Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Ashura, an Eternal Battle Against Oppression

Shiite Muslim pilgrims take part in a mourning ritual during Ashura, a 10-day period commemorating the seventh century killing of Prophet Mohammed’s grandson Imam Hussein, in Iraq’s holy city of Karbala, on August 8, 2022. Mohammed SAWAF / AFP

Dana Hourany

Ashura, which translates to “the tenth” refers to the 10th day of Muharram, the first month in the Islamic calendar year. Like the holy month of Ramadan, Ashura’s date fluctuates every year as per the lunar calendar that marks the beginning of a new month with the appearance of a new moon.

The day is significant to Muslims all around the world in a number of ways. On this day, in 680 C.E., Imam Al-Hussein, the prophet’s grandson, was slain in the Iraqi city of Karbala, which is located south of Baghdad. It is also said that God parted the sea on this date to aid Prophet Moses and his people in escaping the Egyptian pharaoh.

The occasion is honored with fasting and prayers at mosques among Sunni Muslims. As for Shia Muslims, Ashura is a day of sorrow and terrible sadness. It marks the martyrdom of Imam Al-Hussein, the son of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the fourth caliph and the first Shia Imam. Imam Ali was also the son-in-law of the prophet. Al-Hussein had succeeded his brother, Imam Al-Hassan, as the third Shia Imam before his death.

The martyred Imam died in the Battle of Karbala in a ferocious confrontation with the Umayyad Dynasty’s troops sent by then-ruler Yazid. All 72 people from the Imam’s side; women, infants, and cavaliers were either imprisoned or massacred.

To this day, the Shia community across the globe commemorates Ashura and the battle of Karbala with a variety of rites that slightly differ per country. Religious scholars and historical experts note that shifting political movements in the MENA region has allowed modern-day politicians the chance to co-opt the event and dilute its social significance and impact.

A brief history

Once Yazid became Caliph, Imam Al-Hussein denounced his leadership and refused to accept him as the supreme leader. Yazid, who was 30 at the time, was a controversial figure and subject of harsh criticism by Muslim scholars.

Renowned Arab historian Al-Mas’udi described Yazid as “a pleasure-seeking person who owned slave girls, dogs, monkeys, leopards, and drunken jesters. Whatever ugly act he committed was imitated by those close to him… Instruments of pleasure and amusement were commonplace.”

While injustice and impiety seeped into the Muslim Ummah, Yazid was said to have forced people into obedience by means of coercion, threats, and bribery. Al-Hussein, however, remained unfazed.

The Imam, who was residing in Mecca (present-day Saudi Arabia), plotted a rebellion against Yazid’s tyranny and was supported by the residents of Kufa, Iraq who wished for Al-Hussein to be their chosen leader and Caliph.

Whilst journeying to the city, the Imam received news of Kufans‘ sudden change of heart due to Yazid’s intimidation and violence. Nevertheless, Al-Hussein’s group journeyed on undeterred.

Once inside the desert plain of Karbala, the Umayyad forces besieged the group, blocked access to water and charged toward the camp with ferocious fervour. Yazid’s army outnumbered his rivals, massacring the men while imprisoning their women and children.

The Imam was the last victim to fall.

One grief, similar rites

To mourn the tragedy, Shia worshippers don all-black outfits, partake in large public reenactments of the battle of Karbala, and organize marches, and processions. Some engage in tatbir or self-flagellation using chains, blades, or knives to venerate the agony of Imam Al-Hussein.

Many clerics, however, disavow the latter and call for donating blood instead.

Cooking and distributing food is a common ritual among all Shia communities in the MENA region. Dishes such as the Iranian gheymeh, a thick stew of cooked lamb with split peas served with rice, and the Iraqi harissa, cooked with traditional Iraqi lamb and beans are popular on the day. In Lebanon, wheat berries with chunks of beef or lamb make for the main ingredients of the famous harissa soup. These meals, which are prepared in huge caldrons, are offered in honor of Al-Hussein’s martyrdom.

Biscuits and water bottles are also distributed as offerings.

Ashura assemblies are unique group events held in designated spaces where an audience gathers around a Shia cleric who recites verses of elegies depicting the suffering of Imam Al-Hussein and his companions. Usually belting a melodic tone that incites intense emotions, women – particularly in Lebanon – have also led such assemblies, especially in south Lebanon back in the 1990s.

