For Muslims, holidays are a time to give thanks to God and remember significant events in history. Muslims all agree about the five basic elements of Islam, but there are differences in practice of some of the five elements and other extra-obligatory acts that differentiate Islam into sects. One example is the observance of Ashura, the tenth day of the Muslim lunar month Muharram. Although all Muslims agree that it is a recommended day of fasting, depending on the traditions of those that followed the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him, <PBUH>), different sects practice different rituals and observances.
By examining the basic tenants of Islam, the history of Islam since the Prophet (PBUH), and the historical roots of the day of Ashura, it becomes clear that differences in observance do not uncover divisions in Islam, but rather cultural practices displaying the universality of Muslim practice.Basic Tenants of IslamTo be Muslim is to follow five basic tenants of prayer five times a day, fasting during the month of Ramadan, hajj or journey to Mecca at least once in a lifetime, giving at least 2.5% of excess wealth to charity, and a belief that there is only one God and that Muhammad (Peace be upon him) is a messenger of God like those in the Abrahamic tradition before him. Every observance outside of these five pillars, including fasting during the day of Ashura, is not mandatory and there is flexibility about whether or not Muslims practice them. These tenants, called the five pillars are to be conceptualized as load bearing beams of the Islamic religion, that once any one is compromised, the whole structure falls. Striving to uphold these pillars is of paramount importance, and whether a Muslim does so or not is purely between him and God.
Other Muslims are cautioned not to question the faith of others as only God knows a person’s true account.Islam is a practice that must be used in every aspect of life and can never be absent from any action, so although Muslims may be prone to criticize an action as unislamic (like having premarital sex), but never to say that a person is not Muslim because of their actions. Cultural differences are celebrated in Islam, and held as the miracle of the faith itself that it can unite so many disparate realities.History of Islam After the Prophet (PBUH)On his deathbed in 432, the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) gave the leadership of the people to his closest companion Abu Bakr (Ghazzali, 486), and a he was also confirmed by election (Weir, 4). After him the succession passed to the Prophet’s (PBUH) other three closest companions, Omar, Usman, and Ali, who were collectively called the holy caliphates (Weir, 7). Each successor after Abu Bakr was elected on the deathbed and the examples set by the ruler ship of these four companions caused the initial division in the practice of Islam. Sunni’s consider themselves followers of the tradition of the Prophet (PBUH) and take their cues from the leadership of Abu Bakr, but follow cultural interpretations of a specific Muslim scholar and are divided into schools of thought; Hanifi, Maliki, Shafi, and Hanbali.
Another major division came from the Shi’as who claimed that ruler ship should go through Muhammad’s (PBUH) blood line starting with Ali, who was his cousin and also married his daughter Fatima, and then to Hessian and Hussein, who were the Prophet’s (PBUH) grandsons (ReligionFacts.com).History of the day of AshuraAside from the five pillars and the Holy Qur’an, all Muslims believe in the history conveyed through the Qur’an and Hadiths which detail how Muhammad comes from a long line of prophets that includes Noah (Nuh), Abraham (Ibrahim), Moses (Musa), Joseph (Yusuf) and others both known and unknown numbering over 1000. In pre-Islamic times, Ashura was observed by Jews and Christians as marking the day Noah left the ark and the day that God delivered Moses out of Egypt. According to the Prophet’s wife Aisha, when Muslims were driven out of Mecca and traveled to Medina in 622 AD, the came upon Jews and Christians who were observing fast on the day Ashura because Moses himself used to fast on this day. The Prophet (PBUH) is reported to have said “We have more claim on Moses than you” and ordered to fast on this day (Al-Bukhari, vol III, 159).
Muslims also mark this day as one in which God accepted the repentance of Adam, extinguished the fire where Abraham was thrown, gave the ten commandments to Moses, delivered Jonah (Yunus) from the whale, raised Jesus (Isa) to heaven, and a host of other acts of mercy towards his prophets (Al Jilani, ). Aisha, the wife of the Prophet (PBUH), reported that when revelation came down for Muslims to fast the entire month of Ramadan, it became superogatory to fast Ashura (Al-Bukhari, Vol 3, 157).Because Muslims are under the directive that all prophets are to be respected equally (Qur’an 3:144), Ashura is a proof of God’s mercy, marking a holy day when God granted believers respite from a difficult trial. It is a day to remember that after hardship comes ease (Qur’an 94:5). Fasting is recommended because the act of fasting brings a believer closer to God.
According to Imam Ghazzali, “Of all the regulations of religion, fast keeps (a) special connection to God” (Ghazzali, Vol. 1, 222). In order for a person’s fast to be accepted, they must refrain from food, drink, sexual contact or emission, and purposeful vomiting (Ibid, 225). It is also recommended that a fasting person not look at things which distract from contemplation of God, not engage in backbiting or lying, and not listen to others lie or backbite (Ibid, 227-8). In the absence of food, sex and other distractions, the fasting person has more time and energy to devote to worship and remembrance of the mercy of God.The importance of fasting is evident when considering that in addition to Ashura, Muslims also recognize other days in which it is recommended to fast. These include the day of Arafat, the ten days leading up to Ashura, and all days of the holy months of Zil-Hajj, Jil Qaedah, Muharram, and Rajab (Ibid, 230).
