The root of the word Ashura has the meaning of tenth in 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 ʿāsōr, 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 differ as to why this day is known as Ashura, some of them suggesting that it is the tenth most important day with which God has blessed Muslims.
In April 680 Yazid I succeeded his father Muawiyah as the new caliph. Yazid immediately instructed the governor of Medina to compel Husayn and a few other prominent figures to pledge their allegiance (Bay'ah). Husayn, however, refrained from making such a pledge, believing that Yazid was openly going against the teachings of Islam and changing the sunnah of Muhammad. He, therefore, accompanied by his household, his sons, brothers, and the sons of Hasan left Medina to seek asylum in Mecca.
On the other hand, the people in Kufa, when informed of Muawiyah's death, sent letters urging Husayn to join them and pledging to support him against the Umayyads. Husayn wrote back to them saying that he would send his cousin Muslim ibn Aqeel to report to him on the situation, and that, if he found them united as their letters indicated, he would speedily join them because an Imam should act in accordance with the Quran and uphold justice, proclaim the truth, and dedicate himself to the cause of God. The mission of Muslim was initially successful and according to reports 18,000 men pledged their allegiance. But the situation changed radically when Yazid appointed Ubayd Allah ibn Ziyad as the new governor of Kufa, ordering him to deal severely with Ibn Aqeel. Before news of the adverse turn of events had reached Mecca, Husayn set out for Kufa.
On the way, Husayn found that his messenger, Muslim ibn Aqeel, had been killed in Kufa. He broke the news to his supporters and informed them that people had deserted him. Then he encouraged anyone who so wished to leave freely without guilt. Most of those who had joined him at various stages on the way from Mecca now left him. Later, Husayn encountered the army of Ubaydullah ibn Ziyad along the route towards Kufa. Husayn addressed the Kufan army, reminding them that they had invited him to come because they were without an Imam. He told them that he intended to proceed to Kufa with their support, but if they were now opposed to his coming, he would return to where he had come from. In response, the army urged him to proceed by another route. Thus, he turned to the left and reached Karbala, where the army forced him not to go further and stop at a location that was without water.
Umar ibn Sa'ad, the head of the Kufan army, sent a messenger to Husayn to inquire about the purpose of his coming to Iraq. Husayn answered again that he had responded to the invitation of the people of Kufa but was ready to leave if they now were opposed to his presence. When Umar ibn Sa'ad, the head of the Kufan army, reported this back to Ubaydullah ibn Ziyad, the governor instructed him to offer Ḥusayn and his supporters the opportunity to swear allegiance to Yazid. He also ordered Umar ibn Sa'ad to cut off Husayn and his followers from access to the water of the Euphrates. On the next morning, as ʿOmar b. Saʿd arranged the Kufan army in battle order, Al-Hurr ibn Yazid al Tamimi challenged him and approached Ḥusayn. He vainly addressed the Kufans, rebuking them for their treachery to the grandson of Muhammad and was killed in the battle.
The Battle of Karbala lasted from morning to sunset on October 10, 680 (Muharram 10, 61 AH). Husayn's small group of companions and family members (in total around 72 men and few ladies and children) fought with a large army under the command of Umar ibn Sa'ad and were killed near the river (Euphrates), from which they were not allowed to get water. The renowned historian Abū Rayḥān al-Bīrūnī states:
… [T]hen fire was set to their camp and the bodies were trampled by the hoofs of the horses; nobody in the history of the human kind has seen such atrocities.
Before being killed, Husayn said, "If the religion of Muhammad was not going to live on except with me dead, let the swords tear me to pieces." Once the Umayyad troops had murdered Husayn and his male followers, they looted the tents, stripped the women of their jewelry, and took the skin upon which Zain al-Abidin was prostrate. It is said that Shemr was about to kill him but Husayn's sister Zaynab was able to persuade Umar ibn Sa'ad, the Umayyad commander, to let him live. He was taken along with the enslaved women to the caliph in Damascus and eventually was allowed to return to Medina.
According to Ignác Goldziher,
[E]ver since the black day of Karbala, the history of this family … has been a continuous series of sufferings and persecutions. These are narrated in poetry and prose, in a richly cultivated literature of martyrologies …'More touching than the tears of the Shi'is' has even become an Arabic proverb.
The first assembly (majlis) of the Commemoration of Husayn ibn Ali is said to have been held by Zaynab in prison. In Damascus, too, she is reported to have delivered a poignant oration. The prison sentence ended when Husayn's 3-year-old daughter, Sakina, died in captivity. She would often cry in prison to be allowed to see her father. She is believed to have died when she saw her father's mutilated head. Her death caused an uproar in the city, and Yazid, fearing a potential uprising, freed the captives.
