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MUHARRAM. The first month of the lunar Islamic calendar begins like the other months with the first sighting of the crescent moon. Muharram has a long tradition as a sacred month in Islam. For example, it was on 16 Muharram that the qiblah (the orientation of prayer) was shifted from Jerusalem to Mecca. Among Shi`is it is has special significance as the month when Imam Husayn ibn `Ali, the grandson of Muhammad, was martyred. In AH 81/68o CE, at the place known as Karbala on the banks of the Euphrates, the troops of the caliph Yazid ibn Mu’awiyah under the command of Ibn Ziyad laid siege to Imam Husayn and his vastly outnumbered companions. The male members of his family, with the exception of his young son Zayn al`Abidin, were killed, and the women were marched uncovered to the city of Damascus. Husayn was decapitated and his body mutilated. Although Sunni and Shi’ Muslims alike recognize the tragedy of the sacrifice of Husayn, for Shi’is it has special significance as the critical moment in the history of Islam, when the official Islamic regime murdered the only remaining grandson of the prophet Muhammad.

In commemoration of Husayn’s martyrdom, the first ten days of the month are a period of intense ritual mourning during which Shi`is engage in lamentation assemblies, public processions, and other activities. These culminate on the actual date of Husayn’s martyrdom on 1o Muharram, also known as `Ashura’. The purpose of these activities is to evoke Karbala in an existential and dramatic manner and to induce tears of grief in the participants. These tears are a manifestation of devotional allegiance to Imam Husayn, which is ultimately a sign of allegiance to both God and the Prophet and thus to Islam itself. for if Muhammad is the beloved of God, and Husayn is the beloved of Muhammad, then love for Husayn is the necessary corollary of love for Muhammad and God. Those who cannot mourn for Husayn are seen as deficient in their devotion to Muhammad and to God.

Throughout the Islamic world there are a variety of performances connected with Muharram mourning. In Iran passion plays called ta’ziyahs are performed. In India and Pakistan lamentation assemblies called majlis are occasions for often sophisticated discourses on Islam, followed by ghamm or lamentation, in which the congregation hears the story of Karbala and cries. The evocation and remembrance of Karbala in these performances provides believers with paradigms for proper behavior. The courage and discipline of Husayn and his comrades provides a model to which all Muslims should aspire.

In the modern world, the story of Husayn is retold not only in local majhs but also by means of cassette and video recordings. In this way discourses about Karbala have been made available to millions of listeners. Because the event of Karbala is seen as a paradigm of the oppression of the innocent at the hands of the unjust, its remembrance can provide the focus for sustained political agitation. For example, the circulation of cassette tapes in Iran containing speeches by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini that equated the crimes of the shah with the actions of Yazid and called on the people to identify with Husayn were an important catalyst in the success of the Iranian revolution.

[See also `Ashura’. Husayn ibn ‘Ali; Karbala; Martyrdom; Ta’ziyah; and Cassettes.]


Ayoub, Mahmoud M. Redemptive Suffering in Islam. The Hague, 1982. Chelkowski, Peter, ed. Ta’ziyeh: Ritual and Drama in Iran. New York, 1979.

Fischer, Michael M. J. Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution. Cambridge, Mass., 1980.

Schubel, Vernon. Religious Performance in Contemporary Islam: Shi’i Devotional Rituals in South Asia. Columbia, S.C., 1993


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/muharram/

  • writerPosted On: August 24, 2014
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