For our non-Muslim followers, let’s first explain what Ashura is. The Islamic calendar is lunar as opposed to the Gregorian calendar, which is solar. The lunar calendar is divided into 12 months, and each month is a lunar cycle that starts with a new moon. The first month is called the month of Muharram. The word “Muharram” means something that has been sanctified or sacred. In this month, the 10th day is referred to as the day of Ashura. The word itself may have something to do with the word 10 coming from Hebrew usage.
It is believed that the day of Ashura was significant even before Muslim use. There are narratives or hadiths that say that the Prophet Muhammad found when he migrated to Medina, the city where he spent the last years of his life, that the Jews there were fasting on a particular day, and when he asked them what they were doing, they replied, “this is the day when God rescued our people and Moses from under the domination of the Pharaoh.” The Prophet responded, “we have more right to Moses.” He instructed his followers to fast on that day, but due to a change in calendars over time, it so happens that according to this narrative, the Muslim day fell on a different day than the Jewish observance. This is one of the justifications for why Sunni Muslims fast on the day of Ashura.
Another narrative says that the Prophet was already fasting in Mecca, the city of his birth, prior to his migration, because the pagan Quraysh people of Mecca were already fasting on that day before Islam. The Prophet fasted along with them as well. There are two different narratives about the origin of this day, which means that the origin is a little bit obscure as to why Muslims observe this particular day. It is now obvious to everyone, even non-Muslims, that Muslims fast during the month of Ramadan, which is not the present month that we’re dealing with. Muharram is the first month and Ramadan is the ninth month. The Muslim narratives say that initially Muslims were fasting on the day of Ashura, the 10th day of the first month. Then eventually when the month of Ramadan was declared as a month for Muslims to fast therein, Muslims did fast therein. Some continued to fast on the day of Ashura, but the Prophet neither further insisted upon it, nor did he refuse or deny those who were fasting in that. So now we have the one day in isolation and we have the month of Ramadan as well.
The Shi’i connection to Ashura is very strong, as it’s a day of commemoration, reflection, and mourning for Shi’i Muslims. The idea of mourning on the day of Ashura is connected to the martyrdom of the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, who is dear to all Muslims, Sunnis and Shi’is alike, but Shi’is have emphasized the memory of the gruesome way in which the grandson of the Prophet, Imam Hussein, and his small troop were besieged and massacred. His sister, Zainab, was taken captive and he was beheaded. His severed head was sent to the caliph of his day, Yazid. Yazid’s father, Muawiya, was known to be a close follower of the Prophet and is noted and respected by Sunni Muslims. Yazid, however, is widely regarded among Sunnis as a tyrant of his time.
Now that I have grandchildren, I know that there’s some people who love me and some who hate me, but I can’t imagine that those who love me as a Muslim preacher and Islamic scholar might harm my grandchildren without thinking twice. If they love me, they wouldn’t harm my grandchildren because the love they have for me is going to translate into love for my grandchildren as well. Even if they don’t love my grandchildren, at least they won’t go out of their way to harm them. And the matter is further intensified when it concerns the Prophet and his grandchild. The Prophet famously loved his grandchildren. It is noted on one occasion that while the Prophet was giving a sermon, his young grandsons came in dressed up for a festival and were tripping all over their long garments. The Prophet stopped his sermon and went to pick his grandchildren up. He made a remark that this is how we get distracted by the things of this world, but this was seen as an affectionate moment between the Prophet and his grandsons. The Prophet’s family in general is beloved to all Muslims, Sunnis and Shi’is alike. When we pray, we say “ Oh God, bless Muhammad, and the family of Muhammad, peace be upon them all.” We do not separate between the Prophet and his family.
Sunni Muslims should share the horror and grief of our Shi’i brothers and sisters over the brutal way in which Al Imam Hussein was killed. It just so happens that for political reasons, while the Shi’is stressed and emphasized the rights of the family of the Prophet, the Sunnis were going in a different direction. The more one group emphasized a certain phenomenon as being a salient characteristic of their faith, the other group found it necessary to minimize it. But there are some Sunnis even to this day who use the 10th of Muharram and other occasions to highlight their love for the family of the Prophet in general, and Imam Hussein in particular.
For Sunni Muslims, Ashura is highly recommended for fasting, but it’s not obligatory. It’s even noted that the Prophet recommended that we fast one other day in addition to it. So the 10th is the main day and you can add a day to it, either the 9th or 11th, in order to make the Muslim fast different from that of the Jews. Nowadays, however, there is hardly any need for that distinction because Jews do not fast on that particular day in the year. What is our 10th of Muharram is not a fasting day for Jews. In fact, the only 10th day of a month that is dedicated to fasting is Yom Kippur. As for the Passover, that is not celebrated on the 10th of any month, but it’s more the 14th to 21st of the month. If Muslims fast on the 10th of Muharram, it does not resemble the fast of any other community. In the end, we might even say that if two things coincide and people are doing a good thing at the same time, why would it matter that some people of another religion are doing the same good thing at the same time as us?
In short, Sunnis can fast on the 10th day or not fast, but it is a good time for us to think about history. Think about Moses and the people of Israel who were under the domination of the Pharaoh. Think of the fact that God rescued them. It’s a good time for Muslims, Sunnis and Shi’is alike, to think about the way in which the family of the Prophet were treated by some of the brutal caliphs in our history. It’s a good time for Sunnis and Shi’is to reach for reconciliation because here we have a day that is significant to both communities for different reasons. We can share our notes, talk to each other, and help each other to see our points of view. But most importantly, we can try to understand the point of view of the other. Islam has been torn into fragments, and it is high time that we bring these fragments together and mend them into a wholesome unit for the sake of God. The Quran tells us, “Hold on to the rope of God and do not be divided among yourselves.”