Imam Zayn Al Abidin said the following:
It is said that for twenty years whenever food was placed before him, he would weep. One day a servant said to him, 'O son of Allah's Messenger! Is it not time for your sorrow to come to an end?' He replied, 'Woe upon you! Jacob the prophet had twelve sons, and Allah made one of them disappear. His eyes turned white from constant weeping, his head turned grey out of sorrow, and his back became bent in gloom, though his son was alive in this world. But I watched while my father, my brother, my uncle, and seventeen members of my family were slaughtered all around me. How should my sorrow come to an end?'
Husayn's grave became a pilgrimage site among Shia Muslims only a few years after his death. A tradition quickly developed of pilgrimage to the Imam Husayn Shrine and the other Karbala martyrs, known as Ziarat ashura. The Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs tried to prevent construction of the shrines and discouraged pilgrimage to the sites. The tomb and its annexes were destroyed by the Abbasid caliph Al-Mutawakkil in 850–851 and Shi'a pilgrimage was prohibited, but shrines in Karbala and Najaf were built by the Buwayhid emir 'Adud al-Daula in 979–80.
Public rites of remembrance for Husayn's martyrdom developed from the early pilgrimages. Under the Buyid dynasty, Mu'izz ad-Dawla officiated at public commemoration of Ashura in Baghdad. These commemorations were also encouraged in Egypt by the Fatimid caliph al-'Aziz. From Seljuq times, Ashura rituals began to attract participants from a variety of backgrounds, including Sunnis. With the recognition of Twelvers as the official religion by the Safavids, Mourning of Muharram extended throughout the first ten days of Muharram.
On the 10th of the month of Muharrem – The Ashure Day – Huseyn bin Ali was murdered at Kerbela Remembrance by Jafaris, Qizilbash Alevi-Turks, and Bektashis together in Ottoman Empire
This day is of particular significance to Twelver Shi'a and Alawites, who consider Husayn (the grandson of Muhammad) Ahl al-Bayt, the third Imam to be the rightful successor of Muhammad.
According to Kamran Scot Aghaie, "The symbols and rituals of Ashura have evolved over time and have meant different things to different people. However, at the core of the symbolism of Ashura is the moral dichotomy between worldly injustice and corruption on the one hand and God-centered justice, piety, sacrifice and perseverance on the other. Also, Shiite Muslims consider the remembrance of the tragic events of Ashura to be an importance way of worshiping God in a spiritual or mystical way."
Shi'as make pilgrimages 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'a are in remembrance, and mourning attire is worn. They refrain from listening to or playing music, since Arabic culture generally considers music impolite during death rituals. It is a time for sorrow and for showing respect for the person's passing, and it is also a time for self-reflection, when one commits oneself completely to the mourning of Husayn. Shi'as do not plan weddings and parties on this date. They mourn by crying and listening to recollections of the tragedy and sermons on how Husayn and his family were martyred. This is intended to connect them with Husayn's suffering and martyrdom, and the sacrifices he made to keep Islam alive. Husayn's martyrdom is widely interpreted by Shi'as as a symbol of the struggle against injustice, tyranny, and oppression. Shi'as believe the Battle of Karbala was between the forces of good and evil, with Husayn representing good and Yazid representing evil. Shi'as also believe the Battle of Karbala was fought to keep the Muslim religion untainted by any corruption, and they believe the path down which Yazid was directing Islam was for his own personal greed.
Shia Imams strongly insist that the day of Ashura should not be celebrated as a day of joy and festivity. The day of Ashura, according to Eighth Shia Imam Ali al-Rida, must be observed as a day of rest, sorrow, and total disregard of worldly matters.
Some of the events associated with Ashura are held in special congregation halls known as "Imambargah" and Hussainia.
Suffering and cutting the body with knives or chains (matam) was banned by the Shi'a Marja' Ali Khamenei, Supreme Leader of Iran, and Hezbollah in Lebanon, but is still practiced in Bangladesh and India. Other marjas like Mohammad al-Husayni al-Shirazi promote hemic flagellation rituals as a way of preserving the revolution of Imam al-Husayn.
On Ashura, some Shi'as observe mourning with a blood donation, which is called "Qame Zani", and flailing.
Certain traditional flagellation rituals such as Talwar zani (talwar ka matam or sometimes tatbir) use a sword. Other rituals such as zanjeer zani or zanjeer matam involve the use of a zanjeer (a chain with blades).
These religious customs show solidarity with Husayn and his family. Through them, people mourn Husayn's death and express regret for the fact that they were not present at the battle to fight and save Husayn and his family.
In some areas, such as in the Shi'a suburb of Beirut, Shi'a communities organize blood donation drives with organizations like the Red Cross or the Red Crescent on Ashura as a replacement for self-flagellation rituals like tatbir and qame zani.
Some Shi'a believe that taking part in Ashura washes away their sins. A popular Shi'a saying has it that "a single tear shed for Husayn washes away a hundred sins".
