This column first appeared in 2004. It has been updated for 2006.

January 31 marked the start of the month of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic new year. Muharram is one of four sacred months in the Islamic calendar during which offensive fighting is unlawful, and Muslims are encouraged to increase in their good deeds. Thursday, February 9, is the 10th day of Muharram, or Ashura, making the day even more super than it already is.

This day in particular, and this month in general, have a number of significances for both Sunni and Shia Muslims.

Muharram is the month during which the Prophet emigrated from Mecca to Medina, the event which marked the beginning of the Muslim calendar and the founding of the first Islamic city-state in Medina. Ashura is the day that God saved Moses and the Children of Israel from the bondage of Egypt. The Prophet encouraged Muslims to fast this day (and the day before) in gratitude to God, just as Moses did thousands of years before.

The fast of Ashura is not obligatory. Nevertheless, fasting during Ashura is greatly encouraged and handsomely rewarded by God. It is significant, and fascinating, that the faithful of one major religion, Islam, perform extra acts of worship in gratitude to God for one of the most important events in the sacred history of another major world religion, Judaism.

Ashura is also important because of an event 61 years after the Prophet's migration. On the day of Ashura in the Iraqi city of Karbala, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), Husayn, was murdered along with 72 of his kinsmen by the army of the Muslim Caliph Yazid. This day is probably the most important day in all of Shia Islam, and Shia Muslims have been known to self-flagellate in mourning of the Imam's murder.

Although I do not agree with the self-mutilation rituals of the Shia on Ashura, and I do not follow Shia Islam, there still is a warm place in my heart for my Shia brothers and sisters. I felt an enormous amount of happiness when the Shia of Iraq were finally able to outwardly express their religious beliefs and rituals once Saddam Hussein was deposed by U.S. forces. In addition, I was enraged by the 2004 car bombing at the mosque of Imam Ali in Najaf, a major Shia shrine.

There was a time when I looked down at Shia Muslims...Read more on page 2 >>

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There was a time when I looked down at Shia Muslims as Islamic deviants who have strayed far from the path of Islam. I was, at one time in my life, swept up in the Shia-Sunni divide. I was arrogant, narrow-minded, and plain wrong. The overwhelming majority of Shia Muslims share all of the core beliefs of Sunni Islam, and as far as I am concerned, they are as Muslim as I am. While there are some differences of opinion between Sunnis and Shias in regards to who should lead the Muslim community and in matters of Islamic jurisprudence, these differences are minor. They should not serve as the basis for division among the two groups.

Indeed, some Sunni Muslim extremists view Shias as heretics who deserve death. This is abominable. There is too much at stake to get swept up by minor differences of juristic opinion and divide the Muslim community along Shia and Sunni lines. Also, I think the media here in the West often hype the Sunni-Shia thing way too much. We are all Muslims, and that is the most important thing to remember.

On this Ashura, while I will not be commemorating the day as the Shia in Iraq or Iran, I nevertheless plan on fasting on Monday and Tuesday as the Prophet suggested. This is significant, because any fast outside of Ramadan is usually more difficult for me psychologically. Still, I am actually looking forward to fasting Ashura.

As I plan to forgo food and drink early next week, I reflect upon the glorious gift of freedom that God bestowed upon Moses and his people; upon the tragedy of Karbala and the vicious murder of the Prophet's own blood; upon the Shia of Iraq and the continued difficulty of the post-war period.

Just as God delivered Moses and his people from bondage, death, and despair, I pray God delivers the greater Middle East from the bondage of hatred, death, and war. While that may now seem as elusive as ever, so was the prospect of the Hebrews leaving Egypt victorious. With God, however, anything is possible.

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