Ashura: Its Origins and Rituals

Celebrated every 10th of Muharram (the first month in the Islamic Hijri calendar), the Day of Ashura holds great historical and religious significance for Muslims worldwide. This year, Ashura is observed on September 20.

According to many hadiths (the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)) the day of Ashura is a holy day marking many historical and religious events since Adam’s descent to Earth.

Muslims believe that God accepted Adam’s repentance for the sin he had committed in Paradise, and for which he had been exiled to earth, on Muharram 10, a day in the Islamic calendar. They also believe that God saved Prophet Noah (PBUH) and his companions on the Ark during the Great Flood on Muharram 10.

These events have conferred holiness and reverence on Muharram 10 and have made it a special day in the Islamic calendar. Because of its special significance, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) ordered his followers to do righteous and virtuous deeds in reverence of this day, such as fasting, giving alms, visiting the sick, consoling and comforting orphans, feeding the hungry, and providing generously for one’s family.

Other religious events that Muslims believe took place on Muharram 10 include: saving Prophet Abraham from the fire Nimrod threw him into, the revelation of the Ten Commandments to Prophet Moses (PBUH), the restoration of Prophet Naaman’s (PBUH) health and his complete recovery from leprosy, reuniting Prophet Joseph (PBUH) with his father and brothers, saving Prophet Jonah (PBUH) and taking him out of the belly of the fish, the restoration of Prophet Solomon’s kingdom, and the martyrdom of Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) grandson, Imam Hussain Ibn Ali, in Karbala (modern-day Iraq).

The day of Ashura is also celebrated by Jews, who believe it was the day that Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt. In the desert of Sinai, Yahweh (the Israelite God) revealed himself to Moses (PBUH) and his people and agreed with them on the Covenant—the Ten Commandments — in return for their protection as the chosen people.

When Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) learned that the Jews of Medina fasted during the day of Ashura because it was the day when God rescued the Israelites from their enemy, as narrated by Imam Boukhari on the authority of Ibn Abbas, the Prophet (PBUH) said, “We have more claim over Moses than you.” Thus, the Prophet (PBUH) commanded Muslims to fast on this day too.

For all Muslims, Ashura was originally a celebratory day up until the time of the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, son of Ali Ibn Abi Talib, and his entire family and companions in Karbala on Muharram 10, 61 A.H. (October 12, 680). Ashura is now a day of mourning and great sadness, especially for Shia Muslims, for the massacre perpetrated against the descendants of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). What is now known as the Battle of Karbala was the reason behind the intractable sectarian division between Shia and Sunni Muslims.

When Imam Hussain heard that the Umayyad Caliph Muawiyah had passed down the leadership of the caliphate to his son Yazid, he travelled from Hejaz to lead a rebellion to countermand the decision with support from the people of Kufa. However, an army led by Umar bin Saad intercepted Hussain and his companions in Karbala, 100 kilometers from Baghdad, and massacred the entire group, except for a few women and children. It is believed that Imam Hussain was beheaded and that his head was put on display in Kufa and then taken to Damascus to Caliph Yazid Ibn Muawiyah.

Shia Muslims, who believe that the members of the Prophet’s (PBUH) household are the true heirs to the Caliphate, annually make a pilgrimage to the city of Karbala where they perform Ashura rituals of self-flagellation and the reenactment of the martyrdom of Imam Hussain. On this day, Shia Muslims wear black clothes, denoting their grief and sorrow, parade in the streets of Karbala, and slap their chests while chanting mournful laments.

Some of them tie sharp knives to ropes and repeatedly hit themselves on their backs and foreheads until they bleed profusely in an intensely graphic ritual. The shedding of blood during Ashura rituals in Karbala is an expression not only of grief and sorrow over the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, but also of repentance for leaving Hussain utterly defenseless during the Battle of Karbala after his Kufa supporters turned on him and joined the Umayyad army.  A poet once told Imam Hussain about the Kufa people: “Their hearts are with you, but their swords are with the Umayyads.”

In Sunni countries such as Morocco, Ashura has acquired a local significance and is celebrated with special rituals. On this day, the rich typically give alms to the poor and buy presents for children and for the poor. Nuts and seeds are among the things people buy, consume, and give to each other on Ashura.  On the morning of Ashura, those who wake up early sprinkle other members of the family with cold water. People also splash strangers and passers-by with water from balconies and windows to create fun and festivity.

The practice of sprinkling water originated in the ancient rituals performed by Moroccan Jews. They believed that water is sacred and they sprinkled it on their goods, jewels, and possessions to promote abundance, and on their children to promote good health and longevity.

Moroccan women celebrate Ashura by preparing traditional Moroccan dishes such as couscous, organic chicken dishes, trid, and dried meat which has been preserved from the meat of the sacrificed ram on the day of Eid Al-Adha (The Feast of Sacrifice). In the evening, just like “trick-or-treating” on Halloween in the U.S., Moroccan children go from house to house asking for candy, nuts, seeds, or even money, while disguised in masks and special costumes.

If people are not generous  or refuse to give the children what they ask for, the children pelt their houses with rotten eggs and sing derogatory nursery rhymes about them.

While Ashura is a religious day celebrated in many countries, people celebrate it in very different ways according to each region’s special cultural and religious traditions.