Thursday, December 8, 2011

Muharram/ Ashura

Every year, Shi’a Muslims around the world mourn the death of one of their leaders, Imam Hussain, through a series of religious events during the month of  Muharram. On the tenth day of the month, an especially large ceremony called Ashura is held. During the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar, Shiites remember the story of Hussain.
Imam Hussain was a Shi’a leader living in what is present-day Saudi Arabia. What, in the eyes of many, perhaps made him especially important leader is that he was the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed. His father, Ali, is where the Shi’a and Sunni split off into two sects; Shi’a believe that Ali, being Mohammed’s cousin and married to Mohammed’s daughter, should have become the Caliph (religious leader of Muslims), whereas Sunni believe that the selection of the Caliph should not be based on family ties to the prophet.
At the time of Imam Hussain, there was a city in present-day Iraq called Karbala. It was, at the time, populated by Shi’a but ruled by a few Sunni (as in Bahrain today). The Shi’a of Karbala called Imam Hussain to come to rule them. So, he, along with maybe 70 of his family members ranging in age from infancy to elderly, made the pilgrimage to Karbala to rule the people. However, during the trek (not an easy one circa 600 AD), the leaders of Karbala persuaded their people to turn against Imam Hussain when he arrived. Nearing the city, Hussain and his family members were surrounded in a place with no water, and there they waited for three days. Then, they were attacked, and being surrounded by much larger numbers, were essentially demolished. Every man in the party was killed and all of the women and children were taken as hostage and forced on a march to Syria.
Today, followers of Shi’a spend two months in mourning the murder of Imam Hussain. 10 million make a pilgrimage to Karbala each year to visit Hussain’s grave.
An interesting of the pilgrimage to Karbala, is that some of the pilgrims voluntarily beat themselves with axes or swords in order to bleed to feel the pain that Hussain felt. In Muscat, however, rather than this intense form of devotion to a leader, people choose to shed blood by donating to a blood bank. The practice is seen as a way to exhibit a belief that all humans face pain, and that even very religious people (like Imam Hussain). Followers of the tradition want to prove themselves as able to withstand pain in the name of their religion. There is a tradition still practiced, for similar reasons, in which people thump their chests rhythmically. 
The tenth day, Ashura (literally derived from the Arabic word for ten), followers of Imam Hussain spend the entire day attending lectures related to the subject. Many of my schoolmates were absent because they had gone to Muttrah (which is the Shi’a center in Muscat) with their families. In fact, on my school bus, half of the people were absent. My host family was in Muttrah from the morning until 9 o’clock at night.
Then, there are lectures fairly often for the next month and a half. Yesterday, I attended my first Muharram lecture. I went with my host mother and three oldest host sisters to the women’s room. We sat on the floor (there were also benches for older women) and watched a man on a screen giving a lecture. The first half of it was read in the style of Qur’anic chanting—perhaps it actually was a segment from the Qur’an; I don’t know. Then came the lecture. It reminded me a lot of a sermon, but it was in Arabic. I asked my host family afterwards, and it was about living a life with high morals.
After a while, the mood in the room changed and many women pulled out tissues and extra scarves to cover their heads with. I believe part of Imam Hussain’s story was being told, and many of the women broke down crying and bawling. This event is quite emotional, and it was interesting to see such ardent devotion to this man who died so long ago. I suppose that Easter could somewhat be considered an equivalent holiday, but I have never seen Christians so passionate in their ardor for their fallen hero. Honestly, Easter all seems rather commercialized to me, whereas the month of Muharram certainly is not.
Attending this lecture was an incredibly eye-opening experience for me. I got to experience firsthand one of the most important parts of Islam to followers of Shi’a. Also, the stories here are from my memory as told by my host family, so some details may be off because I misheard or mis-remembered them.
Thanks for reading!


  1. Two notes:
    - Muharram is the name of a month, not a festival.
    - Muharram is the first month in the lunar calendar, and not the last.
    In other words, Muharram is akin to January... if that makes any sense!

    The post would have been interesting if you'd explored the event and what it meant to other Muslim sects...

    Thanks though for such an intriguing post!
    Good luck =)

  2. Oh geez... thank you! I didn't proofread.

  3. Hiya. Nice post. Just a couple of points, echoing the first comment here. In Muscat, I believe, due to police restrictions on self-harming and some municipality regulations, self-flagellation is not allowed anymore. I don't think the religious folk donate blood as a substitute.

    You can listen to many english lectures online. A good starting point is (just search for "English")

    One example:

    Note: I don't vouch for the contents as I've not heard them meself.

  4. Interesting post. Just wanted to say that the people who chose Abu Bakr over Ali basically believed that the ruler should be from the tribe of quraysh. Another, group called the Ansar, which were the people of madina wanted the ruler to be from them.