The Day of Ashurah, also known as Muharram 10, is a day for remembering Muhammed’s martyred grandson Husayn (also spelled Hussein) Ibn Ali, the day Abraham was born, the day Noah’s ark touched land, and the day the Kaaba (the holiest Islamic place) was built in Mecca. Ashurah, sometimes spelled Ashura, always occurs on the same day in the Islamic calendar — the tenth day of Muharram, the first month in the Islamic year. This generally places this Islamic holiday near the Jewish Yom Kippur.
Shia and Sunni Muslims, two different sects within Islam, interpret this day differently. For the former, the Day of Ashurah has great religious significance due to Husayn Ibn Ali’s death. Shia Muslims consider Ashurah a day for fighting against injustice, oppression, and tyranny, since Husayn fought and died for a just government. To mourn Hysayn's death, Shia Muslims make pilgrimages to Husayn’s tomb, located in Karbala, Iraq. Mourning rituals have been known to include beating the chest and cutting oneself with razors and knives to commemorate the blood spilled in the Battle of Karbala. Various fatwas have been issued forbidding the practice of this custom. Many donate blood instead.
Sunnis believe that the prophet Muhammed declared Ashurah to be a day of fasting along with the Jews. Later, due to the fasting that takes place during Ramadan, fasting on the Day of Ashurah was no longer required, although recommended.
With the increasing religious and political differences between the Shia and Sunni sects, the Day of Ashurah often causes bloodshed in countries such as Pakistan, Iran, and Iraq. Because of the strong political significance this day has, Saddam Hussein prohibited its commemoration in Iraq. In 2004, the first time Shias were able to commemorate this day since Saddam Hussein lost power, bombings killed and wounded several.
Historically, the Day of Ashurah has often caused bloodshed around the world. In 1884 in Trinidad and Tobago, British colonialists killed 22 people attempting to perform the Ashurah rituals known as Hosay. In Iran, Ashurah rituals had great political significance during the Lebanese Civil War and the uprising in Bahrain that took place in the 1990s.
The word Ashurah itself means 'tenth', since the Day of Ashurah occurs on the tenth day of the month Muharram on the Islamic calendar. While in modern times this day has come to signify violence and bloodshed, according to Islam, this day has the power to heal. One belief is that, if one stays awake the entire ninth of Muharram, one gains great blessings. Additional rituals are said to cure physical ailments.
The Day of Ashurah, with its various interpretations and significances, including its original noble beliefs and values, continues to be commemorated. The largest gathering of Shia Muslims in the United States for the Day of Ashurah takes place in New York City.