What is Ashura?

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What Is Ashura?

Tonight, the Muslim holiday of Ashura will begin. This holiday, which starts this evening and lasts through tomorrow evening, is especially important to Shia Muslims. Here’s everything you should know about Ashura.

What Is Ashura?

For Shia Muslims, Ashura is a 24-hour religious commemoration that honors the martyrdom of al-Hussein, one of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandsons, who gave his life in the year 680 AD at the Battle of Karbala. For other Muslims, Ashura celebrates both the day that Nuh (known in the Bible as Noah) departed the Ark and the day that God saved Musa (known in the Torah as Moses) from the Egyptian pharaoh. In the latter way, Ashura shares some remembrances with the prominent Jewish holiday of Passover

When does Ashura occur?

This year, Ashura starts the evening of September 9 and continues until the evening of September 10. The dates during which Ashura occurs in the Gregorian calendar vary, but in the Islamic calendar, the holiday always takes place on the tenth day of Muharram.

How is Ashura celebrated?

In his time, the Prophet Muhammad would travel to Mecca, the Saudi Arabian city that Islam counts as its very holiest, where he would fast. Early Muslims followed the Prophet Muhammad in this tradition. In the modern era, Sunni Muslims fast to celebrate Ashura, though other Muslim groups often do not.

Shia Muslims celebrate al-Hussein’s martyrdom on Ashura by undertaking a pilgrimage to the Imam al-Hussein’s mausoleum. Modern celebrations mark Imam al-Hussein’s tomb in Karbala as the location of his mausoleum. Additionally, Shia Muslims celebrate by wearing entirely black clothing, parading through city streets, and chanting, often while slapping their chests in commemoration. 

Shia men may additionally seek to relive the suffering that al-Hussein endured in his martyrdom. In some cases, this celebration takes the form of self-harm, including chain flagellation and forehead cutting, all with the intention of drawing blood. Some Shia leaders discourage this tradition since it could give non-Muslims an improper impression of Islam. Instead, these leaders encourage blood donations to honor al-Hussein’s suffering.

Why is al-Hussein important to Islam?

The death of al-Hussein led to a major divide in the Islam religion. Following his death, two main subsects of Islam formed: Sunni and Shia. These subsects are not always in peace with one another, with tensions between the two resulting in a civil war in Iraq in the wake of the U.S. war on Iraq.

In the earliest days of Islam, Shia Muslims supported Ali, who was the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law and a key leader of the Muslim community. When the Prophet died, Imam Ali did not take over Muhammad’s role as the leader of the Islam community. Shia Muslims saw Imam Ali’s exclusion as a massive injustice.

Imam Ali was murdered in the year 661 AD, but Imam al-Hussein refused to acknowledge the rule of the people who deposed Imam Ali, his father. This conflict led to the Battle of Karbala, where Imam al-Hussein died. Today, the 15 percent of Muslims who identify as Shia honor his martyrdom for their cause.

How do you or people you know celebrate Ashura? Share your experience in the comments!

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