On the History, Virtues, and Recommended Acts of Muharram and Ashura

Miftaah Scholars

In the boundless mercy of Allah ﷻ, He has blessed us by sanctifying certain times. These periods, such as the last third of the night, the day of Arafah, and the month of Ramadan, serve—in varying degrees—as transformative opportunities to break free from the monotony of our lives. During these sacred moments, we are beckoned to redirect our energies towards the remembrance of Allah ﷻ. It is through this devotion that we hope to be reminded of the sweet taste of Iman, for our sins to be wiped away, and for our spirituality to be heightened throughout the remainder of our being.

One of these sacred occasions is the month of Muharram, wherein the day of Ashura bears special significance. In the year 2023, the 1st of Muharram 1445AH will be on Wednesday, July 19th and the day of Ashura, which corresponds to the 10th of Muharram, will be on Friday, July 28th. 

Linguistically, the term Muharram means “that which has been made prohibited”. This name is attributed to the month because Allah ﷻ has designated it as a period in which warfare is prohibited. In Surah Tawbah, Allah ﷻ says:

إِنَّ عِدَّةَ ٱلشُّهُورِ عِندَ ٱللَّهِ ٱثْنَا عَشَرَ شَهْرًۭا فِى كِتَـٰبِ ٱللَّهِ يَوْمَ خَلَقَ ٱلسَّمَـٰوَٰتِ وَٱلْأَرْضَ مِنْهَآ أَرْبَعَةٌ حُرُمٌۭ ۚ ذَٰلِكَ ٱلدِّينُ ٱلْقَيِّمُ ۚ فَلَا تَظْلِمُوا۟ فِيهِنَّ أَنفُسَكُمْ ۚ وَقَـٰتِلُوا۟ ٱلْمُشْرِكِينَ كَآفَّةًۭ كَمَا يُقَـٰتِلُونَكُمْ كَآفَّةًۭ ۚ وَٱعْلَمُوٓا۟ أَنَّ ٱللَّهَ مَعَ ٱلْمُتَّقِينَ (٣٦)
God decrees that there are twelve months—ordained in God’s Book on the Day when He created the heavens and earth—four months of which are sacred: this is the correct calculation. Do not wrong your souls in these months—though you may fight the idolaters at any time, if they first fight you—remember that God is with those who are mindful of Him. (9:36)

Allah ﷻ has designated the months of Dhul-Qa’dah, Dhul-Hijjah, Muharram, and Rajab, as sacred since the time of Ibrahim AS. One of the divine wisdoms for this designation was to facilitate the observance of Hajj and Umrah. Dhul-Qa’dah, Dhul-Hijjah, and Muharram occur successively, allowing pilgrims to undertake Hajj with ease in Dhul-Hijjah and the months preceding it and succeeding it—in which pilgrims would be journeying to and from the holy city—would also be safe for travel. Rajab, which falls in the middle of the year, was sanctified so that in between Hajj, worshipers could come for Umrah undeterred by the threat of war. 

During the time of the Prophet ﷺ, the pagan Arabs were not unaware of the sacredness of these months; however, instead of respecting their sanctity, the mushrikeen engaged in warfare, completely disregarding the divinely ordained restrictions. They also resorted to an absurd practice of arbitrarily transferring the sanctity of one month to another according to their convenience. For instance, if they intended to wage war during Muharram, they would erroneously declare Safar as a sacred month for that specific year, thereby nullifying the prohibitions associated with Muharram. This audacious manipulation prompted Allah ﷻ to address this issue unequivocally in Surah Tawbah, asserting His supreme authority in the designation of these months as sacred and emphasizing that no one else possesses the right to tamper with His divine decree

One practice that the pagan Arabs did not abandon from the shari’a of Ibrahim AS was that of fasting on the 10th of Muharram, also known as Ashura. Imam Malik (d. 179/795), one of the greatest scholars of hadith and fiqh, records that the mother of the believers, Aisha RA said:

"كَانَ يَوْمُ عَاشُورَاءَ يَوْمًا تَصُومُهُ قُرَيْشٌ فِي الْجَاهِلِيَّةِ، وَكَانَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم يَصُومُهُ فِي الْجَاهِلِيَّةِ، فَلَمَّا قَدِمَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم الْمَدِينَةَ صَامَهُ، وَأَمَرَ بِصِيَامِهِ، فَلَمَّا فُرِضَ رَمَضَانُ، كَانَ هُوَ الْفَرِيضَةَ، وَتُرِكَ يَوْمُ عَاشُورَاءَ، فَمَنْ شَاءَ صَامَهُ، وَمَنْ شَاءَ تَرَكَهُ."
“The people of Quraysh used to fast on the day of Ashura during the pre-Islamic period of ignorance. The Messenger of Allah ﷺ also used to fast on the day of Ashura during that time. When the Messenger of Allah ﷺ migrated to Madinah, he continued to fast on the day of Ashura and commanded others to do so as well. However, when the obligation of fasting during Ramadan was prescribed [in 2AH] , fasting on the day of Ashura became optional. So, whoever wishes may fast on that day, and whoever wishes may leave it” (Muwatta 842).

