Ashura: Shia Muslims mourn Husayn; Sunnis fast as Moses did

SUNSET MONDAY, NOVEMBER 3: Emotional laments sweep through Shia communities worldwide as Muslims mark the Day of Ashura. (Dates vary by region and locality, based on tradition and moon sighting.)

On this day in 680 CE, Husayn ibn Ali (the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad) was martyred at the Battle of Karbala, and to this day, Shia mourn the loss. Shia believe that Husayn ibn Ali should have been successor to Muhammad as the leader of Islam. For Sunni Muslims, the Day of Ashura is markedly different than it is for Shia: for the Sunni, the Day of Ashura is commemorated with a custom that predates Husayn ibn Ali, with the fasting begun by Moses, continued by Jews and adopted by the Prophet Muhammad. Many Sunni Muslims also acknowledge the significance of Husayn’s death.


In select regions, Shia Muslims have been mourning the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali since the Islamic New Year—10 days ago. Ashura, literally “10,” is the 10th day of the Islamic month of Muharram. During this period, some Shia show their deep sadness by refraining from rich foods, new clothes, parties and other lavish endeavors. In certain households, the period of lamentation can last several weeks.

Did you know? Shia make up approximately 15 percent of the global Muslim population.

The Day of Ashura is a national or public holiday in several countries with a significant Muslim population. Passion plays, processions, the recitation of lamentations and black clothing are all common elements of a Shia Ashura. Some Shia Muslims travel to Karbala (in modern-day Iraq) on pilgrimage, paying homage at the site where Husayn ibn Ali was killed.


Muslim tradition holds that during one trip to Medina, the Prophet Muhammad saw Jews fasting. When Muhammad inquired, the Jews told him that they were fasting in honor of God saving the ancient Israelites for the pharaoh of Egypt. Moses, too, had fasted on this day. Being the 10th of Muharram, Muhammad instructed Muslims to fast on this day.

In some regions of Turkey and Egypt, Ashure—“Noah’s Pudding”—is prepared and consumed for Ashura (and often during the remainder of the month). With claims that Noah’s ark came to rest in modern-day Turkey, the dish of grains and dried fruits could have been made by Noah’s family as a celebratory meal, upon landing. Today, Ashure pudding is often prepared with prayers for health and healing.


Pakistan reported the deployment of tens of thousands of security forces ahead of Ashura, as a protective measure against potential bomb attacks that might occur during Ashura processions.

Despite threats from the Islamic State fighters, 2 million mourners are expected during the festival of Ashura in Iraq. The Iraqi government has increased security measures in Karbala, but still warns Shia pilgrims to remain alert.