If you’re an OFW working in one of the Middle Eastern countries, you’ll probably notice that a lot of Muslims will celebrate Ashura today. For some Islamic countries like Bahrain, it’s even a national holiday.
Ashura literally means the number 10, and the holiday Ashura refers to the 10th day of the Islamic month of Muharram. As with most Islamic holidays, the date of Ashura can vary depending on the sighting of the moon because the Islamic calendar is lunar.
Ashura is a voluntary day for fasting that marks three events: the day Noah left the Ark, the time when the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt, and the death of Imam Hussein, grandson of Prophet Muhammad. That second event where God saved Moses and his followers from the armies of Egypt’s pharaoh is actually a Jewish holiday as well, called Yom Kippur. The Jews, however, celebrate it on a different day because because the Jewish and Muslim calendars mark time differently.
The more important event celebrated on this day of Ashura, however, is the third event: the death of Imam Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad. Forty years after the Prophet died, a king under the guise of a Caliph, arrogated himself into power. Hussein’s father, Ali, the fourth caliph, was murdered. Unlike the simple, egalitarian fashion of the Prophet, the fifth caliph, Muawiya, built palaces, shut himself off from his people, and appointed his son, Yazid, to succeed him on his death. Hussein, who saw his grandfather’s legacy almost undone, journeyed to Southern Iraq with his small group of followers to challenge Yazid’s claim. Yazid’s army crushed the revolt of the Prophet’s grandson, Hussein. For Shiite Muslims, Ashura is all about the martyrdom of Hussein.
Sunni and Shiite Muslims, the two major branches of Islam – celebrate the day in separate ways. Sunni Muslims consider Ashura a day to fast. They choose not to participate in overt displays of happiness such as weddings. Shiite Muslims, on the other hand, choose to commemorate Ashura by engaging in mourning rituals such as self-flagellation and reenactments of the martyrdom. Some Shiites cut themselves with knives on their foreheads as a may to mourn for Hussein in a ritual called “tatbeer.” Others have condemned this practice and have advocated for donating blood instead.
However way one chooses to celebrate Ashura, it’s important to respect other people’s religious beliefs. As always, it’s nice to learn a little bit of information about the culture of people we work with, the Muslims. Educating yourself is the first step towards understanding.