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Ashura is a religious observance marked every year by Muslims. The word ashuraliterally means "10th," as it is on the 10th day of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar year. Ashura is an ancient day of remembrance for all Muslims, but it is now recognized for different reasons and in different ways by Sunni and Shi'a Muslims.

Sunni Muslims look at Ashura as a day of “respect and gratitude” (for Prophet Moosa and his nation), while Shia Muslims believe that day to be a day of mourning and sorrow. The following is an explanation of the difference.

During the time of the Prophet Muhammad(peace be upon him), local Jews observed a day of fasting at this time of the year--their Day of Atonement.

According to Jewish tradition, this marked the day that Moses and his followers were saved from Pharaoh when God parted the waters to create a path across the Red Sea to make escape possible. According to Sunni tradition, the Prophet Muhammad learned of this tradition upon reaching Medina,  and he found the tradition to be one worth following. He joined the fast for two days himself, and encouraged followers to do so as well.

It  is narrated by Bukhari from Ibn ‘Abbaas, who said: The Prophet (saws) came to Madinah and saw the Jews fasting on the day of Ashoora. He said, “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 Moosa fasted on this day.” He (the Prophet Muhammad) said, “We are closer to Moosa (Prophet Moses) than you.” Thus, a tradition began that remains to this day.  The fast for Ahsura is not required of Muslims, simply recommended. Overall, Ashura is a rather quiet celebrations for Sunni Muslims, and for many it is not marked by outward display or public events at all.

Sunni Muslims celebrate Ashura by fasting on that day. Usually, Sunni Muslims are recommended to fast on the 9th and 10th of Muharram. Al-Shafa’i and his companions, Ahmad, Ishaaq and others said: It is mustahabb [recommended] to fast both the ninth and the tenth, because the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) fasted the tenth and intended to fast the ninth. Based on this, there are different ways of fasting ‘Ashoora’, the least of which is to fast the tenth only, but it is better to fast the ninth as well. The more one fasts in Muharram, the better.

For Sunni Muslims, then, Ashura is a day of marked by reflection, respect and gratitude. But the celebration is different for Shi'a Muslims, for whom the day is marked by mourning and sorrow. 

Shia Muslims’ observance of Ashura is different altogether. They observe Ashura as the day of martyrdom of Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad(peace be upon him) at the Battle of Karbala.

Thus, Ashura became the day that Shi'a Muslims reserve as a day of mourning for Hussein ibn Ali and in remembrance of his martyrdom. Reenactments and plays are performed in an effort to relive the tragedy and keep the lessons alive. Some Shi'a Muslims beat and flog themselves in parades on this day as an expression of their grief and to reenact the pain that Hussein suffered.

Shia Muslims, therefore, consider this a day of sorrow1 and observe it as such by refraining from music, listening to sorrowful poetic recitations, wearing mourning attire, and refraining from all joyous events (e.g. weddings) that in anyway distract them from the sorrowful remembrance of that day.

 

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