For Shi'as, commemoration of Ashura is not a festival but rather a sad event, while Sunni Muslims view it as a victory God gave to Moses. This victory is the very reason, as Sunni Muslims believe, that Muhammad recommended fasting on this day according to a Sunni hadith. For Shi'as, it is a period of intense grief and mourning. Mourners congregate at a mosque for sorrowful, poetic recitations such as marsiya, noha, latmiya, and soaz performed in memory of the martyrdom of Husayn, lamenting and grieving to the tune of beating drums and chants of "Ya Hussain". Also, Ulamas give sermons with themes of Husayn's personality and position in Islam, and the history of his uprising. The Sheikh of the mosque retells the Battle of Karbala to allow his listeners to relive the pain and sorrow endured by Husayn and his family. In Arab countries such as Iraq and Lebanon they read Maqtal Al-Husayn. In some places, such as Iran, Iraq, and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, passion plays known as Ta'zieh are performed, reenacting the Battle of Karbala and the suffering and martyrdom of Husayn at the hands of Yazid.
For the duration of the remembrance, it is customary for mosques and some people to provide free meals (nazri) on certain nights of the month to all people.. People donate food and Middle Eastern sweets to the mosque. These meals are viewed as being special and holy, as they have been consecrated in the name of Husayn, and thus partaking of them is considered an act of communion with God, Hussain, and humanity.
Shias do not fast on the day of Ashura, as per a hadith that prohibits it. Fasting in Islam is reserved for the days where Muslims thank God for things, and the 10th of Muharram is a day when the Prophet's family was slaughtered by Yazid, the son of Muawiya, second Umayyad Sunni caliph.
Participants congregate in public processions for ceremonial chest-beating (matham/latmiya) as a display of their devotion to Husayn, in remembrance of his suffering and to preach that oppression will not last in the face of truth and justice. Others pay tribute to the time period by holding a Majlis, during which Surahs from the Quran and Maqtal Al-Husayn are read.
Today in Indonesia, the event is known as Tabuik (in the Minangkabau language) or Tabut (in Indonesian). Tabuik is the local manifestation of the Shi'a Muslim Mourning of Muharram among the Minangkabau people in the coastal regions of West Sumatra, particularly in the city of Pariaman. The reenactment includes the Battle of Karbala, and the playing of tassa and dhol drums. In Iran, people reenact their Imam's funeral by carrying a huge wooden structure called a "nakhl", which is usually carried by several hundred men. In countries like Turkey, there is the custom of eating Noah's Pudding (Ashure) as this day is known as Aşure in Turkish.
In a tradition unrelated to Ashura and Karbala, some Sunni Muslims fast on the day of Ashura based on narrations attributed to Muhammad. Some other Sunnis accept Ashura as an important day due to the martyrdom of Husayn and the significance of the events at Karbala. The fasting is to commemorate the day when Moses and his followers were saved from Pharaoh by Allah by creating a path in the Red Sea. According to Muslim tradition, the Jews also fasted on the tenth day. According to Sunni Muslim tradition, Ibn Abbas narrates that Muhammad came to Medina and saw the Jews fasting on the tenth day of Muharram. He asked, "What is this?" They said, "This is a good day, this is the day when Allah saved the Children of Israel from their enemy and Musa (Moses) fasted on this day." He said, "We are closer to Musa than you." So he fasted on the day and told the people to fast.
This tenth in question is believed to be the tenth of Jewish month of Tishri, which is Yom Kippur in Judaism. The Torah designates the tenth day of the seventh month as holy and a fast (Lev. 16, Lev. 23, Num. 29). The word "tenth" in Hebrew is Asarah or Asharah (He:עשרה), which is from the same semitic root A-SH-R. According to this tradition, Muhammad continued to observe the veneration of Ashura modeled on its Jewish prototype in late September until shortly before his death, which the verse of Nasi' was revealed and the Jewish-type calendar adjustments of the Muslims became prohibited. From then on, Ashura became distinct from its Jewish predecessor of Yom Kippur.
In some countries, other religious communities commemorate this event. According to hadith record in Sahih Bukhari, Ashura was already known as a commemorative day during which some Makkah residents used to observe customary fasting. Muhammad fasted on the day of Ashura, 10th Muharram, in Makkah. When fasting during the month of Ramadan became obligatory, the fast of Ashura was made non-compulsory. This was narrated by Ayesha, wife of Muhammad Sahih Muslim, (Hadith-2499). In hijrah event, when Muhammad led his followers to Medina, he found the Jews of that area likewise observing fasts on the day of Ashura. Seeing this, Muhammad affirmed the Islamic claim to the fast, and from then on Muslims have fasted on combinations of two or three consecutive days including the 10th of Muharram (e.g. the 9th and 10th or the 10th and 11th).
A companion of Muhammad, Ibn Abbas, reports that Muhammad went to Madina and found the Jews fasting on the tenth 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 to fast also.