Men beat their chests in devotion to the Imam as eyes brim with tears, and the cry “Hayhat minna zilla!” (We refuse humiliation) fills the air.

Guilt and repentance

The intensity of the Iraqis’ reverence of Karbala, according to history professor and Iraqi author Mishtak Idan Al-Hulfi, is not merely the result of inherited customs, it also stems from a deeply ingrained sense of guilt.

“There’s a generational regret that stems from abandoning the Imam during the battle of Karbala and not supporting his rebellion,” Al-Hulfi told Fanack. “The first to act upon this regret and self-reproach was Soleiman Bin Surf Al-Khozai.”

Al-Khozai was the first to rebel against the Umayyad Dynasty in the aftermath of Karbala. His movement was dubbed, “the revolution of the repentant” as a way to “atone for the mistake” of abandoning the Imam and seek revenge for the victims of Karbala.

The Seljuk and Ottoman Empires followed by the modern Baathist Party either banned or severely restricted Shia religious rituals in Iraq. All of this changed in 2003 after the US invasion led to the collapse of the dictatorship and the revival of Ashura ceremonies.

“The rise of Muslim political groups in governance allowed for politics to merge with religion. They used Ashura slogans in their campaigns and bolstered the public displays of rites, amassing large-scale popularity,” the writer said.

Examples of politicians who employ elements of Ashura in their speeches and politics include Iraqi Shia cleric and politician Muqtada Al-Sadr, Lebanese cleric and Secretary General of the Iran-backed Hezbollah party Hassan Nasrallah, and formerly, Iran’s supreme leader Ruhollah Khomeini.

“It’s important to note that the average citizen still commemorates the remembrance period for its spiritual significance and generational traditions. It’s not always political, many people are also pious,” Al-Hulfi said.

Lessons learned

Lebanese Sheikh and Muslim scholar Mohamad Ali Al-Haj Al-Amili contends that the consolidation of religion and politics was the outcome of the 19th-century Islamic revival era following the breakdown of Muslim empires and the economic and colonial intrusions of Europe.

“When the Ottoman Empire was dismantled, fears grew among Sunni Muslims – which spilled over into Shias – regarding the future of political power. This gave rise to various Islamist political movements including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and later on, Amal Movement and Hezbollah in Lebanon,” Al-Amili said.

“Imam Al-Hussein was not calling for power and control. He refused to follow a leader that claimed to be assigned by God and chose to sacrifice his life in a fight against tyranny and injustice,” he added.

The Sheikh asserts that Yazid’s rule oppressed dissent and allowed corruption and violence to corrode the Muslim Ummah.

“Nowadays the Shia community contradicts itself. They recite chants and slogans from Karbala but support authoritarian leaders that terrorize any opposition. The Imam called for accountability and refused to pledge loyalty to Yazid, yet his worshippers are now idolizing the corrupt,” he said.

Every day is Ashura, every land is Karbala

The Sheikh went on to say that the Ashura culture of south Lebanon – home to the largest Shia community in the country – was heavily modified by influences from Iraq and Iran.

“Humble ceremonies, assemblies, parades, and plays were the norm. Then the southerners imported rituals like offering food for passersby on the streets, which in my opinion, is an oversimplification of the original version of Iraqis giving food to pilgrims journeying to Karbala for the 40th day of mourning,” he said.

The tenth of Muharram is followed by a period of mourning that ends on the 40th day (Arbaeen) when hundreds of thousands of Shia Muslim pilgrims meet at the Iraqi city of Karbala.

Al-Amili argues that by dominating Ashura rituals, political groups repel people from different sects from partaking in a collective humanitarian lesson necessary in today’s world.

“Imam Al-Hussein and his father, Imam Ali, were not Shia. The people who followed them were later titled Shia, yet the battle against tyranny is not sect-specific,” Al-Amili said.

He adds that he has involved religious clergymen from different sects to speak during Ashura assemblies in the past. However, more effort is still needed.

Until then, “‘every day is Ashura, every land is Karbala!’ is repeated to remind people that as long as tyranny exists and oppressive regimes are in power, the fight is not over,” Al-Hulfi said.