Hussein’s death is generally viewed in Shia circles as a heroic fight against tyranny, injustice, and oppression. Among the Shia, “Every day is Ashura, and every land is Karbala.” In Iran, Ashura-including its doctrine of martyrdom and messianic redemption-became a key political symbol of the Islamic revolution (1978–79), and banners proclaimed, “We are not the people of Kufa.” The same was the case in Lebanon during the civil war (1975–76) that raged there.
In the early days of Islam, Muhammad decreed that the date in the Muslim lunar calendar of the Jewish observance Yom Kippur be observed by the devout with a 24-hour fast. Even though, in due course, it was superseded by the more popular Ramadan fast, Muhammad continued to fast on Ashura and suggested that others do so as well; he believed that people who fasted on that day would have their sins of the previous year pardoned by God.