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Ashura** - [Islamic day of mourning (Shi'a) and/or fasting (Sunni)]

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Thu, 16/12/2010 - 01:00 - 12:00


The Day of Ashura is on the 10th day of Muharram in the Islamic calendar and marks the climax of the Remembrance of Muharram. 

It is commemorated by Shia Muslims [the approx 15% of Muslims who believe that the Prophet's decendants are the true leaders of Islam] as a day of mourning for the martyrdom of Husayn ibn [son of] Ali, the grandson of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad at the Battle of Karbala on 10 Muharram in the year 61 AH (October 2, 680 CE). 

[On the other hand, a]ccording to Sunni Muslim tradition, [the tradition of approx. 85% of Muslims whose representatives "elect" or "choose" the Caliph, their leader (who, in fact, as Islam grew from being tribal to being "imperial" in size and nature) has often been a hereditary ruler, i.e. rulers of the Ottoman empire] Muhammad fasted on this day and asked other people to fast. 

[As mentioned above, i]t is commemorated by Shia Muslims as a day of mourning for the martyrdom of Husayn ibn [son of] Ali, the grandson of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad at the Battle of Karbala on 10 Muharram in the year 61 AH (October 2, 680 CE). 

History of the commemoration by Sunni Muslim.

According to Sunni Muslim tradition, [also as mentioned above Muhammad fasted on this day and asked other people to fast.  

Sunni Muslims also remember the day claiming that Moses fasted on that day to express gratitude to God for liberating the Israelites from Egypt. 

In some Shia countries and regions such as Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Lebanon, Bahrain, Commemoration of Husayn ibn [son of] Ali has become a national holiday and most ethnic and religious communities participate in it.  Even in predominantly Hindu country like India, Ashura (often called Moharram) is a public holiday.  India is home to more than 40 to 55 million Shiites. 

Etymology of Ashura

The word ashura simply means tenth in Arabic language; hence the name of the remembrance, literally translated, means “the tenth day”.  The day is indeed the tenth day of the month, although some Islamic scholars offer up different etymologies.  In his book …, Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jilani writes that the Islamic scholars have a difference of opinion as to why this day is known as Ashura, with some scholars suggesting that this day is the tenth most important day that God has blessed Muslims with. 

History of the commemoration by Shi’a.

This day is well-known because of mourning for the martyrdom of Husayn ibn [son of] [son of] Ali, the grandson of Muhammad and the third Shia Imam, along with members of his family and close friends at the Battle of Karbala in the year 61 AH (680 CE).  Yazid I was in power then and wanted the Bay’ah (allegiance) of Husayn ibn [son of] Ali.  Many Muslims believe Yazid was openly going against the teachings of Islam in public and changing the sunnah [“usual practices”] of Muhammad. 

Husayn in his path toward Kufa encountered the army of Ubayd-Allah ibn [son of] [son of] Ziyad, the governor of Kufa.  On October 10, 680 (Muharram 10, 61 AH), he and his small group of companions and family members, who were between 72 and 100 men  fought with a large army of perhaps more than 100,000 men under the command of Umar ibn [son of] [son of] Sa’ad, son of the founder of Kufa.  Husayn and all of his men were killed.  Before he died, he said “if the religion of Mohammad was not going to live on except with me dead, let the swords tear me to pieces.”  Some of the bodies of the dead, including that of Husayn, were then mutilated. 

Commemoration for Husayn ibn [son of] Ali began after the Battle of Karbala.  After the massacre, the Umayyad army looted Husayn’s camp and set off with his women and children for the court of Ibn Ziyad.  A moving oration delivered by Zaynab [the Prophet’s daughter in law?, wife?] in Kufa is recorded in some sources.  The prisoners were next sent to the court of Yazid, Umayyad caliph, in Damascus, where one of his Syrian followers asked for Husayn’s daughter Faimah al-Kubra, and once again it was Zaynab who came to the rescue and protected her honour. 

The family remained in Yazid’s prison for a time.  The first assembly (majlis) of Commemoration of Husayn ibn [son of] Ali is said to have been held by Zaynab in prison.  In Damascus, too, she is reported to have delivered a poignant oration.  The prison sentence ended when Husayn’s 4 year old daughter, Janabe Sakina died in captivity, a young girl who would stand at the window of the prison and tell the ladies who would gather outside about the tragedy that befell her family.  Her death caused an uproar in the city, and Yazid - fearful of a revolution that may have begun as a result - freed the captives. 

