SUNSET SUNDAY, DECEMBER 4: Two sects of Islam mark Ashura, for two very different reasons: for Shia Muslims, Ashura is a day of deep mourning that recalls the martyrdom of Muhammad’s grandson, Husayn ibn Ali; for Sunnis, fasting must be performed because Moses fasted on this day as a means of gratitude for the Israelites’ liberation from Egypt. As Ashura falls according to the Islamic lunar calendar, dates vary by country, sometimes last several days and often depend on a moon sighting, although several Islamic countries begin mourning or fasting tonight. (Wikipedia has details.)
The Shia remembrance of Husayn ibn Ali—and the sacrifice he made for all of Islam—is intended to be emotionally stirring. In many countries, even children take part in such rituals so that they, too, can properly mourn. The depth of sadness expressed by Shia today requires mourning attire, the reading of laments and passion plays. But there is an element of hope in the sadness, too: it’s believed that properly mourning on Ashura will absolve believers of sins.
The Sunni view of Ashura, as more of a joyous festival, commemorates the day Moses fasted for God; the Prophet Muhammad fasted on this day because of Moses and asked that others fast, too—and Sunnis maintain this tradition. Ashura as a day of fasting has been a part of the Muslim tradition for hundreds of years.
Even outside of the Middle East, Ashura is widely marked by Muslims. (Check out photos of Ashura commemoerations worldwide at MSNBC.) Ashura is a national holiday in India, for example, and several thousand English Muslims in London gather each year at the Marble Arch for a mourning procession and speeches.