The literal meaning of the Arabic word ashura means “tenth.” In Islam, Ashura refers specifically to the 10th day of the lunar month of Muharram.
Muharram is an important month to Muslims. From a religious perspective, Muharram is one of four holy months and a time when Muslims are encouraged to perform optional fasts, avoid fighting and avoid unlawful acts.
From a historical perspective, Muharram is meaningful as the month when Muslims fled persecution in Mecca and migrated to Medina. The migration – or hijra as its referred to in Arabic – provided a reference point for establishing an Islamic lunar calendar, with the first of Muharram marking the beginning of each Islamic New Year.
Ashura is significant as the day that Allah (God) saved Moses (peace be upon him) and the Israelites by parting the Red Sea and drowning Pharaoh. When the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) migrated to Medina, the Jews told him that Moses (peace be upon him) fasted in gratitude on Ashura, and Jewish practice was to fast Ashura as well.
Upon learning this, the Prophet (peace be upon him) replied, “We have more right to Moses than you,” and he commanded Muslims to fast Ashura. Later, when fasting the entire month of Ramadan became obligatory, the Ashura fast was declared optional, and Muslims were instructed to differentiate their fast from the Jews by fasting the 9th or 11th of Muharram along with the 10th.
The tradition of optional fasting on the 9th and 10th of Muharram continues among present day Muslims, who believe fasting on Ashura offers the reward of having their previous year’s sins forgiven. This is based on the hadith in which the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: “For fasting the day of Ashura, I hope that Allah will accept it as expiation for the year that went before.” (Muslim)
Most scholars note that fasting should be the only way – if at all – that Muslims observe Ashura. Cultural traditions associated with Ashura – such as applying kohl to the eyes, taking a ritual bath, or giving gifts to children – are regarded as religious innovations (bid’ah), as they were not practices of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) or his companions.
But Shiite observe the 10th of Muharram for an entirely different reason – it marks the day that Hussain, son of Ali and grandson of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), was killed as a martyr at the Battle of Karbala. Ashura is a major festival of self-reflection for Shiites, and they commemorate the tragic death of Hussain with outward displays of grief and mourning. This includes passion plays and the annual procession of Shiite men flagellating themselves with chains.
Such displays of grief, however, contradict the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), who said: “He is not from our group who slaps his checks, tears his clothes and cries in the manner of the people of jahiliyyah (pre-Islamic ignorance).” (Sahih Bukhari)
Furthermore, Ashura was not declared a holiday by the Prophet (peace be upon him), who cautioned Muslims about religious innovations: “Those of you who live after my death will see many disputes. I urge you to adhere to my Sunnah (teachings and traditions) and the Sunnah of my rightly-guided successors who come after me. Hold onto it as if biting it with your eye teeth. Beware of newly-innovated matters, for every innovation is a going astray.” (Saheeh Sunan Abi Dawood)