Ashura is a holy day for Muslims all over the world, observed on the 9th and 10th day of Muharram, according to the Islamic calendar. This year, Ashura begins on July 27. The Shia Muslims see it as the climax of the Remembrance of Muharram and the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali (the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad) at the battle of Karbala.
For the Sunnis, Ashura is the day Moses fasted to show his gratitude for the freedom of the Israelites. Today is also a holy day of mourning observed primarily by Shia Muslims. Other Muslim sects spend the day fasting and meditating.
When is Ashura 2023?
The day of Ashura is on the 10th of Muharram — the first month of the Islamic calendar. The day holds great religious and historical significance for Muslims.
History of Ashura
Ashura marks the tragic ‘Battle of Karbala’ incident in which the 7th-century revolutionary leader Husayn ibn Ali was killed. Millions of Muslims across the world observe the day of Ashura to remember Husayn’s sacrifice and dignified stance on social justice.
The story dates back to events that took place 13 centuries ago, following the death of Prophet Muhammad in 632 A.D. The leader and caliph of the Muslim community were to be decided, over which a dispute started. Abu Bakr, the Prophet’s close companion, was backed by most Muslims to inherit the leadership and become the first caliph. Others advocated for the Prophet’s son-in-law and cousin, Ali, as the rightful successor. Those who supported this claim led to the creation of the Shia sect of Muslims. Whether or not he was selected as caliph, Ali is considered by Shia Muslims as their first imam, a divinely appointed leader. Sons and descendants of Ali would carry the title. Shias started following their Imam as the true leader, regardless of the title of caliph.
When Ali’s second son Husayn became the third imam, the dispute between the imam and the caliph intensified. From 661 to 750 A.D., the Umayyad dynasty ruled the Islamic kingdom. One of the caliphs named Yazīd ordered Husayn to pledge allegiance to him and his caliphate in the holy month of Muharram in 680 A.D. Husayn rejected the order, as he believed Yazīd to be an illegitimate and unjust ruler.
His refusal resulted in a massive battle in the desert of Karbala (modern-day Iraq) between Husayn’s small tribe and Yazīd’s vast army, which lasted 10 days. Husayn’s tribe included his sisters, half-brother, wives, children, and closest companions.
Husayn and his followers were surrounded and stopped by Umayyad soldiers at Karbala. On the day of Ashura, Husayn and his men made their final prayers at dawn, anticipating their fate. Despite knowing they would die that day, the men stayed loyal to Husayn and his cause. The battle of Karbala began at noon. Knowing that their sacrifice would ignite the revolution, Husayn’s men fought Yazīd’s army bravely. One after another, the companions were killed. Only Husayn remained standing alone.
Food and water supplies were cut off for Husayn and his companions by the Umayyad army. Heavily wounded and thirsty, Husayn did not give up. As the evening drew near, the army of Yazīd attacked Husayn from all sides, brutally killing him.
After Hijrah, when the Prophet Muhammad flees persecution by traveling from Mecca to Medina, he designates Ashura as a day of fasting from sunset to sunset.
Prophet Muhammad dies.
The Umayyad dynasty rule the Islamic kingdom.
Yazīd I’s nomination as caliph is announced by his father, Muawiyah I.
The battle takes place between Husayn ibn Ali, his supporters, and the Yazid forces — Husayn and his supporters are beheaded.
In a purely political move, Saddam Hussein bans the religious observence honoring Ashura commemorations.
In Dhaka, Bangladesh, three explosions kill one person and injure 80 in an Ashura procession.
Local volunteers donate tens of thousands of bottles of water in Flint, Michigan, in remembrance of Husayn and his companions, who were denied water for three days before they were killed.
Traditions of the Day
From London and New York to Melbourne and Lahore, thousands participate in Ashura processions, remembering and re-enacting the Battle of Karbala. A white horse is paraded through the streets, symbolizing Husayn’s horse returning to camp without a rider, following its owner’s martyrdom.
Shia Muslims from all over the world go on pilgrimages to Iraq on the day of Ashura to see the shrines of Husayn and his brother Abbas. The day is a dark one in Islamic history, with believers mourning the death of Husayn in the Battle of Karbala. The day is also a tragic one for Muslims of the Sunni sect, who pay their respects by fasting and offering prayers.
Sermons are delivered and the life and principles of Husayn are recounted. The history and tragedy of the battle are re-enacted and passion plays are staged. Some devout followers also practice self-flagellation. As it is a day of mourning, men and women are dressed in black.
Why do Shias wear black?
To mourn the death of Imam Husayn ibn Ali, his family, and his followers, Shia Muslims wear black.
What is Ashura and why is it celebrated?
For Muslims of the Sunni faith, Ashura is the day when Prophet Moses fasted as a celebration for the freedom of Israelites. The Shia Muslim community observes the day mostly in mourning.
What does Ashura mean in Islam?
The word ‘Ashura’ means ‘tenth’ in Islam.
How to Observe Ashura
On this day, Shia Muslims wear mourning attire, while some make pilgrimages to the shrine in Karbala, Iraq. Observances include offering respect and mourning the passing of Husayn. Parties, music, and weddings are banned during this sad time.
For Sunni Muslims, Ashura is a time for fasting to show gratitude for the victory God gave to Moses. It commemorates the day when Allah created a path in the Red Sea and saved Moses and his followers.
In Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Hosay (Ashura) takes on a unique character that demonstrates religious tolerance and mutual respect. Attended by Muslims and people of other faiths, the celebration has absorbed influences from many other religions like Roman Catholicism, Hinduism, and traditional Baptist practices.
5 Things To Learn About Ashura, One Of Islam's Holiest Days
It's where Judaism and Islam intersect
For the Sunnis, Ashura is the Islamic equivalent of Yom Kippur, marking the day God parted the Red Sea to save his people.
It's one of Islam's high holy days
Ashura occurs in September, one of the four sacred months of Islam.
The date changes according to the calendar
The date for Ashura remains the same (the 10th day of Muharram) in the Islamic calendar but changes every year for people who follow the Gregorian calendar.
It's a day of renewal and forgiveness
Some believe that a day’s fast on Ashura purges all the sins of the previous year.
Self-flagellation is still practiced
Self-flagellation is practiced by many Muslims (mainly Shia men) in some parts of the world in remembrance of the sacrifice of Husayn.
Why Ashura is Important
It's one of the holiest days of observance for Muslims
A quarter of the world’s population practices Islam. On the holy day of Ashura, Muslims consider all the ways to improve and grow stronger in their faith, thereby earning more blessings.
It focuses on selflessness and love for humanity
The moral teachings of Husayn come alive through the holy practices during Muharram. Through fasting or mourning, people remember the sacrifice of Husayn, and how his blood at the Battle of Karbala revived humanity and restored moral values.
It celebrates the victory of good over evil
Like many other religions, Islamic teachings affirm that good always conquers evil. During Ashura, Muslims remember how Husayn rose against oppression and all that was evil.