What are the significance of Muharram and 'Ashura in Islam?

Muharram is the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar. According to the Qur'an (9:36), it is considered one of the four sacred months in which even engaging in battle is regarded as unlawful, except in defense against aggression or in retaliation for violations by enemy forces.

The month of Muharram is of special significance because it was in Muharram that Prophet Muhammad settled in Madinah after migrating from Makkah. This migration is referred to as the hijrah and marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar. (We are now in the year 1423 of the hijri calendar.) It also marks the establishment of the first Islamic city-state in Madinah.

'Ashura refers to the 10th day of the month of Muharram. This year, that day falls on March 24. This day carries a significance all its own, the outstanding features of which have been referred to and supported by many reliable sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. Among the authentic prophetic traditions that have been documented is that Allah saved Prophet Moses and his followers from the tyranny of Pharaoh on this day. Prophet Muhammad himself fasted out of gratitude to Allah, and he requested that Muslims fast on the day. (This is done in conjunction with a day of fasting before or after it.) This recommended fast ranks second in importance to the obligatory fast of Ramadan.

Subsequent to that, in the year 61 A.H. (after hijrah), the beloved grandson of Prophet Muhammad (Imam Husayn) was martyred, together with 72 of his kith and kin, at the hands of an army acting under the orders of a despotic ruler named Yazid. The massacre occurred on the plains of Karbala, in modern-day Iraq. Despite being known for his deviant behavior, Yazid nonetheless served as a Muslim caliph. It was Imam Husayn's refusal to allow Muslims to be dominated by corrupt authority that led him and a band of his followers to challenge Yazid. This epic struggle is so poignant a moment in Islamic history that, like the struggle of Moses against Pharaoh, it serves as a beacon of light for all freedom fighters of faith.

There are some who commemorate 'Ashura by self-flagellation that leads to self-inflicted injury and bleeding. This has no sanction in Islam and is not endorsed by Islamic scholars. It must be reiterated that 'Ashura was significant well before the martyrdom of Imam Husayn.

Is female circumcision prescribed in Islam?

It is unfortunate that many people often mistakenly confuse customs and traditions rooted in local culture with religious requirements, despite such practices having no legal sanction. Although some traditional societies describe female circumcision as a rite of passage to womanhood, it is often a bloody, painful, and humiliating experience that entails female genital mutilation.

Whether the circumcision involves clitoridectomy (cutting off part or all of the clitoris), excision (cutting off the clitoris and labia minora), or infibulation (cutting off the clitoris, labia minora, and labia majora, and covering the urethra by stitching), it serves no purpose except to impair the female's ability to enjoy sexual relations.

Since Islamic Law distinctly protects the female's right to fully enjoy conjugal relations, it certainly does not prescribe any act which would deliberately negate that right. Though there are references in the prophetic tradition to the prevalence of female circumcision in seventh-century Arabian society, there exist no reliable authoritative references indicating female circumcision as a requirement in Islamic Law.

Is music, musical instruments, or singing used at all in Islamic worship?

Musical instruments are never employed in Islamic worship. Odes in glorification of the Almighty or in praise of prophets are, however, sung melodiously at Muslim gatherings as well as in mosques. Prophet Muhammad himself encouraged singing on festive occasions such as `Eid, wedding feasts, and the hosting of guests.

Singing is thus not discouraged per se, provided that the content is not obscene, vulgar, irreligious, or promoting that which is false or forbidden. The highest expression of Islamic sonorous art is qiraa'ah (the art of Qur'anic recitation). Those not familiar with the Qur'an may experience its rendition in mosques during the morning or evening prayers and consider the recitation to be a form of singing. No form of singing is considered comparable to it, and its rendition in a melodious manner is an integral part of Islamic culture. In the words of the former pop star Cat Stevens, "There is no melody more beautiful than the Qur'an well-recited."
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