Ashura (also spelled Aashurah, ‘Ashurah or Aashoorah), is an Islamic holiday observed on the 10th of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic year. The word Ashura means “10,” denoting the date of the holiday.
Shortly after the Hijira in AD 622, Muhammad designated Ashura as a day of fasting from sunset to sunset, perhaps patterned on the Jewish Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). Traditionally, Ashura commemorates two events: the day Nuh (Noah) left the ark and the day Musa (Moses) was saved from the Egyptians by Allah.
When Jewish-Muslim relations became strained, however, Muhammad designated Ramadan the Muslim month of fasting, making Ashura a voluntary fast, as it has remained among Sunnis. Among Shi’ites, however, Ashura is a major festival, the tazia (ta’ziyah). It commemorates the death of Husayn (also spelled Hussein), son of Imam ‘Ali and grandson of Muhammad, on the 10th of Muharram, AH 61 (October 10, 680), in Karbala, Iraq. The event led to the split between the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam, and it is of central importance in Shia Islam.
Ashura in Shia Islam
For Shi’a Muslims, rituals and observances on Ashura consist primarily of public expressions of mourning and grief. Some Shi’as express mourning by flagellating themselves on the back with chains, beating their head or ritually cutting themselves. This is intended to connect them with Husayn’s suffering and death as an aid to salvation on the Day of Judgment.
Passion plays commemorating the death of Husayn are also presented on Ashura. In London, around 3,000 Shi’a Muslims gather at the Marble Arch on Ashura for a mourning procession and speeches.
Many Shi’a make pilgrimages on Ashura to the Mashhad al-Husayn, the shrine in Karbala, Iraq, that is traditionally held to be Husayn’s tomb.
Husayn’s martyrdom is widely interpreted by Shia as a symbol of the struggle against injustice, tyranny, and oppression.
The regime of Saddam Hussein saw this as a potential threat and banned Ashura commemorations for many years. In neighboring Iran, the festival became a major political symbol during the Islamic Revolution, as also occurred in Lebanon during that country’s civil war.
The 2004 (1425 AH) Shi’a pilgrimage to Karbala, the second since Saddam Hussein was removed from power in Iraq, was marred by bomb attacks that killed and wounded hundreds.