Literally meaning ‘ten’, Ashura takes place on the tenth day of the month of Muharram. It is the most significant day of Muharram, as it is the day that Muslims mourn the death of Hussein ibn Ali, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and son of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the first Shi’ite Imam. On the tenth day of Muharram 61 AH (680 AD) Hussein ibn Ali was brutally massacred along with his family and other followers during the Battle of Karbala. Hussein and his supporters are regarded as martyrs by all Islamic denominations but, while for Shi’a Muslims the massacre has a crucial role in their history, traditions and theology, for Sunni Muslims it does not influence tradition or theology and is mainly viewed as an historical tragedy.
Ashura observances differ between Shi’a and Sunni Muslim communities. For Shi’a Muslims, rituals and observances consist largely of public expressions of mourning and grief. Many communities organise matam (remembrance parades) with men gathering in the streets to take part in ceremonial chest beating. In Iraq, some Shi’a Muslims make a pilgrimage to the Imam Husayn Shrine to see the grave of Husayn ibn Ali, while in a number of countries, including Iran, the Battle of Karbala is re-enacted in special Condolence Theatre performances. Sunni Muslims often observe fasting on the ninth and tenth days of Muharram. Although not compulsory, Muslims who fast on the day of Ashura are believed to be rewarded with ten-thousand martyrs and ten-thousand people performing Hajj and Umrah (pilgramages to Mecca) on their behalf. Sunni Muslims also perform Nafl Salaat prayers, give charity to others, bathe, cut nails and apply surma (kohl eyeliner) to their own and others’ eyes.
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