Islamic Studies Muharram
Karen Ruffle
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 May 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 May 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0136


Before the advent of Islam in 610 CE, the pre-Islamic Arabs held the lunar month of Muharram to be sacred. Today, all Muslims consider Muharram to be a sacred period, but it is the Shiʿa who have attached special significance to this month. For the Shiʿa, Muharram is a time to commemorate the martyrdom of the third Imam, Husayn ibn ʿAli, who was killed on the tenth day of the month (Ashura), at the battle of Karbala, Iraq, in 680 CE. The ritualized remembrance of Imam Husayn, his family, and his loyal supporters, who sacrificed their lives for the cause of Islam, extends far beyond Muharram to the months of Safar and al-Rabiʿ al-Awwal. These days of mourning (ayyam-e ʿaza) are a time for the Shiʿa to collectively remember and mourn Imam Husayn’s sacrifice and martyrdom, as well as to publicly affirm their loyalty to the family of the Prophet Muhammad (ahl al-bayt) and Islam. Over time, Muharram has come to refer to the collectivity of rituals performed to invoke Imam Husayn’s suffering and sacrifice, as well as to maintain the immediacy of Karbala in the Shiʿi collective conscience. Muharram is also important in the Sunni tradition, and the ninth and tenth days are days of fasting commemorating when Noah left the ark and when Moses was saved in Egypt. In many parts of the Islamic world, including South Asia and South Africa, Sunnis also participate in Muharram mourning rituals for Imam Husayn and his family, which is considered a way of paying respects to the Prophet Muhammad. Likewise, Muharram has been an occasion for Sunni-Shiʿi violence in places such as Pakistan and Iraq, and for Hindu-Muslim violence in India. During Muharram, the Shiʿa attend mourning assemblies (majles), where they listen to discourses (rowzeh khwani) extolling the idealized qualities (faza’el) and tragic suffering (masa’eb) of Imam Husayn and his family. Memorializing poems of lament are recited (marsiya, salam, and suz), and each majles concludes with the participants beating their chests (Arabic latam; Persian/Urdu matam) in time to rhythmic poems of mourning (nauha). In Iran and South Asia, replicas of Imam Husayn’s tomb (naql, taʿzia) are constructed and carried through the streets in processions (jolus). On 9 and 10 Muharram, men solemnly march through the streets performing various acts of bloodletting self-flagellation, including striking the head with a sharp knife (tatbir, qameh zani) or striking oneself on the back with chains or blades (shamshir zani, zanjir zani). Since the early 20th century, Shiʿi ulama have debated the permissibility of performing “bloody matam.” In 1994 Ayatollah ʿAli Khamenei issued a fatwa (legal opinion) prohibiting the performance of matam in which weapons are used to shed blood. Likewise, the leader of the Lebanese organization Hezbollah, Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, has upheld Khamenei’s fatwa, urging Shiʿa to donate blood on Ashura. These legal opinions reflect the desire to deflect criticism away from Shiʿi Muharram rituals, which are often portrayed as excessively violent and rooted in superstition. Imam Husayn’s martyrdom is dramatically reenacted in Iran, India, Pakistan, Turkey and the Caucasus, Iraq, and Lebanon in the taʿziyeh, where village men and professional actors assume the roles of the heroes and villains of Karbala.

General Overviews

Scholarly studies of Muharram are typically, out of the need for brevity and focus, limited to single ritual performances or acts, gendered aspects of ritual, the role of politics, the commemoration of Karbala as it is performed in specific countries or regions, and genres of Muharram ritual (discourse, dramatic performance, poetry, self-flagellation). Detailing the political and religious forces that precipitated the battle of Karbala, Jafri and Husain 1979 situates Muharram in historical context. Momen 1985 similarly provides a useful introduction to Shiʿism, including synopses of Muharram in Iran, India, and elsewhere. Encyclopedia entries on Ashura (Ayoub 1987), Shiʿi festivals (Betteridge 1987), Muharram (Plessner 1993), ʿazadari (Calmard 1987), and taʿzia (Chelkowski 2009) provide helpful general overviews of Muharram, and their bibliographies direct the reader to a number of useful sources in European and Islamicate languages. Many scholars studying Shiʿism have included a chapter or section focusing on Muharram rituals. In the context of South Asia, Rizvi 1986 and Hollister 1979 synthesize the variety of Muharram rituals from North and South India and Pakistan into highly useful and informative overviews.

  • Ayoub, Mahmoud. ʿĀšūrāʾ. In Encyclopedia Iranica. Edited by Ehsan Yarshater. 1987.

    This online encyclopedia entry describes how Imam Husayn was martyred on 10 Muharram (Ashura)—the climax of the Muharram ritual cycle—and the commemorative rituals that are performed on this day reenacting the battle of Karbala.

  • Betteridge, Anne. Festivals III: Shiʿite. In Encyclopedia Iranica. Edited by Ehsan Yarshater. 1987.

    This online encyclopedia entry comprehensively describes the significance of Muharram for the Shiʿa in Iran, and additional and important information is provided: special foods consumed during Muharram, the procession of the naql (large wooden display representing Imam Husayn’s coffin) in Yazd, and the tabaq (large ceremonial trays shaped like wedding cakes or bearing images of young deceased men from the village) in Shiraz.

  • Calmard, Jean. ʿAzādārī. In Encyclopedia Iranica. Edited by Ehsan Yarshater. 1987.

    The first part of this online encyclopedia entry provides a detailed overview of Islamic, particularly Shiʿi, mourning and burial rituals. The second part of the entry focuses on Shiʿi Muharram rituals, including both devotional and political dimensions in 20th-century Iran.

  • Chelkowski, Peter J. Taʿzia. In Encyclopedia Iranica. Edited by Ehsan Yarshater. 2009.

    Focuses on the history and development of taʿzia (replicas of Imam Husayn’s tomb) ritual performance in Iran and throughout the Shiʿi world. Notably, this entry extensively analyzes women’s participation in the taʿzia. The bibliography is extensive and helpful.

  • Hollister, John Norman. The Shiʿa of India. New Delhi: Oriental Books, 1979.

    Provides a historical overview of the Shiʿa in India, including a chapter on Muharram. Originally published in 1953.

  • Jafri, S., and M. Husain. Origins and Early Development of Shiʿa Islam. London: Longman, 1979.

    This carefully researched and detailed history of the historical origins of Shiʿism offers extensive background on the events leading up to the battle of Karbala, and the reaction of the early Muslim community in its aftermath. Most useful for understanding why Muharram becomes a central aspect of collective Shiʿi identity.

  • Momen, Moojan. An Introduction to Shiʿi Islam: The History and Doctrines of Twelver Shiʿism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985.

    This introductory text describes the battle of Karbala as well as Muharram rituals in various parts of the Shiʿi world.

  • Plessner, Martin. “Al-Muharram.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam. Vol. 7. 2d ed. Edited by C. E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, W. P. Heinrichs and C. Pellat. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill. 1993.

    This encyclopedia entry describes the meaning and role of the month of Muharram in the Islamic lunar calendar, noting that this was a sacred month for the Arabs in the pre-Islamic period.

  • Rizvi, Saiyid Athar Abbas. A Socio-Intellectual History of the Isna ʿAshari Shiʿis in India. 2 vols. Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1986.

    Provides a historical overview of Shiʿism in India. Volume 2 includes a chapter tracing the development of Muharram rituals in both North and South India, including an extensive list of Muharram symbols and descriptions and examples of forms of Muharram literature.

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