Together the observation of these fasts plus Ramadan would mean that it is recommended that Muslims fast for nearly 6 months of the year. While Ashura is clearly important it is just one of many days where a person will get increased benefits for fasting. The Prophet (PBUH) is reported as saying in the Hadith collection Sahih Muslim “today is the day of Ashura and Allah has not made fasting obligatory for you, but I am fasting. He who likes to observe fast among you should do so, and he who likes not to observe it (does not have to) observe it” (Kabbani).History of Ashura for Shi’a MuslimsAdditional observances on the day of Ashura arose that not all Muslims agree upon, but these observances are generally tolerated. The Prophet (PBUH) is reported as saying that every culture has his own ways of celebrating (Al-Bukhari, Vol II, 55). One significant difference is observed among the Shi’as who mark Ashura also as the day in which Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet (PBUH) was martyred.
They celebrate by beating themselves and visiting the grave of Hussein in order to remember the pain he experienced and to atone for their sins.Hussein was the successor to his brother Hassan, and took the ruler ship after his brother’s death in 680 AD. Hussein took over during a time of peace with a long time enemy of Islam and the Prophet (PBUH), the sons of Abu Sufyan, Muawiya and Yazid, who were governors of Syria. Yazid was waging a campaign to return to the pre Islamic way of life, and Hussein took a stand against him at the request of the people of Iraq. He is revered because he took a stand to protect the whole of Islam, and was killed in the battle of Kerbala, thus becoming a Martyr (Shia News.com).
The pain of the Martyrdom is compounded because Hussein lost the battle and the severed heads of he and his companions were carted from city to city along with their wives and children. Shi’as believe that it is important to weep for the family of the prophet and his companions. They base their observations on hadith that tell of the Prophet (PBUH) crying when he received divine information of how his grandson would die at Kerbala, and how he earlier admonished weeping widows and children to also weep for his cousin who was also martyred (Qazwini, Chapter 17).After the death of Hussein, the Muslims in Iraq who had called Hussein to help fight against Yazid were stricken with remorse, for though they called him for help, they abandoned him during battle, leaving only 72 men to fight.
A group of five men who called themselves the Tawwabun determined to atone for their cowardness by waging a bloody campaign and facing similar risks as Hussein. Their campaign raised awareness about Shi’a and caused many Muslims to become Shi’a in the region (Jafri, Chapter 8).Today Shi’as commemorate the day of Ashura with many rituals acting out Hussein’s preparation for and fight in battle. These observances culminate with public displays of self flagellation, where men will whip themselves, sometimes with razor tipped whips in the streets. Every year pictures of bloodied men are reported on the news, further raising awareness of Shi’as and their quest to remember Hussein’s martyrdom.Shi’a commemorations of Ashura are so graphic and emotional, many Sunnis believe that Shi’as stray outside of what is permissible in Islam, and it is today a political issue. Just as the Shi’a can find hadith to support their opinion that the Prophet (PBUH) looked favorable upon those who empathized with the suffering of his family, the Sunnis also find many justifications why it is not permitted to make a scene of grief.
Saddam Hussein, the deposed leader of Iraq, was famous for outlawing Shi’a self flagellations and demonstrations, and observance of Ashura was given the heightened meaning of resistance against oppression. The fact that it has now been reinstated is hailed as a victory by the Coalition Government, and the United States (Shelby & White).All Muslims know that a person’s account and actions are judged solely by God, which is why all devotions are done in private or in unison so that there is no time to observe others.
The images of men with bloody faces and backs has served to make public what is usually private, and has therefore turned the observation of a ritual into a political event. Today even non-Muslims are weighing in on the different “sects” of Islam, and evaluating their religion and beliefs as if they were separate from each other. The US State Department website breaks them into two categories and evaluates their threat to American security separately. Yet ultimately, the disagreement about Ashura is simply a conversation between brothers in Islam, and it is the non Islamic media that has picked up on it as a way to pit parties against each other for their own political gain.ConclusionAlthough Ashura is celebrated by all Muslims as a day of fasting and remembrance of the Prophets and Islamic history, it has recently become a political issue, divorced from the realities of Islamic practice. Muslims around the world are united in their belief in the five pillars of Islam, the prophetic tradition, and the revelation of the Holy Qur’an.
The practices of Ashura are merely superogatory acts by any account, and therefore not central to conception or perception of being Muslim. Because Shi’as also believe that part of Ashura is public bloodletting to commemorate the death of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet (PBUH), they are open to criticism of their behavior. However, Ashura celebrations are only a matter of degree. All Muslims believe in the history of Hussein, and honor his contribution to the Muslim world, it is only the cosmetic details of whether or not to weep publicly and let blood flow that cause discussion. Ashura is ultimately about fasting, prayer, and remembrance of history, something both Sunnis and Shi’as uphold.