The Day of Ashura (عاشوراء , Ashura, Ashoura, and other spellings) is on the 10th day of Muharram in the Islamic calendar and marks the climax of the Remembrance of Muharram but not the Islamic month.
It is commemorated by the Shi‘a as a day of mourning for the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of the Islamic prophet Muhammad at the Battle of Karbala on 10 Muharram in the year 61 AH (October 10, 680 AD). Sunni Muslims believe that Moses fasted on that day to express gratitude to God for liberation of Israelites from Egypt. According to Sunni Muslim tradition, Muhammad fasted on this day and asked other people to fast.
In some countries and regions such as Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Bahrain, Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica, Commemoration of Husayn ibn Ali has become a national holiday and all ethnic and religious communities participate in it.
The word ashura means simply tenth in Arabic; hence the name of the remembrance, literally translated, means "the tenth day". Islamic scholars, however, give various explanations as to why it is thus called.
According to Sunni Hadith, 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 the prophet, Ibn Abas reports that the prophet went to Medina and found the Jews fasting on the tenth of Muharram. Muhammad inquired of them, "What is the significance of this day on which you fast?" They replied, "This is a righteous day. On this day God saved the Israelites from their enemy. Therefore Moses fasted on this day." Muhammad said, "I am more worthy of Moses than you." (taken from Muslim)
From then, Muhammad fasted on the tenth of Muharram.
The Shariah law however, shuns acts that resemble Jews and Christians. Thus it is reported in Mishkaat that Muhammad said, "Fast on the day of Ashura and oppose the Jews regarding it. Thus fast on the day before it and on the day after." (Taken from The Significance of Muharram by Rafique Valli, lecturer at the Islamic University for Girls, Johannesburg) All Sunni Muslims believe that the fast on Ashura is optional.
The Ashura is commemorated for the following occasions which may have happened on the 10th Day of the Muharram:
All the above incidents are not confirmed to have taken place on Ashura in the Koran, nor by any strong Hadith. These have been reported in the weaker Hadith, but are nevertheless regarded possible by majority of the Sunni Muslims. The most authentic is the 5th incident where God saved Moses and the Israelites from Pharaoh. This is the reason why many muslims fast on the 10th of Muharram.
Today, Sunnis regard fasting during Ashura as recommended, though not obligatory, having been superseded by the Ramadan fast.
The celebrated mathematician, Biruni, has challenged the veracity of these reports on the basis of a comparative study of the Jewish and Arabian Calendars. He writes:
This report is fallacious and does not stand the test of enquiry. The first day of the month of Muharram in the first year of Hijrat (Migration) was Friday which corresponds to the 16th of Tamuz, 933 (A.E.). As against it, the first day of that year among the Jews was Sunday, the 12th of Awwal which corresponds to the 29th of Safar. Hence, the fast of 1 Ashura should have fallen on Tuesday, the 9th of Rabi-ul-Awwal, while the Migration had taken place during the first half of that month. The two dates, at any rate, do not correspond to each-other... The contention that on this day God had drowned the Pharaoh, too, is not supported by what is given in the Torah. The event of the drowning of the Pharaoh had taken place, according to Torah, on the 21st of Nisan which is the seventh day of the festival of Pass-over. The first Jewish fast of Pass-over, after the arrival of the Prophet in Medina, occurred on Tuesday, the 22nd of Azhar 933 which corresponds to the 17th of Ramadhan. This report also is, therefore, without a foundation.
There are Sunnis who see this report by Bureini as miscalculation to validate al-Bukhari's statement.
Husayn in his path toward Kufa encountered the army of Ubayd-Allah ibn 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 108 and 136 men of Husayn ibn Ali (the grandson of Muhammad). , fought with a large army of perhaps 4,000 men under the command of Umar ibn Sa'ad, son of the founder of Kufa. Husayn and all of his men were killed. The bodies of the dead, including that of Husayn, were then mutilated.
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.
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 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 Faṭimah 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 Ali is said to have been held by Zaynab in prison. In Damascus, too, she is reported to have delivered a poignant oration.
Just few years after Husayn's death his grave became a pilgrimage site among Shi'a. A tradition of pilgrimage to the Imam Husayn Shrine and the other Karbala martyrs quickly developed, which is renown 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 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, 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.
Shi'as believe the Battle of Karbala was between the forces of good and evil. Imam Hussain represented 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 refrain from drinking and eating in commemoration of Imam Hussein. This is known as Fakah, which is not a formal fast.
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.
Certain rituals like the traditional flagellation ritual called zanjeer zani or zanjeer matam, involving the use of a zanjeer (a chain) are also performed. These are not religious customs but are popularly done for the sake of Imam Hussain and his family. Many Shia's today in the West give blood to the Red Cross when commemorating the blood that spilled in Karbala.
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 Hussain washes away a hundred sins.`
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 of the male participants congregate together in public for ceremonial chest beating (matham/latmiya) as a display of their devotion to Husayn and in remembrance of his suffering. Women 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 (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.
Nevertheless, Sunni historiography recognizes that Yazid was a wrong doer and regrets the death of Husayn, whom Sunnis view as righteous. Also in some countries Sunnis mourn for Hussein as the Shi'as do. Mourning was already carried out in Iran as early as twelfth century, when both Sunnis and Shias participated in them. Sunnis in the Maghreb often mourn the dead on this day.
Sunnis Shariah law shuns mourning for more than 3 days after the demise of a person. Thus, Sunni Muslims totally disregard mourning on this day. Sunni Jurisprudence stresses that Ashura was revered by Muhammad long before the Battle of Karbala.
It is reputed that Mahatma Gandhi said: "I learned from Hussein, how to be wronged and yet emerge a winner."
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 Shiite 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. Such an ideology helps Shiites maintain and reinforce their collective spirit against the Sunni multitude. 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 miserable conditions of Muslims in other non-Islamic third-world nations, on the pretense that every nation and era has their own Husayn.
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 oppressors of the time with Imam Hosayn'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 Hosayn 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.
On June 20, 1994 explosion of a bomb in a prayer hall of Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad that killed at least 25 people. The Iranian government officially blamed Mujahedin-e-Khalq for the incident to avoid sectarian conflict between Shias and Sunnis. However, the Pakistani daily The News International reported on March 27, 1995, "Pakistani investigators have identified a 24-year-old religious fanatic Abdul Shakoor residing in Lyari in Karachi, as an important Pakistani associate of Ramzi Yousef. Abdul Shakoor had intimate contacts with Ramzi Ahmed Yousef and was responsible for the June 20, 1994, massive bomb explosion at the shrine Imam Ali Reza in Mashhad.
On January 19, 2008, 7 million Iraqi Shia pilgrims marched through Karbala city, Iraq to commemorate Ashura. 20,000 Iraqi troops and police guarded the event amid tensions due to clashes between between Iraqi troops and members of a Shia cult, the Soldiers of Heaven, which left around 263 people dead (in Basra and Nasiriya).
Future dates listed above are only estimates.