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an introduction to Ashura

(guest post by Hussein Rashid)

A thanks to Aziz for opening the doors to his house to me. I shall endeavor to put everything back where I found it, and replace the juice.

It seems appropriate to talk about Ashura, since that’s the reason I am house sitting. Ashura, the tenth day of the Islamic month of Muharram, marks the day that the Prophet’s grandson, Husayn, was slaughtered on the field of Karbala. This moment is often considered critical in the formation of a Shi’ah identity within the Islamic tradition. In my synopsis of Shi’ah history, I relate some historical problems with this approach. There is strong historical evidence that Shi’ism had a theological genesis during the lifetime of the Prophet, with questions of succession adding more obvious political overtones to the support of Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law. It is arguably the death of the Prophet that crystallizes Shi’ah identity, not the death of his grandson.


The death of Imam Husayn clearly adds a sense of persecution to Shi’ah identity, but again, I believe it is important to place it in an historical context. After the death of the Prophet the two communities that form are the Shi’ah Ali and everyone else. As an organized community the Shi’ah were the largest because there was no cohesive alternative. What we consider Sunni Islam emerges centuries later. It is impossible to have a sense of systematic persecution from minority groups. The political dispossession that lead to the martyrdom of Imam Husayn was very real, but the massacre of the Prophet’s family was considered reprehensible by the majority of Muslims, except for the ruling elite. It is a contributing factor to the overthrow of the Umayyad dynasty by the more Shi’ah sympathetic Abbasid dynasty.


If the Battle of Karbala was such a formative event, I believe we would have seen commemoration of the event very early on in history. Aside from the family of the Prophet, and a specific group of people known as the tawwabun (penitents) who were to come to the aid of Imam Husayn and did not, we do not see any systematic level of memorialization until centuries later. However, the events that do emerge, locally, and eventually on the large-scale, tended to be intra-confessional, i.e. not limited to the Shi’ah Ali only. One can still see this dynamic in play in the Hosay celebrations in the Caribbean.


Muharram observances are a way to help mark and clarify identity. One can be non-Shi’ah and still recognize how horrible the death of the Prophet’s grandson is. However, only the Shi’ah have access to certain rituals. Amongst ideologues, rejection of the idea that killing the Prophet’s family is a “bad idea,” is another way to define identity.

Amongst the Shi’ah, the way Muharram is marked also delineates the different communities. As a Nizari Ismaili Muslim (cf. Aziz who is a Mustali Ismaili Muslim), I acknowledge the death of Imam Husayn, and mark this time as a period of mourning. However, we do not have special rituals associated with this time. We are the only Imami community with a present, living Imam, and at least three generations ago our special ritual practices ended. It remains a time for us to remember the sacrifices the Imams have made on our behalf, and is still an opportunity to recall the great, meritorious, and virtuous acts of the ahl al-bayt, the original salaf.


With the coming of Ashura, let us reflect of the horrors of war and violence, death and destruction. Those of who strayed from the model of the Prophet killed his beloved grandson. This loss was physical, and would have greatly saddened the Prophet. Generations later, the error is being repeated. There are those who stray from the model of the Prophet, and although the damage is now not directed to the Prophet’s family, it is to the teachings we were given. Will we say in years to come we are the new tawwabun, or will we meet the challenge now?

Hussein Rashid is a proud Muslim and native New Yorker. He blogs at Islamicate and The Devil’s Advocate and recently at Talk Islam. You can find out more about him at

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posted January 9, 2009 at 7:23 am

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