Muharram is one of the two most important events on the Islamic calendar. Muharram is actually the first month of the Muslim calendar. But the actual dates change from year to year because Islam follows the lunar calendar. Some people are of the opinion that Muharram is the most important event on the Islamic calendar just after Ramadan. The entire month is holy, but the tenth day, which is also called “the day of Ashura” is particularly important.
When is Muharram in 2016
In 2016, the holy month of Muharram would commence from Saturday 1st October and it will last till Monday 31st October. However because in the Islamic calender, a holiday begins on the sunset of the previous day, observing Muslims will celebrate Muharram on the sunset of Friday 30 September. Dates may, however, vary in various countries and also in India depending upon the moon sighting.
Ashura Date 2016
Ashura in 2016 is on Wednesday 12 October. In the Islamic calender, a holiday begins on the sunset of the previous day. So, observing Muslims will celebrate Ashura on the sunset of Tuesday 11 October.
The Muslims believe that Allah Ta’ala created heaven, earth, and twelve months of the year. He then declared four of these months to be sacred – Zhul-Qa`dah, Zhul Hijjah, Muharram and Rajab. Sanctity of these four months is thus observed in the Shari’ah.
Muslims from the world over observe Muharram, and this includes people from both the Shia and Sunni communities. Sunnis observe the tenth day to celebrate the victory of Moses over the Egyptian Pharaoh. They celebrate the occasion on a quiet note and make calm and silent offerings.
But for the Shias, it is a sad occasion. They mourn the death of Husayn Ibn Ali who was Prophet Muhammad’s grandson. Husayn Ibn Ali refused to pledge allegiance to Yazid I, the Umayyad caliph, because he considered the rule of the Umayyads unjust. Husayn was finally beheaded on the tenth day of Muharram at the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD. Members of his family were imprisoned in Damascus. This is why Shia Muslims consider this to be a day of mourning, or the day of Ashura.
How the Day of Ashura Divided the Community into Shia and Sunnis
Prophet Mohammad could not name a successor before he died. One fraction of his followers believed that somebody from the family should succeed him, while others disagreed. Finally Abu Bakr was selected after a long dispute. His reign was peaceful. However there was trouble during the reign of Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law. Ali was killed along with his two sons. Husayn was his younger son.
This incident divided the Muslims into two communities – Shias and Sunnis. Shias believed that Ali and his two sons were the rightful successors of the Prophet. The Sunnis disagreed.
Fasting and Other Muharram Traditions
There are some differences in the way these two sects observe Muharram, but most of the traditions remain identical.
For instance, both Shia and Sunni Muslims the world over would observe fasting on the tenth day of Muharram. This fasting is done according to the “hadith” or prophetic traditions.
Mainstream Shia Muslims would not even have water during the sunlight hours. They do this throughout the first ten days of Muharram. This is symbolic because 72 of Husayn Ibn Ali’s followers, including women, children and the elderly were denied water and food between the seventh and tenth day. Those who survived were made to march to Damascus, where they were imprisoned. This is why the last few days of the first ten days of Muharram are believed to be the most important ones. Muslims wouldn’t eat or drink to show solidarity with them.
Majalis are also held in many places where Shia orators would describe vividly the incident where Husayn Ibn Ali and his party was attacked, killed and captured.
There are those who will even observe fasting for the entire month. Most religious Muslims would gather together and have food and water only after sundown. Food and water is consumed after the new moon is sighted. It’s also an opportunity for the entire family, and even friends, to come closer and bond.
The practice of fasting is however not so uniform among the Sunni Muslims. Some of them would fast for the duration of the ten days of Muharram. However there are those who will fast only on the 9th and the 10th day, and those who will observe fasting only on a single day, which is the tenth day. Everything depends on the individual here. Some Sunni Muslims would even fast for an extra day – the eleventh. There’s a reason for this too.
The Holy Prophet Sallallahu Alayhi Wassallam asked Muslims to observe fast for one extra day to oppose the Jews who fast just on the tenth day. Wassallam wanted to distinguish the Islamic way of fasting from that of the Jews, and thus asked them to fast on one additional day.