“Zaynab bint Ali quoted as she passed the prostrate body of her brother, Husayn.  “O Muhammad!  O Muhammad!  May the angels of heaven bless you.  Here is Husayn in the open, stained with blood and with limbs torn off.  O Muhammad!  Your daughters are prisoners, your progeny are killed, and the east wind blows dust over them.”  By God!  She made every enemy and friend weep.”  [In] Tabari, History of the Prophets and Kings, Volume XIX The Caliphate of Yazid.    

Husayn’s grave became a pilgrimage site among Shi’a only a few years after his death.  A tradition of pilgrimage to the Imam Husayn Shrine and the other Karbala martyrs quickly developed, which is known as Ziarat Ashura.  The Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs tried to prevent construction of the shrines and discouraged pilgrimage to the sites.  The tomb and its annexes were destroyed by the Abbasid caliph Al-Mutawakkil in 850-851 and Shi’a pilgrimage was prohibited, but shrines in Karbala and Najaf were built by the Buwayhid emir ‘Adud al-Daula in 979-80.   

It did not take long for public rites of remembrance for Husayn’s martyrdom to develop from the early pilgrimages.  Under the Buyid dynasty [(945–1055), the Islāmic dynasty of pronounced Iranian and Shīa character that provided native rule in western Iran and Iraq in the period between the Arab and Turkish conquests], Mu’izz ad-Dawla officiated at public commemoration of Ashura in Baghdad.  These commemorations were also encouraged in Egypt by the Fatimid caliph al-’Aziz.  From Seljuq times, Ashura rituals began to attract many participants from a variety of backgrounds, including Sunnis.  With the recognition of Twelvers as the official religion by the Safavids, Mourning of Muharram extended throughout the first ten days of Muharram.   

This day is of particular significance to Shi’a and Alawite Muslims, who consider Husayn (the grandson of Muhamad) Ahl al-Bayt the third Imam and the rightful successor of Muhammad.  Many Shi’as make pilgrimages on Ashura, as they do forty days later on Arba’een, to the Mashhad al-Husayn, the shrine in Karbala, Iraq that is traditionally held to be Husayn’s tomb. 

On this day Shi’a are in remembrance, and mourning attire is worn.  They refrain from music, since Arabic culture generally considers music impolite during death rituals.  It is a time for sorrow and respect of the person’s passing, and it is also a time for self-reflection, when one commits oneself to the mourning of the Husayn completely. 

Weddings and parties are also never planned on this date by Shi’as. 

Shi’as also express mourning by crying and listening to poems about the tragedy and sermons on how Husayn and his family were martyred.  This is intended to connect them with Husayn’s suffering and martyrdom, and the sacrifices he made to keep Islam alive.  Husayn’s martyrdom is widely interpreted by Shi’a as a symbol of the struggle against injustice, tyranny, and oppression. 

Shi’as believe the Battle of Karbala was between the forces of good and evil with Husayn representing good while Yazid represented evil.  Shi’as also believe the Battle of Karbala was fought to keep the Muslim religion untainted of any corruptions and they believed the path that Yazid was directing Islam was definitely for his own personal greed.

Shia Imams strongly insist that the day of Ashura should not be taken as a day of joy and festivity.  According to a hadith which is reported from Ali some people fabricated a hadith claiming it was on that day the God forgave Adam, Noah’s Ark rested on dry land, The Israelites were saved from Pharaoh’s army, etc.  The day of Ashura, according to Eighth Shia Imam, Ali al-Rida, must be observed as a day of inactivity, sorrow and total disregard of worldly cares. 

Many of the events associated with Ashura are held in special congregation halls known as “Imambargah” and Hussainia.   

As suffering and cutting the body with knives or chains (matam) have been prohibited by many Shi’a marjas like Ali Khamenei, Supreme Leader of Iran, some Shi’a observe mourning with blood donation which is called “Qame Zani” and flailing.  Yet some Shi’ite men and boys, considered heretics by many Muslim scholars, slash themselves with razors (zanjeer) or swords (talwar) and allow their blood to run freely.   

Certain rituals like the traditional flagellation ritual called Talwar zani (talwar ka matam) using a sword or zanjeer zani or zanjeer matam, involving the use of a zanjeer (a chain with blades) are also performed.  These are religious customs that show solidarity with Husayn and his family.  People mourn the fact that they were not present at the battle to fight and save Husayn and his family.   

