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Festivals in Iraq

First day of Ramadan in Falluja, 1 September 2008 Photo HH
First day of Ramadan in Falluja, 1 September 2008 Photo HH

The calendar in Iraq is strongly defined by Islam. Like the Christian calendar, which is based on a solar year, the Islamic calendar has twelve months, but it is based on the lunar year, which is eleven days and several hours shorter. The festivals thus move forward by eleven days each year, and they run through the cycle of the seasons in slightly over thirty years.

The most important festival in Islam is the Id (or Eid) al-Kabir (Great Festival), also known as Id al-Adha (Festival of Sacrifice). This falls on the tenth day of the month of Dhu al-Hijja, the month in which the pilgrimage to Mecca takes place. During this festival Muslims commemorate the day that Ibrahim (Abraham) received permission from God to slaughter a sheep rather than cut the throat of his son Ismail (Ishmael). For this feast, Muslims around the world slaughter one or more sheep, and part of the meat is given to the needy.

During Ramadan, the month of fasting, Muslims are not permitted to eat or drink between sunrise and sunset (the ill, pregnant women, travellers, and soldiers at the front are exempt from this commandment). When Ramadan falls during the summer, observance of Ramadan is particularly arduous. After sundown there are exuberant celebrations with eating and drinking until late in the evening. Ramadan is closed with Id al-Fitr (Sugar Feast), on which children receive presents.

On the twelfth day of the month of Rabi al-Awwal, the Mawlid al-Nabi (Birthday of the Prophet) is celebrated. Since the early 1970s the Iraqi government, like other Arab governments, has issued a special postage stamp for that occasion.


Ashura celebrations in Bijar, west Iraq, December 6, 2011 Photo HH/Eyevine
Ashura celebrations in Bijar, west Iraq, December 6, 2011 Photo HH/Eyevine

For the Shiites, Ashura, the tenth day of the mourning month of Muharram, is the most important day of the calendar (Ashura means ‘tenth’ in Arabic). On that day the martyrdom of Imam Husayn in the battle of Karbala is commemorated. Shiites reproach themselves for offering him no support at that time. Great processions of men move through the streets of the cities, whipping themselves as a sign of mourning. The fate of Imam Husayn and his companions and brothers-in-arms is depicted in detail in a passion play, releasing strong emotions in those present. Among Muslims, there is another day of remembrance for the deceased, after a mourning period of forty days. This is also the case for Imam Husayn; forty days after Ashura, Shiites observe al-Arbainiya al-Husayniya (The Fortieth of Husayn). Around that day many tens of thousands of believers, including delegations from all parts of Shiite Iraq and pilgrims from other parts of the Shiite world, flood into the provincial city of Karbala. Several days earlier, many of them will have walked en masse from Najaf to Karbala (about 75 kilometres). In the second half of the 1970s the Baath regime banned such massive expressions of Shiite identity, which often became barely disguised political rallies. After the fall of Saddam Hussein public observances of these traditions were rehabilitated but have been seriously disrupted by bombings on several occasions.

The various Christian communities – Chaldaean Catholics, Nestorians, Syrian Orthodox, Syrian Catholics, and others – have their own holy days, which generally run parallel with those of the Christian West, Easter being the most important.


Celebration of Newroz in Aqra, Iraqi Kurdistan Photo HH/Polaris
Celebration of Newroz in Aqra, Iraqi Kurdistan Photo HH/Polaris

In addition to the Islamic festivals, the Kurds, all but a tiny minority of whom are Muslim, also celebrate Newroz (literally, ‘New Day’, the Kurdish New Year) on March 21. This festival is based on the legend of the battle of the blacksmith Kaveh (Kawah) against the tyrant Zahhak (Dahhak). Zahhak suffered from a brain disease, and his doctors had prescribed the eating of the brains of children for its cure. Thus Kaveh gave several of his children to him, but when Zahhak demanded his last remaining son, Kaveh decided to kill Zahhak. It was agreed in advance that if Kaveh should succeed in this, Kurds would pass the good news on to each other by lighting fires on the mountain tops. Every year during Newroz Kurds, even those in the diaspora, light fires, through which the young men jump.

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