Moses’ Fast & Hussain’s Death: Legends & Politics of Muhurram

Here’s a look at the origins and politics of Muharram and the Shia-Sunni divide.

Updated10 Sep 2019, 02:21 AM IST
India
2 min read

(This article was first published on 24 October 2015 and is being reposted from The Quint’s archives.)

Muharram, like Ramzaan is a month in the Islamic calendar. October 24, 2015 is Ashura or the tenth day of the month. The significance of the day is more than just religious.

The narrative behind Muhurram is the root of one of the oldest and most fundamental sectarian conflicts within Islam – the Shia-Sunni conflict – and affects politics around the world even today.

The Battle of Karbala and the Birth of Shia Islam

Muharram is a day of mourning for Shias, while Sunnis celebrate it as the day Moses fasted to thank god for liberating the Jewish people from Egypt.

But for Shias, the ten days of Muharram culminating in Ashura is a period of deep mourning. It marks the death of Hussain, and is a major episode in the Shia-Sunni conflict.

After Prophet Mohammad’s death in 632 AD, there was a conflict on who should succeed him. The Shias, wanted the Prophet’s son-in-law Ali to lead them. But Abu Bakr, one of the Prophet’s first companions and the leader of the other faction, ended up as the first Caliph.

A 19th century painting depicting the battle of Karbala (now in Iraq).
A 19th century painting depicting the battle of Karbala (now in Iraq).

Things really came to a head in 680 AD when Ali’s grandson Hussain and his followers refused to swear allegiance to Yazid, the Sunni Caliph. Yazid’s forces slaughtered Hussain and his family, including his 6-month-old son, at Karbala. The day of their death is now mourned as Muhurram.

The Taziya, Mourning and Muhurram

Just like the Ramlila re-enacts Rama’s defeat of Ravana, passion plays or Taziya (also refers to a replica of Hussain’s coffin used in Muharram rituals) are a tragic re-enactment of the battle of Karbala and the death of Hussain and his family at the hand of Yazid’s forces.

There are usually sorrowful poetic recitations mourning (called matam) the tragedy of Karbala.

In Iran, the Taziya was used to build up political revolution and support for the Islamic Revolution of 1979 by equating the then Sultan to Yazid and making the movement against his rule a fight for justice.

In Lucknow, the mourning of Shias during Muharram is called Azadari and there has been sectarian and communal tension during this period starting from 1906.

Policemen patrolling the streets of Lucknow in 2005 after some minor incidents of conflict between Shias and Sunnis. (Photo: Reuters)
Policemen patrolling the streets of Lucknow in 2005 after some minor incidents of conflict between Shias and Sunnis. (Photo: Reuters)

However in India, there has been far less Shia-Sunni conflict than in West Asia or even Pakistan and Afghanistan.

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Published: 24 Oct 2015, 02:25 AM IST

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