The root for the word ashura has the meaning of tenth in the Semitic languages; hence the name of the remembrance, literally translated, means “the tenth day”. According to the orientalist A.J. Wensinck, the name is derived from the Hebrew ‘asor, with the Aramaic determinative ending. The day is indeed the tenth day of the month, although some Islamic scholars offer up different etymologies.
In his book Ghuniyatut Talibin. Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jilani writes that Islamic scholars have a difference of opinion as to why this day is known as Ashura, with some scholars suggesting that this day is the tenth most important day that Allah has blessed Muslims with.
Significance of Ashura for Sunni Muslims
Not related to the commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Husayn ibn Ali, some Sunni Muslims fast on this day of Ashura based on narrations attributed to the Prophet Muhammad (salla alaiyhi wa salaam). The fasting is to commemorate the day when Moses (salla alaiyhi wa salaam) and his followers were saved from Pharoah by Allah by creating a path in the Red Sea. According to Muslim tradition, the Jews used to fast on the tenth day. So, Muhammad recommended to be different from the Jews and recommended fasting two days instead of one. 9th and 10th or the 10th and 11th day of Muharram, in Makkah. When fasting the month of Ramadan became obligatory, the fast of Ashura was made non-compulsory. This has been narrated by Aishah, Sahih Muslim, Hadith-2499. In hijrah event when Prophet Muhammad led his followers to Medina, he found the Jews of that area likewise observing fast on the day of Ashura. At this, Prophet Muhammad affirmed the Islamic claim to the fast, and from then the Muslims have fasted on combinations of two or three consecutive days including the 10th of Muharram (e.g. 9th and 10th or 10th and 11th)
A companion of Prophet Muhammad, Ibn Abbas reports Muhammad went to Medina and found the Jews fasting on the 10th of Muharram. Muhammad inquired of them, “What is the significance of this day on which you fast?” They replied, “This is a good day, the day on which God rescued the children of Israel from their enemy, so Moses fasted this day.” Muhammad said, “We have more claim over Moses than you.” Muhammad then fasted on that day and ordered Muslims too.
The narrations of Prophet Muhammad (salla alaiyhi wa salaam) mentioning the Children of Israel being saved from Pharaoh are indeed confirmed by authentic hadith in Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim.
Sunnis regard fasting during Ashura as recommended, though not obligatory, having been superseded by the Ramadan fast, Sahih Muslim, Hadith-2499.
Prophet Muhammad’s tribe, the Quraish, fasted on the 10th of Muharram. Though optional Muhammad (pbuh) retained this pre-Islamic practice too.
Narrated ‘Aisha: ‘Ashura‘ (i.e. the tenth day of Muharram) was a day on which the tribe of Quraish used to fast in the pre-Islamic period of ignorance. The Prophet also used to fast on this day. So when he migrated to Medina, he fasted on it and ordered Muslims) to fast on it. When the fasting of Ramadan was enjoined, it became optional for the people to fast or not on the day of Ashura.
Significance of Ashura for Shi’a Muslims
This day is well-known because of the mourning for the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad (salla alaiyhi wa salaam) and the third Shia Imam, along with members of his family and close friends at the Battle of Karbala in the year 61 AH (680 AD).
Yazid I was in power then and wanted the Bay’ah (allegence) of Husayn ibn Ali. Muslims believe Yazid was openly going against the teachings of Islam in public and changing the sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad.
Husayn in his path toward Kufa encountered the army of Ubayd-Allah ibn Ziyad, the governor of Kufa. On October 10, 680 (Muharram 10, 61 AH), he and his small group of companions and family members (in total who were around 72 men and a few ladies and children) fought with a large army of perhaps more than 100,000 men under the command of Umar ibn Saad, son of the founder of Kufa. Husayn and all of his men were killed while being thirsty. The nearby river (Forat) was also blocked by Ubayd-Allah ibn Ziyad’s men and Husayn and his companions were not allowed to get any water from it. Before being killed, Husayn said “if the religion of Muhammad was not going to live except with me dead, let the swords tear me to pieces.” Some of the bodies of the dead including that of Husayn, were then mutilated.
This day is of particular significance to Twelver Shi’a Muslims and Alawites, who consider Husayn (the grandson of Prophet Muhammad) Ahl al-Bayt the third Imam and rightful successor of Prophet Muhammad.
Shi’as make pilgrimage on Ashura, as they do forty days later on Arba’een, to the Mashhad al-Husayn, the shrine in Karbala, Iraq that is traditionally held to be Husayn’s tomb. On this day Shi’as are in rememberance, and morning attire is worn. They refrain from music, since Arabic culture generally considers music impolite during death rituals. It is a time for sorrow and respect of a person’s passing, and it is also a time for self-reflection, when one commits oneself to the mourning of Husayn completely. Weddings and parties are also never planned on this date by Shi’as. Shi’as also express morning by crying and listening to poems about the tragedy and sermons on how Husayn and his family was martyred. This is intended to connect them with Husayn’s suffering and martyrdom, and sacrifices he made to keep Islam alive. Husayn’s martyrdom is widely interpreted by Shi’as as a symbol of the struggle against injustice, tryranny, and oppression. Shi’as believe the battle of Karbala was between the forces of good and evil with Husayn representing good while Yazid represented evil. Shi’as also believe the battle of Karbala was fought to keep the Muslim religion untainted of any corruptions and they believed the path that Yazid was directing Islam was definitely for his own personel greed, (citations needed).
Shi’a Imams strongly insist that the day of Ashura should not be taken as a day of joy and festivity. According to a hadith which is reported from Ali claiming it was on that day that Allah forgave Adam, Noah’s Ark rested on dry land, the Israelites were saved from Pharaoh’s army, ect. (clarification needed). The day of Ashura, according to the Eighth Shi’a Imam, Ali al-Rida, must be observed as a day of inactivity, sorrow and total disregard of worldly cares.
“Zaynab bint Ali quoted as she passed the prostrate body of her brother Husayn:
“O Muhammad! O Muhammad! May the angels of heaven bless you.
Here is Husayn in the open, stained with blood and with limbs torn off
O Muhammad! Your daughters are prisoners, your progeny are killed,
and the east wind blows dust over them. “By Allah! She made every enemy
and friend weep.”