What Is Ashura?
Yom Ashura or Ashura (عاشوراء ʻĀshūrā’) is the tenth day of Muharram, the first month in the Islamic calendar. It marks the day that Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, was killed in the Battle of Karbala.
Ashura marks the climax of the Remembrance of Muharram, the annual commemoration of the death of Husayn and his family and supporters at the Battle of Karbala on 10 Muharram in the year 61 AH (in AHt: October 10, 680 CE). Mourning for the incident began almost immediately after the battle. Popular elegies were written by poets to commemorate the Battle of Karbala during the Umayyad and Abbasid era, and the earliest public mourning rituals occurred in 963 CE during the Buyid dynasty. In Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon,  Bahrain and Pakistan Ashura has become a national holiday, and many ethnic and religious communities participate in it.
For some Sunni Muslims, Ashura also marks the day that Moses and the Israelites were saved from Pharaoh by God creating a path in the Sea or Noah leaving the Ark.
Main Article: What Is Ashure?
Ashure (Turkish: Aşure) or Noah’s Pudding is a Turkish dessert porridge that is made of a mixture consisting of grains, fruits, dried fruits and nuts. In Turkey it is made all the year and served especially during Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, as the 10th of Muharrem corresponds to the Day of Ashure. (“Ashura” is Arabic for “tenth”.)
And each year, around the month of Muharram on the Islamic calendar, volunteers prepare and distribute to various places of worship hundreds of servings of Noah’s pudding, or ashure, a dessert of grain, nuts and fruits symbolic of Noah’s first treat after the waters of the great flood receded.
Noah’s pudding, arising as it does from a story common to the Abrahamic faiths of Jew, Christian and Muslim, symbolizes the unity of humans to each other and to their Creator.
The root of the word Ashura has the meaning of tenth in Semitic languages; hence the name of the remembrance, literally translated, means “the tenth day”. According to the orientalist A.J. Wensinck, the name is derived from the Hebrew ʿāsōr, with the Aramaic determinative ending. The day is indeed the tenth day of the month, although some Islamic scholars offer up different etymologies. In his book Ghuniyatut Talibin, Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jilani writes that Islamic scholars differ as to why this day is known as Ashura, some of them suggesting that it is the tenth most important day with which God has blessed Muslims.
The Battle of Karbala took place within the crisis environment resulting from the succession of Yazid I. Immediately after succession, Yazid instructed the governor of Medina to compel Husayn and a few other prominent figures to pledge their allegiance (Bay’ah). Husayn, however, refrained from making such a pledge, believing that Yazid was openly going against the teachings of Islam and changing the sunnah of Muhammad. He, therefore, accompanied by his household, his sons, brothers, and the sons of Hasan left Medina to seek asylum in Mecca.
On the other hand, the people in Kufa, when informed of Muawiyah’s death, sent letters urging Husayn to join them and pledging to support him against the Umayyads. Husayn wrote back to them saying that he would send his cousin Muslim ibn Aqeel to report to him on the situation and that if he found them supportive as their letters indicated, he would speedily join them because an Imam should act in accordance with the Quran and uphold justice, proclaim the truth, and dedicate himself to the cause of God. The mission of Muslim was initially successful and according to reports, 18,000 men pledged their allegiance. But the situation changed radically when Yazid appointed Ubayd Allah ibn Ziyad as the new governor of Kufa, ordering him to deal severely with Ibn Aqeel.
In Mecca, Husayn learned assassins had been sent by Yazid to kill him in the holy city in the midst of Hajj. Husayn, to preserve the sanctity of the city and specifically that of the Kaaba, abandoned his Hajj and encouraged others around him to follow him to Kufa without knowing the situation there had taken an adverse turn.
On the way, Husayn found that his messenger, Muslim ibn Aqeel, had been killed in Kufa. Husayn encountered the vanguard of the army of Ubaydullah ibn Ziyad along the route towards Kufa. Husayn addressed the Kufan army, reminding them that they had invited him to come because they were without an Imam. He told them that he intended to proceed to Kufa with their support, but if they were now opposed to his coming, he would return to where he had come from. In response, the army urged him to proceed by another route. Thus, he turned to the left and reached Karbala, where the army forced him not to go further and stop at a location that had limited access to water.
The Battle of Karbala lasted from morning to sunset on October 10, 680 (Muharram10, 61AH). Husayn’s small group of companions and family members (in total around 72 men and the women and children)[a] fought against a large army under the command of Umar ibn Sa’ad and were killed near the river (Euphrates), from which they were not allowed to get water. The renowned historian Abū Rayḥān al-Bīrūnī states:
… [T]hen fire was set to their camp and the bodies were trampled by the hoofs of the horses; nobody in the history of the human kind has seen such atrocities.
