Imagine the crowd monotonically chanting. All dressed in black. Imagine thousands of men flagellating themselves on the back with chains or beating their head. Determined faces and tears in the eyes. Repetitious rhythms of religious music – and black flags weaving in the sky. It is a holiday you have not seen before. It is a holiday you did not even imagine exists. It’s Ashura, a major event in Iran.
- The Day of Ashura is arguably one of the most important days for Iranians.
- Marked on the tenth-day of Muharram, the first month in the Islamic calendar, it commemorates the moment when the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, Husayn ibn Ali was slaughtered in a battle in Karbala, Iraq.
- The event led to the split between the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam. Since Sunni and Shia Muslims have contradictory views on the significance and meaning of the event there are substantial differences in observance of the day by both sects.
- In modern Iran Husayn’s struggle is seen as a battle against tyranny and unfairness.
- The rituals on Ashura consist mainly of public expressions of mourning and grief.
- Many gather for public mourning ceremonies, the most devoted ones – flag themselves on the back with chains or ritually cut themselves.
- Some Sunni leaders promote flagellation rituals as a way of remembering the suffering and pain of Husayn.
- It is believed that acts of flagellation are meant to show people’s regret of the fact that they were not present at the battle to fight and protect Husayn and his family.
- Most flagellation rituals are rather safe, although some – using a sword or a chain with blades to hurt one’s body – can be quite dangerous.
- Originally fasting on the day of Ashura was obligatory for the Muslims as it was a first step towards the gradual introduction of fasting as a prescribed obligation in Islam. Later fasting on Ramadan was made compulsory – and Ashura fasting became optional. Some still follow the fasting traditions of Ashura even today: it is believed that abstaining on this day erases the sins of an entire year.
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