Ashura Explained: Will 2011's Ashura Borrow the Revolutionary Fervour?

Published December 5th, 2011 - 11:56 GMT

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Ashura derives from 'tenth': It is a holy day for Islam marked on the 10th of 'Muharram', the first month of the Islamic lunar 
calendar. Muharram represents a period of mourning for a historical grievance in Shia Islam,
culminating Ashura. This child displays a classic lament for the revered martyr: 'O Hussein you were the father of Abdullah'.
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Image 1 of 16: Ashura derives from 'tenth': It is a holy day for Islam marked on the 10th of 'Muharram', the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar. Muharram represents a period of mourning for a historical grievance in Shia Islam, culminating Ashura. This child displays a classic lament for the revered martyr: 'O Hussein you were the father of Abdullah'.

It is commemorated by Shia Muslims as a day of mourning for the martyrdom or sacrifice of Hussein ibn Ali,     
the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad who died at the Battle of Karbala on 10 Muharram in the year 61 AH. 
Participating in Ashura is said to absolve you of your sins - `a single tear shed for Husayn washes away a hundred sins.`
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Image 1 of 16: It is commemorated by Shia Muslims as a day of mourning for the martyrdom or sacrifice of Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad who died at the Battle of Karbala on 10 Muharram in the year 61 AH. Participating in Ashura is said to absolve you of your sins - `a single tear shed for Husayn washes away a hundred sins.`

Muslims all observe the commemoration of Ashura: But for Shia Muslims it is marked uniquely by a grieving,
funereal tone, and it is primarily claimed as a Shia affair: Shias, at 15% of world Muslims have their hubs in Lebanon, Yemen, 
Bahrain, Pakistan, Iran, Albania, Afghanistan (pictured), Iraq and Azerbaijan where Ashura is a national holiday.
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Image 1 of 16: Muslims all observe the commemoration of Ashura: But for Shia Muslims it is marked uniquely by a grieving, funereal tone, and it is primarily claimed as a Shia affair: Shias, at 15% of world Muslims have their hubs in Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain, Pakistan, Iran, Albania, Afghanistan (pictured), Iraq and Azerbaijan where Ashura is a national holiday.

Woe & lament: So intense is the mood of mourning about the occasion, that, akin to the Passion
Play of Christ, intense grief, re-enacting the anguish of Hussein's slaying, is displayed to re-inflame the people's memory 
of the historical act of injury & perceived injustice committed to prevent the Prophet's blood lineage of succession.
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Image 1 of 16: Woe & lament: So intense is the mood of mourning about the occasion, that, akin to the Passion Play of Christ, intense grief, re-enacting the anguish of Hussein's slaying, is displayed to re-inflame the people's memory of the historical act of injury & perceived injustice committed to prevent the Prophet's blood lineage of succession.

All Muslims observe Ashura: Sunnis too mark this holy day, though in a distinctly less profiled way.  Voluntary fasting 
is carried out to commemorate, additionally, the day Noah left the Ark, and the day that Moses was saved from the 
Egyptians by God, freed with the Israelite tribes.
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Image 1 of 16: All Muslims observe Ashura: Sunnis too mark this holy day, though in a distinctly less profiled way. Voluntary fasting is carried out to commemorate, additionally, the day Noah left the Ark, and the day that Moses was saved from the Egyptians by God, freed with the Israelite tribes.

Ashura's rituals: Shia men & women dressed in black parade the streets slapping their chests & 
chanting. Things can get ugly, even violent, with all the raised testosterone around (even if mostly directed at oneself).
Still, today, blood-spilling or self-injury is frowned upon and has been toned down, or kept to the minimum symbolic gestures.
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Image 1 of 16: Ashura's rituals: Shia men & women dressed in black parade the streets slapping their chests & chanting. Things can get ugly, even violent, with all the raised testosterone around (even if mostly directed at oneself). Still, today, blood-spilling or self-injury is frowned upon and has been toned down, or kept to the minimum symbolic gestures.

Eating for pleasure & pain: As well as dress, there is food for the occasion. A twist to the aphorism No pain, 
No gain, here, with pain, comes a treat. A special dish is served up as fuel for the parade, offered to the poor 
along the way in the name of Hussein. In Iraq, a humus-meat dish, 'Qeemeh,' is eaten by pilgrims from Baghdad to Karbala.
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Image 1 of 16: Eating for pleasure & pain: As well as dress, there is food for the occasion. A twist to the aphorism No pain, No gain, here, with pain, comes a treat. A special dish is served up as fuel for the parade, offered to the poor along the way in the name of Hussein. In Iraq, a humus-meat dish, 'Qeemeh,' is eaten by pilgrims from Baghdad to Karbala.

