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'.