MUHARRAM is the first lunar month of the Hegira calendar and Ashura is an Arabic word meaning the tenth. Ashura Day is the name given to the tenth day of Muharram. There are many different interpretations of Ashura Day. It is claimed variously to be the day on which Adam acknowledged his repentance; the day Noah’s Ark landed on Mount Ararat after the Flood; the day Abraham was rescued from the fiery furnace; the day Jacob was reunited with his son Joseph; the day the Prophet Mohammed was born. It is the day on which Jews observe Yom Kippur, (Day of Atonement) which is spent fasting.
10th Muharram, Hegira 61 (10th October, 680 CE) is commemorated as a day of mourning in the Muslim world because the Prophet’s daughter, Fatima, and his uncle’s son and the fourth Caliph Ali’s youngest son Imam Huseyn together with 72 comrades were martyred in the Karbala Desert (Iraq) by the armies attached to the Yezid of the Omayyads. For this reason, Ashura Day is a day of mourning for Muslims. The members of the school of Ja’far mourn the martyrdom in the Karbala Desert, they shed tears and perform a play (Ta’ziya) which relates the story of the Karbala massacre. Ta’ziya is the only type of drama in Islam.
Ashura is also the name of a dessert. After the mourning ceremony, it is eaten to celebrate the survival of Huseyn’s son, Imam Zeynu’l-Abidin, through whom the family would continue.
The school of Ja’far, who form the majority of the Shi’ite sect, are also named, Ithna A’shariya or Imamis. At present, it is the formal doctrine of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Belief in the Imams appointed by will and testament is regarded as one of the basic tenets of their religion. The Caliphate era began after the death of the Prophet Mohammed. The fourth Caliph, Ali, expressed faith in the Twelve Imams. Within them, they maintain, is a supernatural ‘Mohammedan Light’ granting them superhuman knowledge and strength, and their sufferings make them accessible to their believers through divine grace.
The school of Ja’far indicates that the worship and religious procedures of this sect follow Ja’far al-Sadiq’s teachings. He was the Shi’ite’s sixth Imam, the last acknowledged Imam of all the Shi’ite sects, and was the great great grandson of Ali. One of his most basic thoughts, widespread among Shi’ites, was that God previously determined a definite form for certain things, but left others to human conduct. A further fundamental belief is that whatever is not in accordance with the Koran, no matter what evidence in its support may be put forward, must be discarded. The divisions among the Shi’ites began with the death of Ja’far. The representatives of his eldest son Ishmael, (the Ishma’ilis) maintain that Ishmael is only lost, and that one day he will reappear. The members of the school of Ja’far do not accept the doctrine of Ishmael as a lost imam. The Ishma’ilis expresses faith in the seven Imams.
Shi’ism became the formal doctrine of Iran during the Safavid dynasty (16th century). It is believed that the twelfth Imam, Mohammed el-Mehdi, did not die but was hidden (878) and that he will reappear just before the Day of Judgment and ensure that Justice prevail in the world (expectation of the Muslim Messiah, Mahdi). Up to this time the mujtahids, expounders of Islamic law, who took over the regency from the imams, are considered authorized to implement the Shari’a punishments, and to adjudicate in social and economic matters. Refusal to accept their judgments is equivalent to a refusal of the judgments of the Imam. Nowadays, the authority of the mujtahids can be placed in ascending order thus: Huccetu’l Islam, Islamic proof; Ayetullah, sign from Allah; Ayettullahi’l Uzma, the paramount sign from Allah.
Other religions have a similar expectation of a return: the Jews wait for the Messiah, Christians wait for the second coming of Jesus, Buddhists for the return of Buddha, Hindus for that of Vishnu.