Ashura – A Time of Expiation
Ashura is the tenth day of the Muslim month of Muharram. This year, the festival falls on February 9, 2006. Sunnis and Shi’ites alike observe this festival. Shi’ites honor it as the anniversary of the day in 680 C.E. when Caliph Yazid martyred Hussein, a grandson of Mohammad, and seventy-two of his kinsmen in the holy city of Karbala, Iraq, ending the struggle for succession to the Prophet.
While serving in Iran during the 1960s as a Peace Corps Volunteer, we were always cautious and respectful of the Muslim holy days. We were especially careful to remain inside our walled compound especially after dark during Muharram, and to avoid contact with the crowds of chanting men and boys that marched through the city on the festival of Ashura. Then, I returned to Iran in 2002, traveling with a group of RPCVs and their families. We visited the 14th century C.E. Amir Chakhmaq Mosque in the ancient city of Yazd. The grandstand where the faithful reenact the martyrdom of the Hussein, the third Imam, annually is nearby. Standing there, I recalled the only time I had dared to open our gate ever so slightly in hopes of catching a brief glimpse of the men and boys who passed through our alley carrying their flaming torches and striking their backs with switches to the beat of drums.
Sunni Muslims, however, observe this day as the time when Nuh (Noah) left the Ark and Allah led Musa (Moses) and his people out of Egypt. After Mohammad migrated from Mecca, he found a community of Jews living in Medina. The Jews were fasting in remembrance of God’s deliverance of them from the Egyptians.
The people said, "O Messenger of Allah, it is a day that the Jews and Christians honor. The Prophet said, "When the following year comes, Allah willing, we shall fast on the ninth day." Sadly, he died the next year.
Today, there are demonstrations against the west (and between Sunnis and Shi’ites) around the world. Perhaps instead of flagellation over the battle that broke much of the Muslim world apart, the festival of Ashura can once represent a time of forgiveness to the sons and daughters of Abraham. Then Jewish, Christian, and Muslim brothers and sisters can begin to work together again to build a peaceful world.
Jennifer B-C Seaver