Once the Umayyad troops had murdered Husayn and his male followers, they looted the tents, stripped the women of their jewelry, and took the skin upon which Zain al-Abidin was prostrate. Husayn’s sister Zaynab was taken along with the enslaved women to the caliph in Damascus when she was imprisoned and after a year eventually was allowed to return to Medina.
Commemoration of the death of Husayn ibn Ali
History of the commemoration by Shia
According to Ignác Goldziher,
[E]ver since the black day of Karbala, the history of this family … has been a continuous series of sufferings and persecutions. These are narrated in poetry and prose, in a richly cultivated literature of martyrologies …’More touching than the tears of the Shi’is’ has even become an Arabic proverb.
The first assembly (majlis) of the Commemoration of Husayn ibn Ali is said to have been held by Zaynab in prison. In Damascus, too, she is reported to have delivered a poignant oration. The prison sentence ended when Husayn’s 3-year-old daughter, Ruqaiyah bint Hussain , died in captivity. She would often cry in prison to be allowed to see her father. She is believed to have died when she saw her father’s mutilated head. Her death caused an uproar in the city, and Yazid, fearing a potential uprising, freed the captives.
Imam Zayn Al Abidin said the following:
It is said that for fourty years whenever food was placed before him, he would weep. One day a servant said to him, ‘O son of Allah’s Messenger! Is it not time for your sorrow to come to an end?’ He replied, ‘Woe upon you! Jacob the prophet had twelve sons, and Allah made one of them disappear. His eyes turned white from constant weeping, his head turned grey out of sorrow, and his back became bent in gloom,[b] though his son was alive in this world. But I watched while my father, my brother, my uncle, and seventeen members of my family were slaughtered all around me. How should my sorrow come to an end?’[c]
Husayn’s grave became a pilgrimage site among Shia Muslims only a few years after his death. A tradition quickly developed of pilgrimage to the Imam Husayn Shrine and the other Karbala martyrs, known as Ziarat ashura. The Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs tried to prevent construction of the shrines and discouraged pilgrimage to the sites. The tomb and its annexes were destroyed by the Abbasid caliph Al-Mutawakkil in 850–851 and Shia pilgrimage was prohibited, but shrines in Karbala and Najaf were built by the Buwayhid emir ‘Adud al-Daula in 979–80.
Public rites of remembrance for Husayn’s martyrdom developed from the early pilgrimages. Under the Buyid dynasty, Mu’izz ad-Dawla officiated at public commemoration of Ashura in Baghdad. These commemorations were also encouraged in Egypt by the Fatimid caliph al-‘Aziz. With the recognition of Twelversas the official religion by the Safavids, Mourning of Muharram extended throughout the first ten days of Muharram.
Azadari (mourning) rituals
The words Azadari (عزاداری) which mean mourning and lamentation; and Majalis-e Aza have been exclusively used in connection with the remembrance ceremonies for the martyrdom of Imam Hussain. Majalis-e Aza, also known as Aza-e Husayn, includes mourning congregations, lamentations, matam and all such actions which express the emotions of grief and above all, repulsion against what Yazid stood for.
After almost 12 centuries, five types of major rituals were developed around the battle of Karbala. These rituals include the memorial services (majalis al-ta’ziya), the visitation of Husayn’s tomb in Karbala particularly on the occasion of the tenth day of Ashura and the fortieth day after the battle (Ziyarat Ashura and ziyarat al-Arba’in), the public mourning processions (al-mawakib al-husayniyya) or the representation of the battle of Karbala in the form of a play (the shabih), and the flagellation (tatbir).Some Shia Muslims believe that taking part in Ashura washes away their sins. A popular Shia saying has it that “a single tear shed for Husayn washes away a hundred sins”.
For Shia Muslims, the commemoration of Ashura is not a festival but rather a sad event, while Sunni Muslims view it as a victory God gave to Moses. For Shia Muslims, it is a period of intense grief and mourning. Mourners congregate at a mosque for sorrowful, poetic recitations such as marsiya, noha, latmiya, and soaz performed in memory of the martyrdom of Husayn, lamenting and grieving to the tune of beating drums and chants of “Ya Hussain”. Also, Ulamas give sermons with themes of Husayn’s personality and position in Islam, and the history of his uprising. The Sheikh of the mosque retells the Battle of Karbala to allow his listeners to relive the pain and sorrow endured by Husayn and his family and they read Maqtal Al-Husayn. In some places, such as Iran, Iraq, and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, passion plays known as Ta’zieh  are performed, reenacting the Battle of Karbala and the suffering and martyrdom of Husayn at the hands of Yazid.In the Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica Ahsura, known locally as ‘Hussay’ or Hosay is commemorated for the grandson of Muhammad, but its celebration has adopted influence from other religions including Roman Catholic, Hindu, and Baptists, making it a mixture of different cultures and religion. The event is attended by both Muslims and non-Muslims depicting an environment of mutual respect and tolerance. For the duration of the remembrance, it is customary for mosques and some people to provide free meals (nazri) on certain nights of the month to all people.
