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What is Ashura? How do Shia and Sunni Muslims observe it?

Middle East Eye looks at why the day is significant from both a religious and historic perspective
Shia Muslims in Iraq re-enact the Battle of Karbala during the Islamic month of Muharram (AFP)

Ashura is a day of commemoration in Islam and holds great significance for Muslims across the world. It falls on the 10th of Muharram, the first month in the Islamic calendar, carrying spiritual and historical importance for both Sunni and Shia Muslims.

For Sunni Muslims, Ashura is seen as the day that the Prophet Nuh (Noah) disembarked from the Ark, as well as when the Prophet Musa (Moses) parted the Red Sea to allow safe passage for the Israelites out of Egypt. Followers observe it with fasting and special prayers in mosques, signifying its sacred nature.

In contrast, for Shia Muslims, Ashura is a solemn day: it is a day of mourning, commemorating the anniversary of the killing of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, during the Battle of Karbala in October 680 CE.

Shia communities engage in vibrant rites on this occasion, staging colourful plays that re-enact the events of the battle. Devotees passionately take on the roles of Imam Hussein and his followers, who confronted the Umayyad forces loyal to the caliph, Yazid I.

While the battle was a significant factor in the later split between Shia and Sunni Muslims, it happened long before the crystallization of religious differences between the two groups. For example, Sunnis also revere Hussein; many also take a negative view of Yazid, who is often criticised for his impiety.

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While some Sunni Muslims participate in mourning ceremonies for Hussein, especially followers of Sufi traditions, the events are less intense than their Shia counterparts.

One controversial aspect of the Shia mourning of Hussein is the practice among some of self-flagellation, or tatbir as it is known in Arabic. Many leading Shia Islamic jurists, including the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini, have either condemned the act or argued that it is redundant in the modern era. Ba minority of religious figures continue to stress its importance, usually with the caveat that no harm occurs to those taking part.

Middle East Eye takes a closer look at the day and how it is marked by Muslims. 

Why do Sunni and Shia Muslims observe Ashura differently?

The day is observed with a fast and religious ceremonies, including sermons and communal meals in Sunni communities.

For Shia Muslims, the significance of the day also stems from it being the anniversary of the death of Hussein.

The followers of Islam known as the Twelver Shias recognise 12 successors of the Prophet Muhammad, who descended from him through his daughter Fatima and cousin and son-in-law Ali, the first Imam.

Iraqi Shia men take part in mourning rituals in Karbala (AFP)

Hussein is the third of these successors and the Battle of Karbala marks the climax of his attempts to acquire leadership of the Muslim community from the Umayyads, who were headed by Yazid.

In a bloody confrontation near the river Euphrates in what is now Iraq, Hussein and most of his followers were killed. 

For Shias, Hussein's martyrdom represents paying the ultimate price in the pursuit of justice and righteousness. He is still mourned at his shrine in Karbala, as well as in ceremonies across the Muslim world.

The line of Imams would continue through Hussein's surviving son, also named Ali. But for Twelvers, the line stops with the 12th Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, who in Shia tradition disappeared into occultation and will return to precipitate the Day of Judgement.

Why is the day called Ashura?

"Ashura" comes from the Arabic word for the number 10. The word "Muharram" comes from the Arabic word haram, meaning forbidden. 

According to Islamic tradition, the month of Muharram is one of the most sacred months of the calendar, during which warfare is forbidden. 

What is the religious significance of Ashura? 

Muslims fasting on the day of Ashura believe that God will forgive their sins from the previous year. 

According to the Quran, God commanded Moses to strike the the Red Sea with his staff, causing the waters to be part.

Muslims pray while social distancing in Kyrgyzstan (AFP)

Moses then started fasting on the day of Ashura as a form of worship and gratitude to God for saving himself and his followers.

The Prophet Muhammad encouraged Muslims to fast on the ninth of Muharram as well as the 10th, to differentiate Muslims from other faiths. While the fast is optional, many Muslims observe it.

How is Ashura marked by Shia Muslims?

On Ashura, Shia preachers deliver sermons and recount the history of the Battle of Karbala. Some also recite poetry relating to the life of Hussain, highlighting his virtues. 

In many parts of Iraq and Iran, large public plays, marches and processions are held before thousands of people who gather to mourn and commemorate the event. 

The "passion plays" are meant to highlight the significance of Hussein's sacrifice and evoke the emotional fervour needed to pursue the cause of justice. 

Some take part in tatbir, which is banned in some counties but still takes place during Ashura. The use of blades, chains and other items to beat oneself is intended to symbolise sacrifice and struggle. Many worshippers choose to mourn in alternative ways, such as by donating blood.

During the period of Muharram, Shia worshippers often wear black as a symbol of mourning and sadness. Many also use this period to learn lessons based on Hussein's life. 

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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