Ashura, aside from the general sombre tone to the day, is actively made up of mourning rituals and passion plays re-enacting
the historical martyrdom and suffering. While centered in the more widely recognized, high profile outdoor parades, there is also
activity in indoor congregation halls known as Hussainia (pictured).
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Image 1 of 16: Ashura, aside from the general sombre tone to the day, is actively made up of mourning rituals and passion plays re-enacting the historical martyrdom and suffering. While centered in the more widely recognized, high profile outdoor parades, there is also activity in indoor congregation halls known as Hussainia (pictured).

Battle of Karbala: Ashura marks the anniversary of the 'Battle of Karbala' when
Imam Hussain ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him (PBUH), with his family and 72 supporters
was killed by the forces of the second Umayad caliph Yazid. (Imam Hussein Shrine pictured)
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Image 1 of 16: Battle of Karbala: Ashura marks the anniversary of the 'Battle of Karbala' when Imam Hussain ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him (PBUH), with his family and 72 supporters was killed by the forces of the second Umayad caliph Yazid. (Imam Hussein Shrine pictured)

The events prior to Ashura, during Muharram, include organising a series of 'majalis' (gatherings) to review Islamic 
teachings and to commemorate Imam Hussain's sacrifice.
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Image 1 of 16: The events prior to Ashura, during Muharram, include organising a series of 'majalis' (gatherings) to review Islamic teachings and to commemorate Imam Hussain's sacrifice.

As the story goes, the women and children left living were made prisoners and transported to Yazid's court in Damascus: Perhaps
giving added incentive for women and children ever since to play a role in Ashura (though predominantly a male affair).
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Image 1 of 16: As the story goes, the women and children left living were made prisoners and transported to Yazid's court in Damascus: Perhaps giving added incentive for women and children ever since to play a role in Ashura (though predominantly a male affair).

Shia Muslims: The Shia maintain that the rightful successor of the Prophet (PBUH) was his son-in-law Ali. The ongoing division between
the Shia and Sunni finds its roots in disputes over the proper succession of leadership after the death of the Prophet 
Mohammed (PBUH) in 632 C.E.
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Image 1 of 16: Shia Muslims: The Shia maintain that the rightful successor of the Prophet (PBUH) was his son-in-law Ali. The ongoing division between the Shia and Sunni finds its roots in disputes over the proper succession of leadership after the death of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) in 632 C.E.

The Muslim Second Coming: The leadership and authority in the community 
was then passed to a council of twelve scholars, also known as the Shia Twelvers, ( Ulema, or Imams), the last of whom, 
Imam Madhi, mysteriously disappeared but Shias believe will reappear to lead the Muslims, not exclusively Shias, into victory
against evil and the enemy.
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Image 1 of 16: The Muslim Second Coming: The leadership and authority in the community was then passed to a council of twelve scholars, also known as the Shia Twelvers, ( Ulema, or Imams), the last of whom, Imam Madhi, mysteriously disappeared but Shias believe will reappear to lead the Muslims, not exclusively Shias, into victory against evil and the enemy.

Sacred sites for Shia: The Shia tradition particularly focuses on past Imams and Saints: 
The main figures are memorialized by elaborate tombs, which have become important pilgrimage destinations and objects
of devotion, all year round, and on key pilgrimage dates.
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Image 1 of 16: Sacred sites for Shia: The Shia tradition particularly focuses on past Imams and Saints: The main figures are memorialized by elaborate tombs, which have become important pilgrimage destinations and objects of devotion, all year round, and on key pilgrimage dates.

Some Shia men emulate the suffering of Hussein by flagellating themselves with chains or cutting their foreheads with
their palms until blood streams. This can turn quite extreme & frenzied as can get competitive 
& riled up. Not so dissimilar to some devoted Christians at Easter, who self-inflict physical suffering in remembrance of Jesus.
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Image 1 of 16: Some Shia men emulate the suffering of Hussein by flagellating themselves with chains or cutting their foreheads with their palms until blood streams. This can turn quite extreme & frenzied as can get competitive & riled up. Not so dissimilar to some devoted Christians at Easter, who self-inflict physical suffering in remembrance of Jesus.

 Donate blood instead! Some Shia leaders and groups discourage 
the bloodletting, concerned that it creates a negative, if not backward, image of Shia Muslims. 
These leaders encourage people to donate blood instead.
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Image 1 of 16:  Donate blood instead! Some Shia leaders and groups discourage the bloodletting, concerned that it creates a negative, if not backward, image of Shia Muslims. These leaders encourage people to donate blood instead.

For Shia Muslims, 'Ashura' is a solemn day of mourning the martyrdom of Imam Hussein in 680 AD at Karbala in modern-day Iraq.

