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On Ashura

For anyone who wanted to participate in a bit of Islamic culture, they didn’t need to go further than Russel Square! On the 5th and 6th of December 2011, the Islamic Society of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) held two days of Ashura Day celebrations. They were modest ceremonies to break the supererogatory fast but nonetheless very reverent given the significance of the Karbala event which happened on Ashura day.

Ashura day is a shared occasion between Sunni and Shia Muslims although of late, some Sunnis are getting somewhat resistant towards the entire idea. This is due to some influences which insinuate that Ashura day is an innovation and thus alien to Islam. To take such a view is, to me, a real pity because Ashura day has the capacity for great positivity and self development.  

For those who don’t know, Ashura day is the 10thday (‘ashura’ literally means ‘tenth’) of the month of Muharram, the ‘January’ of the Islamic calendar.  It is significant to Muslims because of a particular historical event. On the day of Ashura in 61 AH[1](680 in the CE), Hussain ibn Ali, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, was martyred at Karbala[2]in a most tragic way. Naturally this event is terribly emotive for many Muslims.

For the Shia Muslims, Ashura is probably the most important day of the year, given their devotion to the family of the Prophet. The tragedy of the Karbala event for the Shia is cherished as a day of devotion and remembrance. They consider Hussain and his descendants to be rightful leaders of the Ummah and therefore when the caliphate was transferred to the Umayyad Dynasty[3]under Muawiyah ibn Abu Sufyan, they consider this a travesty of justice. It was after all Yazid, the son of Muawiyah who was the caliph at the time of Karbala and whom they hold responsible for the martyrdom of Hussain.

This does not mean, however, that the Sunnis have no reverence for the the ahl al-bayt (the family of the Prophet, lit. the people of the house). After all, Ashura day is a day which Sunnis for the most part celebrate as well. There is a fast associated with the day (as the SOAS ceremony shows) to show sympathy for what transpired.

How can the tragedy of Karbala benefit the Muslims today? Certainly this event can invoke negative feelings from the Shia given what happened to Hussain whom they consider a key figure in their belief system. I do believe though that rather than being a divisive element, between the Sunnis and Shia, Karbala can be a time when Muslims come together for a time of reflection and remembrance.

The Shia have sayings:

Live like Ali, Die like Hussain

And

Every day is Ashura, Every place is Karbala

Admittedly some Sunnis may find these sayings extravagant due to their excessive emphasis on Ali and Hussain. However, in the interest of unity, why not conceive meanings of our own about this event?

This event is, after all, part of our cultural heritage and it is our prerogative to interpret them in a beneficial manner. Ali ibn Abi Talib, the cousin of the Prophet and the fourth caliph was an inspiring figure who stood by the Prophet from the beginning of his mission and is said to have an unparalleled knowledge of the Qur’an. Hussain, his son, died for the sake of his convictions. What can his death on the day of Ashura at Karbala represent for the Ummah today?

Perhaps it can mean that each of us have a daily reckoning with ourselves in which we struggle against our lower selves and oppressive elements in society. It is a shame that the ones so far to benefit from such events are fundamentalists given to senseless acts of violence although this is a far cry from what actually happened at Karbala. Every Muslim and I should say, every human being can draw inspiration from the event of Karbala to see the spirit of human tenacity. Fast if you will to remember this day, whatever your beliefs.

  • [1]AH is ‘after hijrah’ , the number of years after
  • [2]It is actually more well known as ‘the tragedy of karbala’ or simply ‘karbala’.
  • [3]From 661-750 CE

Farouk A. Peru is a Phd Candidate in Islam and Postmodernism and teaches Islamic Studies at King's College, London.