Sunnis regard fasting during Ashura as recommended, though not obligatory, having been superseded by the Ramadan fast. Sahih Muslim, (Hadith-2499)
A hadith narrating the practice is:
'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 Madina, he fasted on it and ordered (the Muslims) to fast on it. When the fasting of Ramadan was enjoined, it became optional for the people to fast or not to fast on the day of Ashura.
Commemoration of Ashura has great socio-political value for the Shi'a, who have been a minority throughout their history. According to the prevailing conditions at the time of the commemoration, such reminiscences may become a framework for implicit dissent or explicit protest. It was, for instance, used during the Islamic Revolution of Iran, the Lebanese Civil War, the Lebanese resistance against the Israeli military presence and in the 1990s Uprising in Bahrain. Sometimes the Ashura commemorations associate the memory of Al-Husayn's martyrdom with the conditions of Islam and Muslims in reference to Husayn's famous quote on the day of Ashura: "Every day is Ashura, every land is Karbala".
From the period of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution (1905–1911) onward, mourning gatherings increasingly assumed a political aspect. Following an old established tradition, preachers compared the oppressors of the time with Imam Husayn's enemies, the umayyads.
The political function of commemoration was very marked in the years leading up to the Islamic Revolution of 1978–79, as well as during the revolution itself. In addition, the implicit self-identification of the Muslim revolutionaries with Imam Husayn led to a blossoming of the cult of the martyr, expressed most vividly, perhaps, in the vast cemetery of Behesht-e Zahra, to the south of Tehran, where the martyrs of the revolution and the war against Iraq are buried.
On the other hand, some governments have banned this commemoration. In the 1930s Reza Shah forbade it in Iran. The regime of Saddam Hussein saw this as a potential threat and banned Ashura commemorations for many years. In the 1884 Hosay massacre, 22 people were killed in Trinidad and Tobago when civilians attempted to carry out the Ashura rites, locally known as Hosay, in defiance of the British colonial authorities.
On June 20, 1994, the explosion of a bomb in a prayer hall of the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad killed at least 25 people. The Iranian government officially blamed Mujahedin-e-Khalq for the incident to avoid sparking sectarian conflict between Shias and Sunnis. However, the Pakistani daily The News International reported on March 27, 1995, "Pakistani investigators have identified a 24-year-old religious fanatic Abdul Shakoor residing in Lyari in Karachi, as an important Pakistani associate of Ramzi Yousef. Abdul Shakoor had intimate contacts with Ramzi Ahmed Yousef and was responsible for the June 20, 1994, massive bomb explosion at the shrine Imam Ali Reza in Mashhad."
The 2004 (1425 AH) Shi'a pilgrimage to Karbala, the first since Saddam Hussein was removed from power in Iraq, was marred by bomb attacks, which killed and wounded hundreds despite tight security.
On January 19, 2008, 7 million Iraqi Shia pilgrims marched through Karbala city, Iraq, to commemorate Ashura. 20,000 Iraqi troops and police guarded the event amid tensions due to clashes between Iraqi troops and members of a Shia cult, the Soldiers of Heaven, that left around 263 people dead (in Basra and Nasiriya).
On December 28, 2009, dozens of people were killed and hundreds injured (including both Shia and Sunni commemorators) during the Ashura procession when a massive bomb exploded at the procession in Karachi, Pakistan (See: 2009 Karachi bombing). Reuters
On December 15, 2010, 200 Shia followers were detained by the Selangor Islamic Department (JAIS) in a raid at a shop house in Sri Gombak known as Hauzah Imam Ali ar-Ridha (Hauzah ArRidha). This was because of a fatwa by a Salafi Selangor mufti, who had declared the Shias to be heretics. Khusrin said all the Shia mourners who were detained were to be charged under Section 12 of the Selangor Syariah Criminal Enactment 1995 which are insulting, rejecting, or dispute the violation of the instructions set out and given a fatwa by the Salafi religious authorities. ABNA
On December 5, 2011, thirty Shia pilgrims participating in Ashura processions were killed by a series of bomb attacks in Hilla and Baghdad, Iraq.
On December 6, 2011, a suicide attack killed 63 people and critically wounded 160 at a shrine in Kabul, Afghanistan, where a crowd of hundreds had gathered for the day of Ashura observation.
On October 24, 2015, three bombs were thrown into a mosque in Dhaka, Bangladesh, during the Ashura procession. One person was killed and 80 were wounded. Only one of three bombs exploded.
While Ashura is always on the same day of the Islamic calendar, the date on the Gregorian calendar varies from year to year due to differences between the two calendars, since the Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar and the Gregorian calendar is a solar calendar. Furthermore, the appearance of the crescent moon that is used to determine when each Islamic month begins varies from country to country due to the different geographic locations.