Islamic Studies Ashura
Reza Masoudi-Nejad
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 November 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 November 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0287


Ashura is the name of the tenth of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar. Ashura day is allegedly associated with a number of biblical events in the ancient history of the Middle East and constituted the day of fasting during the early years of Islam. It is also the day of celebration and festivities in some North African countries. However, Ashura is particularly observed by Shi’i Muslims as the day when Husayn ibn Ali and his few companions were brutally massacred at the battle of Karbala in the 7th century over the disputed legitimacy of the Umayyad dynasty. The years after the death of the prophet Muhammad were a time of political struggles and disputes over who would be the legitimate leader of Muslims. However, the atrocity of killing Husayn, the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, left a perpetual mark on the history of Islam and contribute to dividing the Muslim community into Shi’i and Sunni factions, which was fully institutionalized later. The tragedy of Ashura is not considered as the root of the division, but it has played a major role in establishing the division that was theologically institutionalized later. The Shi’i popular phrase: “Every day is Ashura, and everywhere is Karbala” implies that from the Shi’i point of view the battle of Karbala is an eternal struggle for justice, not a mere historical battle over a political dispute. Thus, Ashura and its annual commemoration have become the keystone of Shi’i creed and rituals. Throughout history, Shi’i Muslims have developed diverse rituals to observe Ashura, aimed at narrating the tragedy, expressing sorrow over Husayn’s suffering, or reenacting of the battle of Karbala. The rituals of paying tribute to the martyrdom of Husayn originated in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq and Iran, and they were then diffused to and propagated throughout the Indian subcontinent. While observing Ashura is associated with Shi’i communities in the Middle East, the commemoration is not solely affiliated with Shi’i Muslims in India; rather, it is practiced as an intercommunity ritual. Although the Middle East is the birthplace of Shi’i rituals, Indian communities have made a major contribution to the geographic dispersal of the rituals across the British Empire as far as the Caribbean islands. Tribute to the Ashura tragedy annually begins from the first of Muharram until forty days after Ashura, known as the day Arb’aein (the fortieth). Although the commemoration takes place over fifty days, it is particularly intensified from the seventh to the tenth of Muharram.

General Overview

The Arabic term Ashura derives from a’shara, which means “ten” and al-a’asher, which means “tenth.” Ashura itself specifically refers to the tenth of Muharram, which is annually observed by Shi’i Muslims as the day of the tragic martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali. Wensinck and Marçais 2012 also relates the term Ashura to the Hebrew term ʿāsōr and the tenth of Tishri, the holy day of Yom Kippur and fasting in the Jewish calendar. Allegedly, the Prophet Muhammad followed the Jewish custom of fasting on Yom Kippur and asked his followers to fast on Ashura day. But soon trauma occurred between Muslim and Jewish communities in the very early days in the city of Medina, and the Prophet Muhammad distanced the community from Jewish customs, instituting Ramadan as the month of fasting. Despite this claim, Yom Kippur and the month of Tishri did not fall in the month of Muharram during the Prophet’s first years in Medina. At that time, Muharram coincided with August while Tishri was in October. Moreover, Ayoub 1987 reports that the Prophet Muhammad observed the fast on Ashura day even before his prophecy, as a custom followed in Mecca (also see Bashear 1991). Elsewhere, Ayoub 1978 also reports that “very early Islamic tradition has claimed for that day high status: it was said that on it many supernatural events took place” (p. 149), explaining why some Muslims apparently claimed that Ashura is the day when God forgave Adam, David’s repentance was accepted, Noah’s Ark rested on dry land, and God split the Red Sea for the children of Israel (p. 150). Rizvi 1986 has associated even more biblical events with Ashura, including the creation of the universe and the ascending of Jesus into heaven (1986a). These claims are not supported by concrete historical evidence. However, as Plessner 2012 also discusses, Ashura was considered as a sacred and blessing day in the early years of Islam. Wensinck and Marçais 2012 briefly explains that Ashura is the day of celebration and festivity in North African countries, including Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya. Moroccan customs on Ashura are studied most especially in Westermarck 1926. Apart from these regional celebrations and despite the fact that the month of Muharram is the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar, there is no particular Islamic new year’s celebration in Muharram. In fact, Shi’i mourning rituals to observe Ashura day dominate the month of Muharram. The rest of this article is particularly focused on Shi’i commemoration of Ashura.

  • Ayoub, M. Redemptive Suffering in Islam: A Study of the Devotional Aspects of `Āshūrā in Twelver Shī`ism. The Hague: Mouton, 1978.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110803310

    In his seminal book, Ayoub articulates the significance of the Ashura tragedy and its commemoration. A section of chapter 5 reviews the historical connotations of Ashura and articulates how Shi’i lamentation characterizes Ashura and Muharram.

  • Ayoub, M. “Ashura.” In Encyclopaedia Iranica. Vol. 2, Anamaka–Atar al-wozara. Edited by Ehsan Yarshater, 874–876. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987.

    This encyclopedia entry is a very good introduction to Ashura and its commemoration by Shi’i Muslims. It briefly addresses the political dispute leading to the tragedy of Ashura, the battle of Karbala, and the significance of Ashura commemoration. Also available online.

  • Bashear, Suliman. “Āshūrā: An Early Muslim Fast.” Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft 141.2 (1991): 281–316.

    This article addresses the traditions associated with Ashura during the pre-Islamic era and the early history of Islam, as well as their connections with Judeo-Christian traditions.

  • Plessner, M. “Al-Muḥarram.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam. 2d ed. Edited by P. Bearman, Th Bianquis, C. E. Bosworth, van Donzel, and W. P. Heinrichs. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2012.

    This encyclopedia entry is a short introduction about Muharram as a calendar month, explaining that it was one of two months of Safar, so it was called Safar. This entry briefly explains customs associated with this month and why it was renamed Muharram; it also includes a brief note about the Ashura tragedy. Available for purchase or by subscription.

  • Rizvi, Saiyid Athar Abbas. A Socio-intellectual History of the Isnā ’Asharī Shī’īs in India. 2 vols. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1986.

    This is a two-volume monograph focused on the social history of Shi’i Islam in India. Chapter 4 of Volume 2 extensively discusses the Shi’i narrative of the Ashura tragedy, in addition to addressing the pre-Islamic legends associated with Ashura.

  • Wensinck, A. J., and Ph. Marçais. “ʿĀs̲h̲ūrāʾ.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam. 2d ed. Edited by P. Bearman, C. E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, and W. P. Heinrichs. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2012.

    This encyclopedia entry broadly addresses diverse ideas and rituals associated with Ashura, including the celebration and festivity practiced in the North African countries. This focus distinguishes this article from Ayoub 1987, which mainly deals with Ashura as it is addressed by Shi’i Muslims.

  • Westermarck, Edward. Ritual and Belief in Morocco. 2 vols. London: Macmillan, 1926.

    This is a two-volume publication on Moroccan culture and customs. Chapter 8 of the second volume is about rituals, customs, and beliefs associated with the Islamic calendar, including Muharram and Ashura. The digital copy of this one-century old publication is available online.

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