As Aisha RA mentions, even though the obligation of fasting on Ashura was lifted in the 2nd year after the hijrah, the nascent Muslim community of Medinah upheld its observance. This is because, upon their arrival to Madinah, they encountered the Jews of Madinah fasting on the 10th of Muharram to commemorate Musa AS having been saved from Fir’aun on that day. Ibn Abbas RA reports that when the Prophet ﷺ heard of this practice, he proclaimed:

"'نَحْنُ أَحَقُّ بِمُوسَى مِنْكُمْ!‏‏' [فَصَامَهُ، وَأَمَرَ بِصِيَامِهِ] ‏.‏"
“‘We have more right to Moses than you do!’ [So he fasted on that day and enjoined others to fast on it also]” (Ibn Majah 1734).

It is also narrated that the ark of Nuh AS was saved on Ashura. Imam Ahmed (d. 241/855), the great defender of Sunni orthodoxy, records that the Prophet ﷺ said:

"هَذَا الْيَوْمُ الَّذِي نَجَّى اللهُ مُوسَى وَبَنِي إِسْرَائِيلَ مِنَ الْغَرَقِ، وَغَرَّقَ فِيهِ فِرْعَوْنَ، وَهَذَا يَوْمُ اسْتَوَتْ فِيهِ السَّفِينَةُ عَلَى الْجُودِيِّ، فَصَامَ نُوحٌ وَمُوسَى شُكْرًا لِلَّهِ."
“This is the day on which Allah saved Moses and the Children of Israel from drowning, and drowned Pharaoh. It is also the day when the Ark of Noah settled on Mount Judi. So, Noah and Moses observed fasting to express gratitude to Allah” (Musnad 8718).

In order to differentiate the Muslim practice of fasting on Ashura from the Jewish one, the Prophet ﷺ advised to fast on the 9th of Muharram as well. It is also permitted to fast on the 11th. This year, since the 10th falls on a Friday, it is recommended to fast on the 9th as this will be a Thursday. Hence, one can combine with the intention of fasting on Thursday, which was the weekly practice of the Prophet ﷺ.

The Prophet ﷺ made it a priority to fast on Ashura. So much so that Ibn Abbas RA compared the Prophet’s ﷺ zeal for fasting on Ashura to his zeal for fasting in Ramadan. He narrates:

"مَا رَأَيْتُ النَّبِيَّ صلى الله عليه وسلم يَتَحَرَّى صِيَامَ يَوْمٍ فَضَّلَهُ عَلَى غَيْرِهِ، إِلاَّ هَذَا الْيَوْمَ يَوْمَ عَاشُورَاءَ وَهَذَا الشَّهْرَ‏.‏ يَعْنِي شَهْرَ 
“I have not seen the Prophet ﷺ more enthusiastically seeking to fast a particular day, giving it preference over others, except for the day of Ashura and the month of Ramadan” (Bukhari 2006).

In fact, the fasting of Ashura—and fasting in Muharram in general—is only second to the fasting of Ramadan. As reported by Abu Hurayra RA, the Prophet ﷺ said:

"أَفْضَلُ الصِّيَامِ بَعْدَ شَهْرِ رَمَضَانَ شَهْرُ اللَّهِ الْمُحَرَّمُ وَإِنَّ أَفْضَلَ الصَّلاَةِ بَعْدَ الْمَفْرُوضَةِ صَلاَةٌ مِنَ اللَّيْلِ."
“The best fasting after Ramadan is fasting in the month of Allah, Muharram. The best prayer after the prescribed prayer is the prayer during the night” (Abu Dawud 2429).

Fasting on Ashura also carries a great reward. Abu Qatadah RA narrates that when the Prophet ﷺ was asked about this great reward, he replied:

"يُكَفِّرُ السَّنَةَ الْمَاضِيَةَ."
“It expiates the sins of the previous year” (Muslim 1162).

Because of the great blessings that are bestowed upon the one who fasts on Ashura, many of the salaf would even fast if they were traveling. Ibn Abbas RA said regarding this practice:

"رمضانُ لهُ عدَّةٌ مِن أيَّامٍ أُخرَ وعاشوراءُ يَفوتُ."
“Ramadan has days in which its fasts can be made up, however, [the reward of] Ashura will be lost [if I do not fast]” (Lata’if al-Ma’arif 52).