At least many Shia believe that taking part in Ashura is to be absolved of sin.  A popular Shia saying has it that, `a single tear shed for Husayn washes away a hundred sins.`

Popular customs

For Shi’as, commemoration of Ashura is not a festival, but rather a sad event, while Sunni Muslims view it as a victory God has given to his prophet, Moses.  This victory is the very reason, as Sunni Muslims believe, Muhammad mentioned when recommending fasting on this day.  For Shi’as, it is a period of intense grief and mourning.  Mourners, congregate at a Mosque for sorrowful, poetic recitations such as marsiya, noha, latmiya and soaz performed in memory of the martyrdom of Husayn, lamenting and grieving to the tune of beating drums and chants of “Ya Hussain.” Also Ulamas give sermons with themes of Husayn’s personality and position in Islam, and the history of his uprising.  The Sheikh of the mosque retells the Battle of Karbala to allow the listeners to relive the pain and sorrow endured by Husayn and his family.  In Arab countries like Iraq and Lebanon they read Maqtal Al-Husayn.  In some places, such as Iran, Iraq and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, Ta’zieh, passion plays, are also performed reenacting the Battle of Karbala and the suffering and martyrdom of Husayn at the hands of Yazid.   

For the duration of the remembrance, it is customary for mosques and some people to provide free meals (Niazz) on certain nights of the month to all people.  Many people donate food and Middle Eastern sweets to the mosque.  These meals are viewed as being special and holy, as they have been consecrated in the name of Husayn, and thus partaking of them is considered an act of communion with God, Hussain, and humanity. 

Many participants congregate together in public processions for ceremonial chest beating (matham/latmiya) as a display of their devotion to Husayn, in remembrance of his suffering and to preach that oppression will not last in the face of truth and justice.  Others pay tribute to the time period by holding a Majilis, Surahs from the Quran and Maqtal Al-Husayn are read. 

Today in Indonesia, the event is known as Tabuik (Minangkabau language) or Tabut/Tabot (Indonesian).  Tabuik is the local manifestation of the Shi’a Muslim Remembrance of Muharram among the Minangkabau people in the coastal regions of West Sumatra, particularly in the city of Pariaman.  The festival includes reenactments of the Battle of Karbala, and the playing of tassa and dhol drums.   

In countries like Turkey, there is the custom of eating Noah’s Pudding (Ashure) as this day in Turkish is known as Aşure. 

In some countries other religious communities commemorate this event. 

In Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica all ethnic and religious communities participate in this event, locally known as “Hosay” or “Hussay”, from “Husayn”. 

Significance of Ashura for Sunni Muslims

Sunni Muslims fast on this day of Ashura based on narrations attributed to Muhammad.  The fasting is to commemorate the day when Moses and his followers were saved from Pharaoh by Allah by creating a path in the Red Sea.  The Jews used to fast on the 10th day (see Yom Kippur).  So Muhammad recommended to be different from the Jews and recommended fasting two days instead of one.  9th and 10th or the 10th and 11th day of Muharram. 

According to Hadith record in Sahih Bukhari, Ashura was already known as a commemorative day during which some Meccans used to observe customary fasting.  In hijrah event when Muhammad led his followers to Medina, he found the Jews of that area likewise observing fasts on the day of Ashura.  At this, Muhammad affirmed the Islamic claim to the fast, and from then the Muslims have fasted on combinations of two or three consecutive days including the 10th of Muharram (e.g. 9th and 10th or 10th and 11th). 

A companion of Muhammed, Ibn Abas reports Muhammed went to Medina and found the Jews fasting on the tenth of Muharram.  Muhammed inquired of them, “What is the significance of this day on which you fast?”  They replied, “This is a good day, the day on which God rescued the children of Israel from their enemy.  So, Moses fasted this day.” Muhammad said, “We have more claim over Moses than you.” Muhammed then fasted on that day and ordered Muslims too.   

The Ashura is commemorated for the following occasions which may have occurred on the 10th Day of the Muharram in different years:

God had mercy on Adam

The deliverance of Noah from the flood   

Abraham was saved from Nimrod’s fire   

Jacob’s blindness was healed after Joseph’s shirt was brought to him on this day (Quran)

Job was healed from his illness   

The Israelites were saved from Pharaoh’s army.   

Jesus was brought up to heaven after attempts by the Romans to capture and crucify him failed.   

Not all of the above incidents are confirmed to have taken place on Ashura in the Quran, nor by any strong Hadith.  These have been reported in the weaker Hadith, but are nevertheless regarded possible by some of the Sunni Muslims.  However many Islamic scholars like Mufti Taqi Uthmani [who?] rebuke such beliefs saying that “there are some legends and misconceptions with regard to ‘Ashura’ that have managed to find their way into the minds of the ignorant, but have no support of authentic Islamic sources”.   

