Ashura: A Day of Fasting and Mourning

Ashura in Arabic

Today is Ashura, which is the tenth day of the first month (Muharram) of the Islamic calendar. While Ashura is significant for both Sunnis and Shia, they differ in what the day commemorates and what practices should be carried out.

Sunnis fast on this day to commemorate the day that Moses fasted in gratitude for the Israelites being saved from Pharoah. The recommendation to fast on this day come from the following hadith of the Prophet.

Ibn ‘Abbas, may Allah be pleased with him, reported that the Prophet, peace be upon him, came to Medina and saw the Jews fasting on the day of ‘Ashura. He asked:”What is this?” They said: “This is a righteous day, it is the day when Allah saved the Children of Israel from their enemies, so Moses fasted on this day.” He said:”We have more right to Moses than you,” so he fasted on that day and commanded [the Muslims] to fast on that day. [Reported by al-Bukhari]

Thus, Sunnis often will fast this day, following the recommendation of the Prophet; however, they usually fast the 9th or the 11th as well to distinguish from the Jewish fast of just Ashura.

For Shia, on the other hand, Ashura is not a day of celebration, but a day of mourning. The tenth of Muharram is the day that Husayn, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and the third Imam according to Shia tradition, was martyred in Karbala, Iraq in 680 C.E. Shias spend this day in remembrance of Husayn and in mourning. In addition, taziyahs, passion plays that reenact the fateful battle in Karbala, are performed. In some places, Shia Muslims will engage in self-flagellation in the mourning ceremonies.

So whether they are fasting or mourning, Muslims around the world are commerating Ashura and remembering the struggles and sacrifices of both Moses and Husayn, two great figures in the history of Islam.

Why do you think Ashura is important? Have you ever seen a taziyah performed? Are there examples in other faith traditions of denominations commemorating different things on one day? Please share your comments below.

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