“I swear by God, I shall not surrender as a humiliated person, and I shall not escape like slaves,” said Husayn ibn Ali.
The Shi’ite Muslim holiday of Ashura remembers the death of Husayn, Muhammad’s grandson, with mourning, symbolic chest beating, and dramatic reenactments.
Ashura is the climax of the Festival of Muharram. Ashura means “tenth,” and it takes place on the 10th day of Muharram in the Islamic calendar. This year it falls on Feb. 8. Because Husayn died on this date in the battle of Karbala in 680 A.D., Shi’ites consider him to be a martyr.
The festival includes three main observances: recitals of the suffering of Husayn; street processions; and a theatrical presentation of the events surrounding Husayn’s death.
The recital (rawda-khani) takes place in a home, mosque, or special building called a Hussayniyya. As the travails of Husayn are recounted, emotions swell and people express their grief through weeping and beating themselves on the chest.
The street processions feature an effigy of Husayn or a coffin. The funeral-like procession moves down the street while people chant eulogies and songs of lamentation. Lines of men pound their chests, or in extreme cases, beat themselves with sticks, chains or swords.
The story of Husayn’s death is also presented in stylized theatrical performances. Christians often note the parallels to Passion Plays. Like the other two observances, the presentations arouse intense emotions of outrage at the injustice of Husayn’s death.
The Web site Ashura.com says: “The greatest tragedy was that one who stood up for the noblest of causes, was cut down in so cruel a manner. It is for this reason that the sacrifice of Husayn is commemorated annually throughout the Muslim world. Our sorrow never abates as we relive the tragedy.”
The holiday is rooted in the division of Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims over the rightful successor to Muhammad.
Shi’ite Muslims call the successor to Muhammad “Imam” and believe the Iman must be a descendant of the Prophet. Husayn was the third Imam, according to Shi’ites.
Sunni Muslims call the successor “Caliph” and believe the Caliph is chosen by the Muslim community. During Husayn’s time, the Caliphate was becoming a dynasty which ruled from Damascus (the Umayyad Caliphate). Various rebellions broke out over the issue of who was the rightful successor.
Partisans of Husayn wanted to declare him leader of the Muslim community. Husayn left from Mecca for the city of Kufah in Iraq, but was met by an army sent by the Caliph Yazid. The battle that ensued was one-sided. Yazid’s army of 30,000 surrounded Husayn’s party of 72 men, family members and supporters. Husayn’s group was massacred. Husayn’s head was put on spear and taken to Yazid.
Sunni observance of this holiday is muted. Ashura is a day of recommended but not obligatory fasting. For Sunnis, it commemorates the day Nuh (Noah) left the ark, and the day that Musa (Moses) was delivered from the Egyptians by Allah. Sunnis, while recognizing Husayn’s death was tragic, do not attach the great significance to the event that Shi’ites do.
James Browning is assistant professor of religion at Pikeville College in Pikeville, Ky.
Moojen Momen, An Introduction to Shi’i Islam (Yale University Press, 1985)
www.Ashura.com explores the observance and history of the holiday.
“Ashura,” BBC Religion & Ethics, www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam/holydays/ashura.shtml
“Ashura,” Encyclopedia of the Orient, i-cas.com/ashura.html
“Ashurah” Wikipedia, www.wikipedia.org/wiki/ashura
“Battle of Karbala,” Encyclopedia Britannica, www.britannica.com/eb/article-9044710
“Husayn ibn Ali,” www.search.com/reference/Husayn_bin_Ali
For a description of the martyrdom of Husayn, see
For the Sunni view of Muhammad’s successor, see “The Caliphate,” http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/ISLAM/CALIPH.HTM
For the Shi’ite view of Muhammad’s successor, see “Shia,” http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/ISLAM/SHIA.HTM