What Is the Muslim Holy Day of Ashura?

By: Dave Roos  | 

Shiite Muharram procession
Shiite Muslim mourners take part in a Muharram procession for Ashura, in Srinagar, India, Aug. 4, 2022. TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP via Getty Images

Ashura (عاشوراء) is a Muslim holiday that's observed in 2022 from sundown Sunday, Aug. 7 to sundown Monday, Aug. 8. Ashura, which means "tenth" in Arabic, corresponds with the 10th day of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar.

For Shia Muslims, who comprise roughly 15 percent of the world's Muslim population, Ashura is the most solemn and significant date on the calendar, a day to mourn and remember the martyrdom of Hussain, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, in 680 C.E.

For Sunni Muslims, who represent the majority of Muslims worldwide as well as in the U.S., Ashura is a New Year's celebration that also commemorates miraculous events from the Quran (and the Hebrew Bible), such as Moses parting the Red Sea and Noah landing the ark on dry land.

"It makes for an odd fit," says Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, the former (and first) Muslim chaplain at Howard University. "One Muslim community is saying, 'Happy New Year!' while the other is saying, 'It's so sad that our beloved Hussain was murdered.' All Muslims are observing something on Ashura, but the spirit of it is quite different."

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Shia Versus Sunni Celebrations of Ashura

The divergent meanings of Ashura reflect the differing beliefs and practices of Shia (or Shiite) and Sunni Islam, the two major branches of Islam that formed immediately following the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 C.E.

There was a split among Muhammad's followers — collectively called the ummah or people of Islam — between those who believed that a descendent of Muhammad should rightfully take the prophet's place as leader, and those who thought that the community should choose its next leader.

The first camp called themselves the "Shiat Ali" or the "Party of Ali," because they backed Muhammad's son-in-law, Ali, as the first imam or leader. The opposing group chose a different leader, who they called the caliph or successor. Ali's supporters ultimately became the Shia (or Shiites) and the second group became the Sunni.

As it turned out, Ali ended up serving first as imam and later as caliph, but he was assassinated five years into his caliphate, which prompted another succession fight. Ali's oldest son, Hasan, thought he should take his father's place, but Hasan was poisoned in 670, his murder ordered by a rival Sunni caliph.

According to Shia tradition, that left Hussain, Ali's youngest son, as the sole biological heir to Muhammad's legacy. A Sunni caliph named Yazid, described by Shia as a corrupt and power-hungry leader, demanded Hussain's allegiance, but Hussain decided to stand up to Yazid, knowing that it would likely cost him his life.

"Death with dignity is better than a life of humiliation," Hussain said in a sermon.

During the Battle of Karbala in 680, Hussain and 72 of his close supporters and family members were surrounded by Yazid's massive army, reportedly 30,000 strong. Hussain and his small band fought valiantly, but it was a bloodbath. After all his supporters and male family members were killed on the battlefield (including his 6-month-old son), Hussain was the last to die on the 10th day of Muharram, also known as Ashura.

re-enact the seventh-century battle of Karbala
Shiite Muslims re-enact the seventh-century battle of Karbala, in Iraq, Aug. 19, 2021 on the day of Ashura.
HUSSEIN FALEH/AFP via Getty Images

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How Shia Muslims Observe Ashura

Hussain's brave sacrifice became the central story of Shia tradition, and Ashura is the day that Shiites have set aside for centuries to mourn and celebrate their martyred hero.

Imam Dawud Walid lives in Detroit, where he's the executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MI). While Shiites comprise only around 16 percent of American Muslims, Walid says that there's a large Shiite community in nearby Dearborn, Michigan, which he calls the "Shia Muslim capital of America."

Every year, members of the Shia community in Dearborn observe Ashura as a period of public mourning, and as a modern call for justice in memory of what Hussain did 14 centuries ago.

For the first 10 days of Muharram, there are community gatherings and events in Dearborn dedicated to the moral teachings of Hussain. Then, on the day of Ashura, there's a large street procession, in which marchers wear black clothing, chant prayers, wave flags and ceremoniously beat their chests in mourning.

Iraqi Shiite Muslims
Iraqi Shiite Muslims participate in a mourning ritual in the city of Nasiriyah in Iraq, marking the beginning of Ashura, Aug. 3, 2022.
ASAAD NIAZI/AFP via Getty Images

In predominantly Shia countries like Iran and southern Iraq, the mourning rituals of Ashura can get a lot more intense, with men engaging in painful self-flagellation, or cutting the skin of their foreheads until blood pours down their faces, a practice some Shiite clerics have spoken out against. Also, hundreds of thousands of Shia make an annual pilgrimage to Karbala, Iraq, to visit the burial shrine of Hussain and re-enact the Battle of Karbala.

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How Sunni Muslims Observe Ashura

Ashura is viewed very differently within the Sunni Muslim community, explains Imam Dawud. For Sunnis, Ashura has nothing to do with Hussain, but instead commemorates the day that God saved Moses and the Israelites from the cruel Egyptian pharaoh by parting the Red Sea.

For Sunnis, Ashura is observed by fasting on at least the 10th of Muharram, but for up to three days, if possible. As during the month of Ramadan, fasting means abstaining from food or drink from dawn to dusk.

"It's viewed as highly recommended and meritorious for Muslims to fast the day of Ashura," says Imam Dawud. "This is what Sunnis agree upon."

The Sunni fasting tradition comes from the Hadith, a collection of sayings and teachings of the prophet. According to the text, when the Prophet Muhammad arrived in the city of Medina, the local Jews were fasting on the 10th of Muharram in remembrance of Moses and the Israelite exodus from Egypt. Muhammad vowed to fast for one, two or three days the next year.

Sunni Muslim parade
Sunni Muslims join in an Ashura procession in Karachi, Pakistan, Sept. 10, 2019.
RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP via Getty Images

Imam Abdul-Malik says that there's also a New Year's component to the Sunni celebration of Ashura. Since it takes place in the first month of the Islamic year, it's a natural time for reflection and resolutions. Sunnis who fast on Ashura today also believe that it's a way to be forgiven of sins committed during the past year.

"Ashura is an opportunity for Muslims to say, 'This is a new year, I'm going to do better and be better,'" says Imam Abdul-Malik. "For Sunnis in both America and across the Arab world, there's also gift-giving on Ashura, special candies, and a focus on charity."

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Can Ashura Be an Opportunity For Reconciliation?

For centuries, Shia and Sunni Muslims lived in harmony, but warring empires began to invade and conquer in the name of Shiism or Sunnism. And much of the recent violence in the Middle East is sectarian in nature, waged by Sunni extremist groups like the Islamic State, or brutal Shia regimes in places like Iran and Syria.

"We have to stop intra-faith violence, brother killing brother, sister killing sister — it's wrong," says Imam Abdul-Malik. "Ashura should be a reminder to all Muslims about the sanctity of life. That we should not have fallen into this conflict within the family and the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be unto him)."

And for all of the differences between the ways that Shia and Sunni observe Ashura, Imam Dawud sees a striking theological thread running through both versions of Ashura.

"There are some Sunni Muslims, like myself, who also revere Hussain, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, and remember his martyrdom," says Imam Dawud. "From my understanding, the martyrdom of Hussain is a reflection of the struggles of Moses, in the sense that Hussain was resisting the tyranny of the pharaoh of his time. In fact, I don't see Hussain as being defeated that day in Karbala, but that day being a victory for him."

Shia woman in Bangladesh lights candles
A Shia woman in Bangladesh lights a candle during the day of mourning to commemorate Ashura.
Habibur Rahman/Eyepix Group/Future Publishing via Getty Images

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