The Day of Ashurais on the tenth day of Muharram in the Islamic calendar and marks the climax of the Remembrance of Muharram. Shiite commemorations of the Day of Ashura have traditionally included rituals which have been condemned by many Shia religious authorities recently under the claim that such practices are wrong or unislamic. This day is celebrated by Sunni Muslims (who refer to it as The Day of Atonement) as the day on which the Israelites were freed from the Pharaoh (called ‘Firaun’ in Arabic) of Egypt. However, Shi’a Muslims reject these stories and maintain that Ashura is a day of great sorrow due to the tragic events of Karbala. It is commemorated by Shi’a Muslims as a day of mourning for the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of Muhammad at the Battle of Karbala on 10 Muharram in the year 61 AH (in AHt: October 10, 680 CE).
The massacre of Husayn with a small group of his companions and family members had great impact on the religious conscience of Muslims. Especially Shia Muslims have ever remembered it with sorrow and passion. Mourning for Husayn and his companions began almost immediately after the Battle of Karbala, by his survivor relatives and supporters. Popular elegies were made by poets to commemorate Battle of Karbala during Umayyads and Abbasids era.
The earliest public mourning rituals happened in 963 CE during Buyid dynasty. Nowadays, in some countries such as Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Pakistan, the Commemoration of Husayn ibn Ali has become a national holiday and most ethnic and religious communities participate in it. In secular country like India, Ashura (10th day in the month of Muharram) is commemorated and is a public holiday due to the presence of a significant Indian Shia Muslim population (2-3% of total population, 20-25% of Indian Muslim population).
The root of the word Ashura has the meaning of tenth in Semitic languages; hence the name of the remembrance, literally translated, means “the tenth day”. According to the orientalist A.J. Wensinck, the name is derived from the Hebrew ʿāsōr, with the Aramaic determinative ending. The day is indeed the tenth day of the month, although some Islamic scholars offer up different etymologies.
In his book Ghuniyatut Talibin, Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jilani writes that Islamic scholars differ as to why this day is known as Ashura, some of them suggesting that this day is the tenth most important day with which God has blessed Muslims. In April 680, Yazid I succeeded his father Muawiyah as the new caliph. Yazid immediately instructed the governor of Medina to compel Hussayn and few other prominent figures to pledge their allegiance (Bay’ah). Husain, however, refrained from it believing that Yazid was openly going against the teachings of Islam in public and changing the sunnah of Muhammad. He, therefore, accompanied by his household, his sons, brothers, and the sons of Hasan left Medina to seek asylum in Mecca.
On the other hand, the people in Kufa who were informed about Muawiyah ‘s death, sent letters urging Husayn to join them and pledge to support him against Umayyads. Husayn wrote back to them saying that he would send his cousin Muslim ibn Aqeel to report to him on the situation. If he found them united as their letters indicated he would speedily join them, because Imam should act in accordance with the Quran, uphold justice, proclaim the truth, and dedicate himself to the cause of God. The mission of Moslem was initially successful and according to reports 18,000 men pledged their allegiance. But situation changed radically when Yazid appointed Ubayd Allah ibn Ziyad as the new governor of Kufah, ordering him to deal severely with Ibn Aqeel.
Before news of the adverse turn of events arrived in Mecca, Husayn set out for Kufa. On the way, Husayn found that his messenger, Muslim ibn Aqeel, was killed in Kufa. He broke the news to his supporters and informed them that people had deserted him. Then, he encouraged anyone who so wished, to leave freely without guilt. Most of those who had joined him at various stages on the way from Mecca now left him. Later, Husayn encountered with the army of Ubaydullah ibn Ziyad in his path towards Kufa. Husayn addressed the Kufans army, reminding them that they had invited him to come because they were without an Imam. He told them that he intended to proceed to Kufa with their support, but if they were now opposed to his coming, he would return to where he had come from. However, the army urged him to choose another way.
Thus, he turned to left and reached Karbala, where the army forced him not to go further and stop at a location that was without water. Umar ibn Sa’ad, the head of Kufan army, sent a messenger to Husayn to inquire about the purpose of his coming to Iraq. Husayn answered again that he had responded to the invitation of the people of Kufa but was ready to leave if they now disliked his presence. When Umar ibn Sa’ad, the head of Kufan army, reported it back to Ubaydullah ibn Ziyad, the governor instructed him to offer Ḥusayn and his supporters the opportunity to swear allegiance to Yazid. He also ordered Umar ibn Sa’ad to cut off Husayn and his followers from access to the water of the Euphrates.