Certain traditional flagellation rituals such as Talwar zani (talwar ka matam or sometimes tatbir) use a sword. Other rituals such as zanjeer zani or zanjeer matam involve the use of a zanjeer (a chain with blades). This is not without controversy however as some Shia clerics have denounced the practice saying “it creates a backward and negative image of their community.” Believers are instead encouraged to donate blood to those in need. On Ashura, very few Shia Muslims observe mourning with a blood donation, which is called “Qame Zani”, and flailing. This mourning is considered to be a shameless way for most Shia Muslims and most of them are against this kind of mourning. In some areas, such as in the Shia suburb of Beirut, Shia communities organize blood donation drives with organizations like the Red Cross or the Red Crescent on Ashura as a replacement for self-flagellation rituals like tatbir and qame zani.
Significance among religions
Shia Muslims make pilgrimages on Ashura, as they do forty days later on Arba’een, to the Mashhad al-Husayn, the shrine in Karbala, Iraq, that is traditionally held to be Husayn’s tomb. On this day Shia is in remembrance, and mourning attire is worn. They refrain from listening to or playing music since Arabic culture generally considers music impolite during death rituals. It is a time for sorrow and for showing respect for the person’s passing, and it is also a time for self-reflection when one commits oneself completely to the mourning of Husayn. Shia Muslims do not plan weddings and parties on this date. They mourn by crying and listening to recollections of the tragedy and sermons on how Husayn and his family were martyred. This is intended to connect them with Husayn’s suffering and martyrdom, and the sacrifices he made to keep Islam alive. Husayn’s martyrdom is widely interpreted by Shia Muslims a symbol of the struggle against injustice, tyranny, and oppression. Shia Muslims believe the Battle of Karbala was between the forces of good and evil, with Husayn representing good and Yazid representing evil.
Shia Imams strongly insist that the day of Ashura should not be celebrated as a day of joy and festivity. The day of Ashura, according to Eighth Shia Imam Ali al-Rida, must be observed as a day of rest, sorrow, and total disregard of worldly matters.
Some of the events associated with Ashura are held in special congregation halls known as “Imambargah” and Hussainia.
Sunnis regard fasting during Ashura as recommended, though not obligatory, having been superseded by the Ramadan fast. Sahih Muslim, (Hadith-2499) According to hadith record in Sahih Bukhari, Ashura was already known as a commemorative day during which some Makkah residents used to observe customary fasting. Muhammad fasted on the day of Ashura, 10th Muharram, in Makkah. When fasting during the month of Ramadan became obligatory, the fast of Ashura was made non-compulsory.
According to Muslim tradition, the Jews also fasted on the tenth day. According to Sunni Muslim tradition, Ibn Abbas narrated that Muhammad came to Medina and saw the Jews fasting on the tenth day of Muharram. He asked, “What is this?” They said, “This is a good day, this is the day when Allah saved the Children of Israel from their enemy and Musa (Moses) fasted on this day.” He said, “We have more claim over Musa than you.” So he fasted on the day and told the people to fast. This tenth in question is believed to be the tenth of the Jewish month of Tishri, which is Yom Kippur in Judaism. The Torah designates the tenth day of the seventh month as holy and a fast (Lev.16, Lev.23, Num.29). The word “tenth” in Hebrew is Asarah or Asharah (עשרה), which is from the same Semitic root A-SH-R. According to this tradition, Muhammad continued to observe the veneration of Ashura modeled on its Jewish prototype in late September until shortly before his death, which the verse of Nasi’ was revealed and the Jewish-type calendar adjustments of the Muslims became prohibited. From then on, Ashura became distinct from its Jewish predecessor of Yom Kippur.
From the period of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution (1905–1911) onward, mourning gatherings increasingly assumed a political aspect. Following an old established tradition, preachers compared the oppressors of the time with Imam Husayn’s enemies, the umayyads.
The political function of commemoration was very marked in the years leading up to the Islamic Revolution of 1978–79, as well as during the revolution itself. In addition, the implicit self-identification of the Muslim revolutionaries with Imam Husayn led to a blossoming of the cult of the martyr, expressed most vividly, perhaps, in the vast cemetery of Behesht-e Zahra, to the south of Tehran, where the martyrs of the revolution and the war against Iraq are buried.
On the other hand, some governments have banned this commemoration. In the 1930s Reza Shah forbade it in Iran. The regime of Saddam Hussein saw this as a potential threat and banned Ashura commemorations for many years. In the 1884 Hosay massacre, 22 people were killed in Trinidad and Tobago when civilians attempted to carry out the Ashura rites, locally known as Hosay, in defiance of the British colonial authorities.
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