As part of Alma’s new initiative to bring you random facts about the region, here are 5 facts about the Ashura holiday celebrated in Shiite Islam:

  1. The root of the word “Ashura” means tenth in Semitic languages. It is derived from the Hebrew word “ʿāsōr”, which means “decade”.
  2. Ashura and Yom Kippur (Jewish holiday of atonement) are both observed on the tenth day of the first month of their respective religions – Ashura on the tenth of Muharram and Yom Kippur on the tenth of Tishrei. Both are observed, among other ways, with fasting and prayers.
  3. Ashura marks the climax of the 10-day annual commemoration of the death of Imam Husayn ibn Ali, grandson of the prophet Muhammad, killed in the Battle of Karbala (along with his family and supporters) on the 10th of Muharram in 680 C.E. by Yazid ibn Mu’awiya ibn Abi Sufyan. The battle stemmed from the conflict between the two over the role of Caliph (leader) of the Muslim nation. Husayn believed the role is rightfully his as the prophet’s grandson, while Yazid believed it must be decided by tribal leaders as was for previous Caliphs. Yazid was nominated as caliph and successor to the prophet Muhammad, to which Husayn objected claiming this was so only because influential people from all provinces of Damascus were convinced to vote for him, and those who did not were either bribed or forced to do so.
  4. 5 major rituals are commemorating the battle– memorial services (majlis al-ta’ziya), the visitation of Husayn’s tomb in Karbala, particularly on the tenth day of Ashura and the 40th day after the battle (Ziyarat Ashura and ziyarat al-Arba’in), the public mourning processions (al-mawakib al-husayniyya) or the representation of the battle of Karbala in the form of a play (the shabih), and the flagellation (tatbir).
  5. Flagellation (tatbir), is one of the mourning rituals in which people whip themselves repeatedly with whips and other instruments to the point of bleeding, to relive Husayn’s pain and sorrow. Some Shia clerics have denounced this practice and instead encouraged people to donate blood instead.
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Picture of Avraham Levine

Avraham Levine

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