The holy day of Ashura, marking the 10th day of Muharram or the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar, holds special significance within Islam. Its significance is rooted in honoring one of the most important Prophets of the monotheistic faiths, Moses (Musa). Ashura marks the day that God saved the Children of Israel from the Egyptian Pharaoh.
Within Shiism, the significance of Ashura is part and parcel of their faith.
For Shias, the holy day of Ashura holds additional significance to the extent that it highlights a centrality of Shia faith. It marks the ten-day siege of Karbala, and the martyrdom of Hussein ibn Ali, grandson of the Prophet, and his followers at the historic battle.
While Hussein ibn Ali was the rightful gatekeeper of the Imamate, Yazid had secured the position illegitimately through extortion and appropriation. Hussein was revered by society at large. Whilst Yazid, disliked by many, aimed to secure Hussein’s allegiance with the hopes of enhancing his palpability amongst his own followers. Hussein risked his life when he refused to demonstrate allegiance to Yazid in Medina, “I will never give Yazid my hand like a man who has been humiliated, nor will I flee like a slave… I have not risen to spread evil or to show off… I only desire to enjoin good values and prevent evil.”
Hussein and his companions first traveled to Mecca, then Kufa in Iraq, in an attempt to re-settle the legitimacy and lineage of the Caliphate, but were met by 30,000 of Yazid’s soldiers who diverted the caravan to Karbala.
“I will never give Yazid my hand like a man who has been humiliated, nor will I flee like a slave… I have not risen to spread evil or to show off… I only desire to enjoin good values and prevent evil.”
In Karbala, access to water sources was blocked by Yazid forces and a 10-day blockade ensued. It was clear that Hussein was the only person required dead by Yazid, although Hussein’s followers remained with him during the siege. ‘Abbās said, “God curse you and your clemency! You give us clemency and you do not give clemency to the grandson of the Prophet of God? And you are asking us to enter the obedience of the cursed people and those who are children of cursed people?”
On the ninth night of the siege, it was clear that Yazid’s army was on the brink of attacking Hussein’s camp. In a sermon, Hussein instructed his followers to leave during the night, as Yazid’s forces would not hurt them, with the goal of only killing only Hussein. His followers stayed. On the tenth day of Muharram, Ashura, Hussein rose from Fajr and instructed that God had allowed them to fight on this day.
This battle was the final blow in the succession rupture of the Caliphate following the death of the Prophet. Hussein ibn Ali and his son, Al-Abbas ibn Ali were killed during this battle, along with 72 of the Imam’s companions. The remaining prisoners, including Hussein’s sister, Zainab, along with the heads of the dead, were then taken to Damascus.
The martyrdom of Hussein and his companions at Karbala signifies a unique centrality of Shia faith: Resistance and justice in the face of oppression.
Globally, Shias comprise nearly 13% of the world’s Muslims and follow three main traditions: Ithnā’ashariyyah (Twelvers), Zaydi, and Ismaili. As many as 80% of the world’s Shias live in four countries: Iran, Pakistan, Iraq and India.
According to legalists and historians William Chittick and Sachiko Murata, “Shi’ites are distinguished from Sunnis both by the madhab [schools of jurisprudence] they follow and by certain objects of faith, in particular the Imamate, or the belief that certain descendants of the Prophet called Imams play an intermediary role between human beings and God.”
Shias remain an oppressed minority in a predominately Sunni faith.
According to scholar Vali Nasr in his New York Times bestseller, “The Shia Revival” – during Sadaam’s rule in Iraq, their cities were discriminately underserviced and neglected, and their people routinely assaulted. Ashura was banned, and popular Shia religious leaders were systematically killed and their families tortured. Saudi Arabia has legalized bans of Shia jurisprudence, creating a barrier for any form of Shia elite to form in the nation. There remain no Shia cabinet members, police officers, or mayors, and Shias are restricted from procuring critical jobs in the armed forces or security services. Leading Saudi clerics even sanction the killing of Shias. Predominately Shia towns in Saudi Arabia are banned from celebrating Ashura, and are banned from reciting the uniquely Shia call to prayer.
Shia displays and processions of Ashura are regularly the target of Anti-Shia sentiment and mass violence in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, further highlighting the significance within Islam, and Shiism in particular, of resistance to tyranny and oppression as a cornerstone of faith, according to Hamid Dabashi’s “Authority in Islam” and “Islamic Liberation Theology”. This resistance to tyranny is rooted in the “controversy over the succession of the Prophet, to the caliphate of Ali, and ultimately to the battle of Karbala.”
Since this significant time in history, Ashura has manifested in ritual mourning, remembrance and atonement as a form of holding witness to the moral principles of Islam through Imam Hussein’s refusal to assimilate to tyranny. Physical rituals take the form of prayers, Quranic recitations, sermons, and elaborate processions and reenactments of the Battle of Karbala.
Symbolic flagellation, with one’s fists, blades, chains, or collectively carrying heavy displays, to recall the suffering of Hussein and his 72 companions is common, not unlike Catholic flagellation to recall the suffering of Jesus Christ prior to martyrdom. While this practice is outlawed in countries such as Iran, and Shia clerics have warned that it is sinful to hurt the body that has been given to you by God, it is not uncommon to see within Shia communities throughout the world – even in places where it is illegal or denounced in jurisprudence.
As is common within Islam, distributing free food to honor the sacrifice of others is a mainstay ritual of Ashura. In Iran, traditional food is distributed as Nazri (free food), like ghorme sabzi or adas polo, but the most traditional meal prepared for distribution is gheymeh or Gheymeh Nazri (also the predominant food for Ashura in Iraq). Haleem is the most traditional Muharram charity dish in Pakistan.
Visual imagery as a sign of devotion highlights a significant difference amongst Sunni and Shia orthopraxy. Frowned as idolatry by Sunnis, Shia visual representation is part and parcel of the faith, especially in proximity to Ashura.
While Shias refrain from depiction of the Prophet Muhammad, paintings of Ali, Hussein, the Battle of Karbala, and imagery surrounding resistance are very common. Dominant colors within this motif include black to symbolize sorrow for Ali’s destiny (also the color most worn when celebrating Ashura), red to display the martyrdom of Hussein, and green in honor of the Prophet’s bloodline.
An Alam, or Hand of Fatima, is a symbolic adornment that rests atop displays, homes, mosques, and holy sites. Each finger on the hand represents one of five of the most beloved Shia figures: Prophet Mohammad, his daughter Fatima, his cousin (and Fatima’s husband) Ali, and their sons, Hassan and Hussein.
Read more about fasting on the Day of Ashura here: Why do we fast on this day? What are the benefits?
Dabashi, H. (2008) Islamic Liberation Theology. Resisting the Empire. New York, Routledge.
Nasr, V. (2007) The Shia Revival. How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future. New York, Norton.
Chittick, W. and Murata, S. (2006). The Vision of Islam. New York, I.B. Tauris