Who is Hussein and why is his death significant to Islam?

Imam Hussain ibn Ali ibn Abi Talib

At a scan:

Father: Imam Ali Amir Mu'minin
Mother: Fatimah az-Zahra  - the daughter of the Holy Prophet Muhammad Peace Be Upon Him (PBUH)
Kunniyat (Patronymic): Abu Abdullah 
Laqab (Title): Saiyd-ush-Shohada 
Birth: He was born in Medina on a Thursday, 3rd of Shaban 4 A.H (year of Hijrah)
Martyrdom: Martyed at Karbala aged 57 Years on Monday, 10th of Moharram 61 A.H. and buried there.

Hussein ibn 'Ali was the son of Ali ibn Abi Ṭalib and Fatimah Zahra. Ali is an important figure in Islam as he is a member of the Ahl al-Bayt (the household of the Prophet, hence considered an heir to the Prophet PBUH), as well as being the first Imam so-called for Shia Muslims, though Islam as a whole considers many figures 'Imams' preceding Ali. Hussein, together with father Ali,  is one of the "Shia Twelvers". (a grouping of Imams that the Shia gave credence to following their loss of Ali and Hussein.) The Shia have 12 Imams - the first one Imam Ali, third, Hussein, and Imam Mahdi the final or twelth member who disappeared in mysterious circumstances. Hassan, the brother of Hussein, is also a key figure kept alive in the Shia collective memory. While he didn't die at the treacherous hands of the Ummayad, he died at the betraying hands of his wife who poisoned him, so rgarded also as a martyr to Muslims.

Hussein ibn ‘Ali is extolled by the Shia as a martyr who fought tyranny as he refused to pledge allegiance to Yazid the Umayyad Caliph. Hussein was galvanized to create a regime that would reinstate into power  a "true" Islamic authority as opposed to what he considered the unjust rule of the Umayyads. He wanted to restore power to the descendents of the Prophet (PBUH). Hussein even stood up and fought when others in the family were willing to accept arbitration, his older brother included-- probably why he is suh a hero today.

Hussein's demise gave rise to the birth of the Shia sect as branching away from the Sunni way. Shia derrives from the term for 'band of', thus it follows that 'Shia Ali' were the band of Ali, shortened to Shia. Sunnis were those who accepted--sometimes only begrudgingly--the temporal legitimacy of the Umayyad State, which was set up by Yazid Ben Mu'awiyah and his father Mu'awiyah Ben Abi Sufyan, and in fact most Sunnis today accept them as full 'Caliphs' or successors of the Prophet.

Sunnis continued to follow to all intents and purposes the Prophet (PBUH), but via the perceived legitimate authority as elected by Yazid. Yazid was not chosen by election or by council, but appointed himself after the death of his father, Mu'awiyah.The authority of Islam passed onto his Ummayad. Some Muslims condemn Yazid's rule as unjustly acquired. (Yet arguably in the story of 'European' Kings and Queens, with the historical barbary and bloodshed associated, this is not the first time that justice has been violated en route to power.) These same Muslims deem Hassan and Hussein the rightful successors to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

Hussein, as a result of his resistance, was killed and beheaded in the Battle of Karbala in 680 (61AH) by Shimr Ibn Thil-Jawshan. The annual funeral in the memory of him, his family, his children and his companions who went down with him, is called Ashura (tenth day of Muharram) and is a day of mourning for Shia Muslims.

The Shia feel a particular preoccupation with the death of Hussein, son of Ali. Imam Ali was the first cousin of the Prophet (PBUH) and his son-in-law. Muslims, mainly Shia affiliates, commemorate this event or funeral each year on Ashura, a day of mourning recognized throughout the Shia Muslim world, and, particularly, by pilgrims to Karbala. Imam Ali's own assasination attempt in Iraq has given rise to another site of Shia pilgramage with a shrine dedicated to his memory at his final resting place in Najaf.

Sunni Muslims observe the day through voluntary fasting.

Notwithstanding that it falls on a month singled out, amongst others, as a month of peace in the Islamic calendar, this year’s Ashura might bring with it some added notes of tension as the Shia community in the Middle East may be feeling more beleaguered than is standard for minority religions.  In some Arab revolutionary countries, currently, some of the conflict is evidently fueled by sectarian aggravations, as evinced by hot-points of the 2011 protests in Bahrain and Yemen. In Syria, the Alawis or Alawites, who constitute a branch of Shia Islam, might flare-up in outbursts of violence, even though it's a month during which fighting and wars were forbidden in Islam. Syria's Assad in particular has certainly not abided by this holy ordenance so far, this month of 'Muharram'.

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