On the 10th of the month of Muharram, 1331 years ago, on the plains of Karbala, two armies stood facing each other. The bloody battle which ensued resulted in the death of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh*) at the hands of the Caliph Yazid’s men.
Shi’a Muslims across the world regard this day, known as ‘Ashura, as a day of mourning, and footage of mourning rituals is broadcast on our TV screens. Whilst most of what we see in the brisk coverage on the evening news may be footage of practises in Iran, this day is, in fact, also honoured by Shi’a Muslims in Trinidad and Tobago, of all places. Renamed Hosay, ‘Ashura constitutes part of a 13-day festival whereby a 10-day fast is observed, followed by three days of lively celebrations, featuring what seems to be rather a lot of tinsel. Quite a different image to ‘Ashura in Iran or Iraq.
Yet what is often missed amongst all this, is that the 10th of Muharram is in fact a day which Muslims from all denominations commemorate, whether Sunni or Shi’a, and this is based on events which took place long before the Battle of Karbala.
According to Islamic tradition ‘Ashura, meaning ‘tenth’ in both Arabic and Hebrew, marks the day God rescued the Children of Israel from the tyrannical grasp of the Pharaoh by splitting the Red Sea.
In remembrance of God’s mercy upon this group of people who had been oppressed at the hands of a brutal dictator, according to the Islamic tradition, Jews at the time of the Prophet Muhammad used to fast on this day. As testament to the fact that Muslims too revere and believe in Moses as a prophet and messenger of God, and in commemoration of God’s aid to His followers, and in the spirit of shared bonds between Muslims and other people of Scripture, Muslims too were ordered to fast on the day of ‘Ashura, along with either the day preceding or following it.
Various Islamic sources also relate that this day was also the day that Adam was forgiven for his transgression, Noah was saved from the flood, Job was healed from his illness, and Jesus was brought up to heaven.
The month of Muharram itself is a sacred period during which, even before Islam, fighting of any kind was strictly prohibited, a directive which continued into the Islamic period. Being the first month of the Islamic calendar, it is also a chance for Muslims to reflect upon the Hijra, the migration of the early believers from Mecca to Medina in order to escape persecution, an act which signified the start of the Islamic calendar 1433 years ago.
Recounting these additional significances to the day of ‘Ashura, and the month of Muharram as a whole, in the midst of the turmoil gripping several countries in the Middle East, one cannot help but be struck by the way in which history repeats itself. And whilst it would be naïve to think that any religious prohibition of violence during this month would be adhered to, one can only pray that this new Islamic year brings with it the salvation and freedom for those seeking to practise that which they believe in.
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