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Ashura is one of the most significant holy days in Islam, both because of what’s celebrated on it and what it means for the religion and its two main denominations – Shia and Sunni Muslims. In a way, Ashura is why the Islamic world is what it is today and why Shia and Sunni Muslims haven’t seen eye to eye in over 13 centuries. So, what exactly is Ashura, who celebrates it, and how?
When Is The Ashura Holy Day?
Ashura is celebrated on the 9th and 10th day of the month of Muharram in the Islamic calendar, or, more precisely – from the evening of the 9th to the evening of the 10th. In the Gregorian calendar, these days usually fall at the end of July or the beginning of August. For example, in 2022, Ashura was from August 7th to 8th and in 2023 it’d be from July 27th to 28th. As for what’s celebrated on Ashura, that’s more complicated.
Who Celebrates What on Ashura?
Ashura is technically two different holy days – one celebrated by Sunni Muslims and the other celebrated by Shia Muslims. Both denominations commemorate two entirely separate historic events on Ashura, and the fact that these two events happen on the same date is more of a coincidence than anything else.
Let’s start with the first event that’s easier and quicker to explain. What Sunni Muslims celebrate on Ashura is what the Jewish people also celebrate – the victory of Moses over the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II and the freeing of the Israelites from Egyptian rule.
Sunni Muslims have celebrated this ever since the Prophet Muhammad arrived in Medina with his followers on Ashura and saw Jewish people fasting in honor of Moses’ victory. So, Muhammad turned to his followers and told them: “You (Muslims) have more right to celebrate Moses’ victory than they have, so observe the fast on this day.”
Moses freeing the Israelites is one of many events that are revered by all followers of the three Abrahamic religions – Christians, Muslims, and Jews alike. Shia Muslims also commemorate this event on Ashura but, for them, there is a second thing of great significance that also happened on Ashura – the murder of Imam Husayn, the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, and the grave (and likely irreparable) worsening of the Sunni-Shia schism.
The Centuries-Old Sunni-Shia Divide
While for Sunni Muslims, Ashura is a day of fasting and celebration, for Shia Muslims it’s also a day of mourning. But, contrary to popular belief, Ashura doesn’t mark the start of the Sunni-Shia divide. Instead, that technically started on the day of the Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632 AD – 22 years after he introduced Arabia and the Middle East to the Islamic faith.
By the time of his death, Muhammad had managed to consolidate power throughout the Arabic world. As often happens with other huge and rapidly-established kingdoms or empires, however (e.g. Macedonia, Mongolia, etc.), the moment this new realm’s leader passed away, the question of who’d be their successor divided Muhammad’s Islamic Kingdom.
Two people, in particular, were seen as the main candidates to be Muhammad’s successor and the first caliph of Muhammad’s kingdom. Abu Bakr, a close companion of the Prophet was seen by a large portion of Muhammad’s followers as his ideal successor. The second name was that of Ali ibn Abi Talib – Muhammad’s son-in-law and cousin.
Ali’s followers backed him not only because they believed he’d be a good choice but especially because he was the Prophet’s blood relative. Ali’s followers dubbed themselves shi’atu Ali or “Partisans of Ali” or just Shia, for short. They believed that Muhammad wasn’t merely a prophet of the Lord but that his bloodline was divine and only someone related to him could ever be a rightful caliph.
Events before the Beginning of the Sunni-Shia Divide
Unfortunately for the Partisans of Ali, the supporters of Abu Bakr were more numerous and politically influential and they seated Abu Bakr as Muhammad’s successor and caliph of the young Islamic community. His supporters adopted the term Sunni from the Arabic word sunna or “Way” because they strived to follow Muhammad’s religious ways and principles, not his bloodline.
This key event in 632 AD was the beginning of the Sunni-Shia divide but it’s not what Shia Muslims are mourning on Ashura – there are a couple more steps until we get there.
First, in 656 AD Ali actually managed to become caliph himself after Abu Bakr. He only ruled for 5 years, however, before he was assassinated. From there, the still young and tension-filled caliphate passed to the Umayyad dynasty of Damascus, and from them – to the Abbasids of Baghdad. Shias rejected both of those dynasties as “illegitimate”, of course, and confrontations between the Partisans of Ali and their Sunni leaders continued to escalate.
Finally, in 680 AD, the Umayyad caliph Yazid ordered Ali’s son and Muhammad’s grandson Husayn ibn Ali – the leader of the Shia partisans – to pledge allegiance to him and end the Sunni-Shia conflict. Husayn refused and Yazid’s army attacked, cornered, and slaughtered Husayn’s entire rebel force as well as Husayn himself together with his whole family.
This bloody ordeal took place in Karbala (today’s Iraq) on the exact date of the Ashura holy day. So, the Battle of Karbala is essentially what ended the bloodline of the Prophet Muhammad and that is what Shia Muslims mourn on Ashura.
Modern-Day Sunni-Shia Tensions
The schism between Sunni and Shia Muslims hasn’t healed to this day and likely never will, at least not completely. Today, Sunni Muslims are the concrete majority, making up about 85% of all 1.6 billion Muslims around the world. Shia Muslims, on the other hand, is about 15%, the majority of which live in Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, and Lebanon, with isolated Shia minorities in all other 40+ Sunni-majority Muslim countries.
This isn’t to say that Shias and Sunnis have always been at war with each other, however. In fact, for the majority of those 13+ centuries since 680 AD, the two Muslim denominations have lived in relative peace – often even praying alongside each other in the same temples or even within the same households.
At the same time, there were many conflicts between Sunni-led and Shia-led countries over the centuries. The Ottoman Empire, the predecessor of today’s Turkey was the largest Sunni Muslim country for a long time, whereas today Saudi Arabia is widely seen as the leader of the Sunni world with Iran being its main Shia opposition.
Such tensions and conflicts between Shia and Sunni Muslims usually seem to be politically motivated, however, rather than a genuine religious continuation of what happened during the 7th century. So, the Ashura holy day is seen primarily as a day of mourning by Shia Muslims and not necessarily as motivation for conflict.
How To Celebrate Ashura Today
Sunni Muslims today celebrate Ashura by fasting, in honor of Moses’ fasting after the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt. For Shia Muslims, however, the tradition is more elaborate as they also mourn the Battle of Karbala. So, Shias usually mark Ashura with large-scale processions as well as tragic reenactments of the Battle of Karbala and Husayn’s death.
During the processions, Shias also usually parade a white horse without a rider through the streets, symbolizing the white horse of Husayn, returning to the camp alone after Husayn’s death. Imams give sermons and retell the teachings and principles of Husayn. Many Shias also practice fasting and praying, while certain small sects even do self-flagellation.
Ashura is a day of mourning and of sacrifice. It marks the tragic Battle of Karbala, where the leader Husayn ibn Ali was killed, but it also marks the day God freed Moses and the Hebrews from the domination of the Egyptian Pharaoh.