In another hadith, the Prophet ﷺ taught us that being generous on Ashura will bring about great blessings:

"مَنْ وَسَّعَ عَلَى نَفْسِهِ أَهْلِهِ يَوْمَ عَاشُورَاءَ وَسَّعَ اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ سَائِرَ سَنَتِهِ."
“Whoever provides generously for himself and his family on the day of Ashura, Allah will expand his provisions throughout the rest of his year” (Kanz al-‘Umal 24258).

While the hadith above is disputed in authenticity, many scholars from the past have acted on it and affirmed its utility. The great tabi’ Sufyan ibn ‘Uyaynah (d.198/814) relates that:

"جَرَّبْنَاهُ مُنْذُ خَمْسِينَ سَنَةً أَوْ سِتِّينَ فَمَا رَأَيْنَا إلَّا خَيْرًا."
“We have tested it [generosity on Ashura] for fifty or sixty years, and we have only seen goodness” (Lata’if al-Ma’arif 54).

Throughout the entire month of Muharram, we should be extra avoidant of sins and should increase in our good deeds. Ibn Abbas RA, commenting on the passage “Do not wrong your souls in these months” (9:36), said: 

"وَجَعَلَ الذَّنْبَ فِيهِنَّ أَعْظَمَ، وَالْعَمَلَ الصَّالِحَ وَالْأَجْرَ أَعْظَمَ."
“He also made sins committed during them [the sacred months] more severe, and the rewards of righteous deeds even greater” (Tafsir ibn Kathir).

Muharram also marks the beginning of the new Islamic year. In 17AH, Ameer al-Mu’mineen Umar RA was asked by the companions to create a calendar so that the affairs of the sprawling Muslim empire could be managed in an organized fashion. The companions collectively decided to initiate the calendar from the year of the hijrah, recognizing its significance in marking the community’s transformation from adversity to glory. They then had to decide on a month for which to begin the calendar with. The sahabah agreed that the first month should be Muharram for the simple reason that after the Hajj, many people are ready to begin a new chapter in their lives. Therefore, Dhul-Hijjah marks the twelfth month, and Muharram marks the first of the new year. Even for those who did not partake in Hajj, Muharram provides a chance to assess our spiritual growth over the past year and formulate ambitious resolutions for the one ahead.

No discussion of Muharram and Ashura would be complete without mentioning the tragic martyrdom of Husayn RA. On the 10th of Muharram, 61 AH, the beloved grandson of the Prophet ﷺ, Husayn RA, was ruthlessly killed on the plains of Karbala. As Yazid I took over the caliphate, Husayn RA, driven by his unwavering principles and opposition to corruption, abstained from pledging allegiance. With a small group of family members and supporters, Husayn RA set out from Makkah towards Kufa, where he was promised political backing. Their march took a devastating turn when they encountered an army, led by the merciless Shimar ibn Dhi-al-Jawshun. Shimar and his forces attacked Husayn RA, who displayed immense courage, choosing to uphold justice even at the cost of his life. On that fateful day, Husayn RA ultimately returned to the mercy of his Lord.

As followers of the Sunnah, we do not commemorate the martyrdom of Husayn RA with any practice that his noble Grandfather ﷺ would disapprove of. The purity of our theology lies in following the guidance of the Prophet ﷺ and abstaining from introducing any additions or alterations to his teachings, as doing so could lead us astray from the Straight Path. Part of our belief is to love Ahl al-Bayt, including his children, grandchildren, wives, and extended relatives. About Husayn RA in particular, the Prophet ﷺ said:

"حُسَيْنٌ مِنِّي وَأَنَا مِنْ حُسَيْنٍ أَحَبَّ. اللَّهُ مَنْ أَحَبَّ حُسَيْنًا."
“Husayn is from me, and I am from Husayn. Allah loves whoever loves Husayn” (Tirmidhi 3775).

Our hearts bleed with sorrow for the tragedy of Karbala and the martyrdom of Husayn RA, though we must recognize that our emotions cannot alter theological truths. The sanctification of Ashura and Muharram predates the events of Karbala by millenia, and it is only within the framework of the Sunnah that we find true guidance. On Ashura and throughout the year, we are encouraged to immerse ourselves in knowledge about the Ahl al-Bayt. Through understanding their lives and virtues, our love for them will flourish, enriching and completing our faith.

O Allah, as the new year dawns upon us, we seek Your blessings and mercy. Grant us strength to overcome challenges, wisdom to make righteous choices, and gratitude for all the blessings You bestow upon us.

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