Ashura Voluntary Fast (Sunni) or Commemoration of Husayn (Shi'a)

Name of Husayn in Arabic calligraphy, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey
Name of Husayn (Hussein) in Arabic calligraphy in the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey. Brian Jeffery Beggerly
Definition: Ashura
For Sunni Muslims, a minor holiday with voluntary fasting. For Shi'a Muslims, a major holiday commemorating the death of Hussein in 680 CE, with solemn mourning rituals.

Ashura (also spelled Aashurah, ‘Ashurah or Aashoorah), is an Islamic holiday observed on the 10th of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic year. The word Ashura means "10," denoting the date of the holiday.

History and Meaning of Ashura

Shortly after the Hijira in 622 CE, Muhammad designated Ashura as a day of fasting from sunset to sunset, perhaps patterned on the Jewish Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). Traditionally, Ashura commemorates two events: the day Nuh (Noah) left the ark and the day Musa (Moses) was saved from the Egyptians by Allah.

When Jewish-Muslim relations became strained, however, Muhammad designated Ramadan the Muslim month of fasting, making Ashura a voluntary fast, as it has remained among Sunni Muslims.

Among Shi'ites, however, Ashura is a major festival, the tazia (ta'ziyah). It commemorates the death of Husayn (also spelled Hussein), son of Imam 'Ali and grandson of Muhammad, on the 10th of Muharram, AH 61 (October 10, 680), in Karbala, Iraq. The event led to the split between the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam, and it is of central importance in Shia Islam.

Ashura Rituals and Observances

Sunni Muslims may fast from sunset to sunset on Ashura.

For Shi'a Muslims, rituals and observances on Ashura consist primarily of public expressions of mourning and grief. Some Shi'as express mourning by flagellating themselves on the back with chains, beating their head or ritually cutting themselves. This is intended to connect them with Husayn's suffering and death as an aid to salvation on the Day of Judgment.

Passion plays commemorating the death of Husayn are also presented on Ashura. In London, around 3,000 Shi'a Muslims gather at the Marble Arch on Ashura for a mourning procession and speeches.

Many Shi'a make pilgrimages on Ashura to the Mashhad al-Husayn, the shrine in Karbala, Iraq, that is traditionally held to be Husayn's tomb.

Sources & Further Reading

  1. Lipka, Michael and Ghani, Fatima. "Muslim holiday of Ashura brings into focus Shia-Sunni differences." Pew Research Center. 14 Nov 2013. Accessed 9 Mar 2021.