He asked them to fast either on the ninth or eleventh day along with the day of Ashura. The ninth day is called Tasu`a. In fact, Prophet Mohammad too asked Muslims to fast on Tasu`a. According to Ibn `Abbas, a cousin of the Prophet, this is what Mohammad said, “If I live next year, I shall also fast on the 9th day”. It is believed that the Prophet himself used to fast on the day of Ashura along with his disciples.
Significance of the Muharram Fasting
The fasting is symbolic. But nowhere in Islam is it written that fasting is obligatory during the month of Muharram, or on the tenth day. It is just as advisory. But that’s precisely why many Muslims would fast. According to hadith traditions, the rewards are better if one observes something out of his own choice without being obligatory on him.
However some Islamic scholars are of the opinion that the Ashura fast was once compulsory, everybody was told to observe fasting on Ramadan.
Fasting during Muharram also comes from the concept of self-denial. The word Muharram actually means “forbidden”. It is from the word “harām”, which means “sinful”. So in other words, according to Islam, it would be sinful to have food during the daytime in the month of Muharram.
They would not listen to music or hold any happy occasion or ceremony during this one month too. Any sin committed on this month is thought to be more severe. Similarly any good deed has double benefits.
Generosity to the Family during Muharram and Ashura
According to hadith traditions, religious Muslims are expected to show generosity to the family this time of the year by spending more money on food than what they would normally do at other times of the year. “He who will be generous to his family on the day of Ashura, Allah will be generous to him for the entire year”. It is believed to be an act of great merit.
But this tradition has changed over the years. These days, Muslims would not just spend on food, but they will also buy new clothes for the Muharram month. People from the community are in a mood for giving at this time. So they will also give food and clothing to the needy.
The Muharram Procession
Azadari processions have traditionally been taken out throughout north India, particularly Lucknow, where there is a significant Muslim population. The processions are usually out on the Ashura day. These processions have been held, including the Chup Tazia, since the 16th century in India. In fact, some experts believe that the tradition goes back even longer.
The processions are often large with hundreds of people. They hold banners and carry models of the mausoleum of Hazrat Imam Husayn and his people. Many would wear black clothes during the procession. In fact, black is the common color even for those who do not take part in these processions, as black is the color of mourning.
However since 1906 there has been communal tension in Lucknow around these Azadari processions. Riots have broken out several times during the Muharram procession. The Uttar Pradesh government finally banned the Azadari procession in 1968 in Lucknow, amid huge protests by Shia leaders. Many community leaders courted arrest. Some Shia youths even committed self-immolation and died. Every year since then till 1997, when the ban was finally lifted, Shia leaders used to defy the order and hold these processions. The government was compelled to lift the ban finally after a huge hunger strike.
Muslims from the Shia community would also flagellate themselves with rods and sticks during the procession. They would even cut themselves with sharp objects like knives in public. This self-harming is also symbolic for commemorating the suffering faced by Husayn Ibn Ali and his followers. This is a show of mourning, and this show is usually seen in the Shia population in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, India, Lebanon, Pakistan and Bahrain, where there is a considerable Shia population. It is believed that this tradition started in Iraq.
Muharram by the Dawoodi Bohras
Dawoodi Bohra is a sub-sect of Shia. People belonging to this community trace their roots to Yemen. In India, most of the Dawoodi Bohras are found in the state of Gujarat.
Dawoodi Bohras observe the holy month of Muharram too. And like the Shias, they too mourn the death of Husayn Ibn Ali and his followers and would observe fast for the first ten days of Muharram. However there are some differences between how Shias and Dawoodi Bohra observe Muharram.
During Muharram days, prayer ceremonies are held on the sayings of the current dawah of the Bohras, Mohammed Burhanuddin. They will pray throughout the day till sunset or the Maghrib, which is the fourth of the five formal daily prayers every religious Muslim is supposed to do. Elders performing the prayer declare Husayn to be a martyr at the end.