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.

In mourning the victims of the Karbala massacre, black robes expressing bereavement and white robes which symbolise the shroud are worn. Every year a play narrating the Karbala massacre is performed. This is a scene from Ta’ziya. The red cloth and the flower represents the blood of the Martyrs and the sword driven into the sand displays the symbols of the main device used in this massacre. In the background, children dressed as angels represent the innocent children killed in the Karbala. According to Shi’ite belief, the Karbala battleground was, either on the same or the following day, changed into a field of flowers. For this reason, flowers are always included in the performance of the play.

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 participants in the memorial services wear the names of martyrs on bands around their foreheads.

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.

In the place named Karbala (today within the borders of Iraq) which at that time was a desert some of the victims left for days to die of thirst were children. These are the children taking part in the 1362nd anniversary (2001) commemorating all those who lost their lives in that massacre, and they carry empty water bowls as a reminder. In Iran, the bodies of martyrs who fall in battle are laid to rest without ablution. Huseyn was such a martyr and his body was so interred.

Renewing the mourning, black-robed young people gather together to shed tears and share the suffering of the Karbala martyrs. They carry chains with which they strike their bare backs. They continue doing this until bruising occurs. Every year in Iran on the tenth day of Muharram bloody demonstrations are held in commemoration of Huseyn’s martyrdom. In Iranian tradition organisation of such bereavement ceremonies dates from long before Islam and enjoys unbroken continuity.

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.

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