Name of the Karbala Martyr Husayn with Islamic calligraphy in Hagia Sophia Mosque. On the next morning, as ʿOmar b. Saʿd arranged the Kufan army in battle order, Al-Hurr ibn Yazid al Tamimi challenged him and went over to Ḥusayn. He vainly addressed the Kufans, rebuking them for their treachery to the grandson of Muhammad and was killed in the battle. The Battle of Karbala lasted from morning till sunset of October 10, 680 (Muharram 10, 61 AH) all Husayn’s small group of companions and family members (in total who were around 72 men and few ladies and children) fought with a large army under the command of Umar ibn Sa’ad and were killed near the river (Euphrates) where they were not allowed to get any water from.
The renowned historian Abū Rayḥān al-Bīrūnī states; “… then fire was set to their camp and the bodies were trampled by the hoofs of the horses; nobody in the history of the human kind has seen such atrocities.” Before being killed, Husayn said “If the religion of Muhammad was not going to live on except with me dead, let the swords tear me to pieces.” Once the Umayyad troops had mass murdered Husayn and his male followers, they looted the tents, stripped the women of their jewelry, and took the skin upon which Zain al-Abidin was prostrate. It is said that Shemr was about to kill him but Husayn’s sister Zaynab was able to make Umar ibn Sa’ad, the Umayyad commander to let him alive. He was taken along with the enslaved women to the caliph in Damascus, and eventually he was allowed to return to Medina.
According to Ignác Goldziher ever since the black day of Karbala, the history of this family … has been a continuous series of sufferings and persecutions. These are narrated in poetry and prose, in a richly cultivated literature of martyrologies …’More touching than the tears of the Shi’is’ has even become an Arabic proverb. The first assembly (majlis) of Commemoration of Husayn ibn Ali, it 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 3 year old daughter, Rukaya, died in captivity. She would often cry in prison to be allowed to see her father.
She is believed to have died when she saw her father’s mutilated head. Her death caused an uproar in the city, and Yazid, fearful of a potential resulting revolution, freed the captives. In terms of Imam Zayn AL Abidin(A.S.)The following is said about the Holy Imam.It is said that for twenty years whenever food was placed before him, he would weep. One day a servant said to him, ‘O son of Allah’s Messenger! Is it not time for your sorrow to come to an end?’ He replied, ‘Woe upon you! Jacob the prophet had twelve sons, and Allah made one of them disappear. His eyes turned white from constant weeping, his head turned grey out of sorrow, and his back became bent in gloom, though his son was alive in this world. But I watched while my father, my brother, my uncle, and seventeen members of my family were slaughtered all around me.
How should my sorrow come to an end?’ Husayn’s grave became a pilgrimage site among Shiite 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.
Public rites of remembrance for Husayn’s martyrdom developed 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 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 Twelver Shi’a and Alawites, who consider Husayn (the grandson of Muhammad) Ahl al-Bayt the third Imam to be the rightful successor of Muhammad.
According to Kamran Scot Aghaie:”The symbols and rituals of Ashura have evolved over time and have meant different things to different people. However, at the core of the symbolism of Ashura is the moral dichotomy between worldly injustice and corruption on the one hand and God-centered justice, piety, sacrifice and perseverance on the other. Also, Shiite Muslims consider the remembrance of the tragic events of Ashura to be an importance way of worshiping God in a spiritual or mystical way.” 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 not planned on this date by Shi’as. Shi’as also express mourning by crying and listening to recollections 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. 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. Some of the events associated with Ashura are held in special congregation halls known as “Imambargah” and Hussainia. Suffering and cutting the body with knives or chains (matam) was banned by the Shi’a Marja’ Ali Khamenei, Supreme Leader of Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon but still is practiced in Bangladesh and India. Other marjas like Mohammad al-Husayni al-Shirazi promote hemic flagellation rituals as a way of preserving the revolution of Imam al-Husayn.
On Ashura, some Shi’a observe mourning with blood donation which is called “Qame Zani” and flailing. Certain traditional flagellation rituals such as Talwar zani (talwar ka matam or sometimes tatbir) use a sword. Other rituals such as zanjeer zani or zanjeer matam involve the use of a zanjeer (a chain with blades). These religious customs show solidarity with Husayn and his family. Through them, people mourn Husayn’s death and regret the fact that they were not present at the battle to fight and save Husayn and his family. In some areas, such as in the Shi’a suburb of Beirut, Shi’a communities organize blood donation drives with organizations like the Red Cross or the Red Crescent on Ashura as a replacement for self-flagellation rituals like “tatbir” and “qame zani.” Some Shi’a believe that taking part in Ashura washes away their sins. A popular Shi’a saying has it that, “a single tear shed for Husayn washes away a hundred sins.” For Shi’as, commemoration of Ashura is not a festival, but rather a sad event, while Sunni Muslims view it as a victory God gave to 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.
From the period of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution (1905–1911) 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. The self-flagellations on the Day of Ashura have been heavily criticized, with many Shia clerics encouraging believers to donate their blood to hospitals instead.