The narrations of Muhammad mentioning the Children of Israel being saved from Pharaoh are indeed confimed by authentic hadith in Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim. 

Today, Sunnis regard fasting during Ashura as recommended, though not obligatory, having been superseded by the Ramadan fast.   

Sunnis in Egypt customarily eat a pudding (also known as Ashura) after dinner on the Day of Ashura; it is a wheat pudding with nuts, raisins, and rose water, and it is also known in Turkish as Aşure. 

Shia View

However this fast is widely disputed by Shias.  While fasting is a great form of worship, the Shia have reservations regarding the fast of Ashura.  It is always recommended to fast, anytime throughout the year (except Eid), but the problem is that there is a history of politics behind the fast of Ashura. 

Killing the very grandson of the Prophet was a major crime, so Banu Umayya attempted to shift the focus of the people for the day of Ashura to conceal its real roots in the martyrdom of Husayn.  Possessing power and money, they spread to the Muslims the opinion that Ashura is a blessed day.  They did so by indoctrinating their people that on Ashura God saved the Prophet Musa and his people from Pharaoh, saved the Prophet Ibrahim from the fire of Namrud and so on.  To thank God for that blessed day, they encouraged the people to fast on Ashura.  Banu Umayya were behind this so-called tradition, and considering it a blessed day is not only an offence to the Shia but more importantly an offence to Muhammad. 

Socio-political aspects

Commemoration of Ashura has great socio-political value for the Shi’a, who have been a minority throughout their history.  “Al-Amd” asserts that the Shi’a transference of Al-Husayn and Karbala ‘from the framework of history to the domain of ideology and everlasting legend reflects their marginal and dissenting status in Arab-Islamic society’.  According to the prevailing conditions at the time of the commemoration, such reminiscences may become a framework for implicit dissent or explicit protest. 

It was, for instance, used during the Islamic Revolution of Iran, the Lebanese Civil War, the Lebanese resistance against the Israeli occupation and in the 1990s Uprising in Bahrain.  Sometimes the `Ashura’ celebrations associate the memory of Al-Husayn’s martyrdom with the conditions of Islam and Muslims in reference to Husayn’s famous quote on the day of Ashura: “Every day is Ashura, every land is Karbala”.   

From the period of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution (1905–11) onward, mourning gatherings increasingly assumed a political aspect.

Following an old established tradition, preachers compared the oppressor’s of the time with Imam Husayn’s enemies, the umayyads.   

The political function of commemoration was very marked in the years leading up to the Islamic Revolution of 1978-79, as well as during the revolution itself.  In addition, the implicit self-identification of the Muslim revolutionaries with Imam Husayn led to a blossoming of the cult of the martyr, expressed most vividly, perhaps, in the vast cemetery of Behesht-e Zahra, to the south of Tehran, where the martyrs of the revolution and the war against Iraq are buried.   

On the other hand some governments have banned this commemoration.  In 1930s Reza Shah forbade it in Iran.  The regime of Saddam Hussein saw this as a potential threat and banned Ashura commemorations for many years.  In the 1884 Hosay Massacre, 22 people were killed in Trinidad and Tobago when civilians attempted to carry out the Ashura rites, locally known as Hosay, in defiance of the British colonial authorities. 



World faiths have for centuries celebrated key events or aspects of their religious tradition.

Such celebrations have been an opportunity to re-enact and re-live encounters with and experiences of the Divine. These significant moments, celebrated each so differently, all converge in their shared belief in something both within and transcendent of this world. Rosh Hashanah, Easter, Eid al-Fitr, Dipavali, Vesakh, Vaisakhi and numerous other significant celebrations mark this calendar.

Their respective meanings, their purpose for being on the calendar, vary widely.

However, a common thread is that love, faith, compassion, atonement, forgiveness, thankfulness, leadership, protection, generosity, indeed a sense of the Divine, infuse these celebrations and bring them to life in the spirit of community.

Whatever your faith, tradition, customs, language and heritage, celebrations are a defining part of our Australian identity and history.

May yours bring you a sense of peace and hope in the coming year!

George Lekakis, Chairperson, Victorian Multicultural Commission.


* Jewish holidays typically begin at sunset on the evening before the indicated day.

** Local customs and tradition differences may vary this date.

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