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Muharram - History, Significance, Rituals

Updated on January 27, 2020
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Rajan loves cooking dishes from his native Indian cuisine. He likes to share his favorite recipes with his online readers.

Muharram fasting begins on 20 August 2020 and ends on 19 September 2020

These dates are based on the Umm al-Qura calendar of Saudi Arabia:

Self Flagellation on Muharram

Image of a Muharram procession in Tando Jahania at Hyderabad, Sindh
Image of a Muharram procession in Tando Jahania at Hyderabad, Sindh | Source

Muharram literally means 'haraam' which means forbidden, and for Muslims, especially Shia Muslims, celebration in any form is forbidden in this month

India is a land of diverse cultures and religious beliefs. Religion has always been an important part of its culture. All religions are respected and its followers have full freedom to practice their respective faiths.

In this context, Islam has the second largest following in the country, 14.2% according to the 2011 census. The vast Muslim population celebrates various Muslim festivals according to their faith.

Muharram is one such festival of the Muslim community which commemorates the martyrdom of Prophet Muhammed's grandson, Hussain.

While both Shias and Sunnis, the two largest sects of Muslims, observe Muharram, for the former it is an occasion of sorrow while the latter celebrate it as a joyous occasion.

Muharram is the holiest month followed by Ramadan

Muharram and Ashura

Muharram marks the anniversary of the battle of Karbala in which the Prophet's grandson Imam Hussain ibn Ali, who was a Shia Imam, along with his 72 followers, were killed by the army of the second Umayyad Caliph, Yazid the first. The surviving members of his family and followers were taken captive and imprisoned.

This day is referred to as the day of Ashura when gatherings of Shia Muslims remember this sacrifice and review Islamic teachings as well.

According to the Islamic calendar, which is a lunar calendar, Muharram is the first month of the Islamic new year, which begins with mourning, rather than joy, for the Shias. Sacrifices of Hussain and his followers are remembered.

Muharram is also the second most sacred of the Islamic months after Ramadan and one of the four most sacred months of the year.

The mourning begins on the first night of Muharram and continues for the next nine nights, a total of 10 nights. The tenth is the Day of Ashura. Sunnis Muslims slap their chests and lament to the tune of beating drums chanting "Ya Hussain" and self-flagellate their bodies with chains, whips, small knives, and sharp objects till they bleed, all this in remembrance of the pain suffered by Hussain.

This takes the form of huge Muharram processions which pass through streets offering a spectacle both fascinating and bizarre. Prayers are offered in abundance and all forms of celebrations are shunned during this period.

Sunni Muslims or Sunnis also observe this day, albeit, with a difference, commemorating it as a day of victory for Islam, when Moses or Musa and his followers were saved from the Egyptian Pharoah by Allah as He parted the Red Sea to let these faithful ones pass.

The Four Sacred Months in Islamic Calendar

  1. Muharram - the first month
  2. Rajab - the seventh month, the month in which the first Imam of Shias was born
  3. Dhu al-Qidah - the eleventh month in which warfare is prohibited
  4. Dhu al-Hijjah - the twelfth month, the month of Hajj as well as the festival of the sacrifice

An Asura Procession

Shia Muslims performing in Ashura procession at Hardoi
Shia Muslims performing in Ashura procession at Hardoi | Source

Muharram Rituals Observed by Shia Muslims

  1. The first 10 days of the month of Muharram is a period of mourning when among other things, meat, new clothes, and marriage engagements are prohibited
  2. Many Shias dress in all black to reflect mourning until after Asura
  3. Attending religious lectures/sermons called majalis
  4. On the day of Ashura, Nohas or spiritual poems are recited by many Shias
  5. Public processions of grieving Shiites are taken out

Observing Muharram

Muharram in Ardabil.
Muharram in Ardabil. | Source

Muharram Rituals Observed by Sunni Muslims

  1. Reading the scriptures related to the Prophets' 40-day fast, splitting of the Red Sea by Allah and the meeting of Prophet Muhammad with the Jews at Medina
  2. Fasting on the 9th and 10th day or 10th and 11th day of Muharram. This fast was made optional once the Ramadan fast was introduced
  3. Showing gratitude to Allah for liberating Moses and the Israelites by performing Nafl Salat prayers, reciting Surah Al Ikhlas 1000 times and delivering the Dua -e- Ashura
  4. Remembering the Battle of Karbala which caused a split in the faith
  5. Participating in some Shia-led events like majalis and Noha recitals to foster a greater sense of community



Haleem - Muharram Special Recipe

Hyderabadi Qubooli Biryani | Muharram Recipe

© 2018 Rajan Singh Jolly


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    • rajan jolly profile imageAUTHOR

      Rajan Singh Jolly 

      2 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar, INDIA.

      Thank you for reading the article. I'm glad you like it.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      2 years ago

      Interesting read and thank you for the education on this ritual.

    • rajan jolly profile imageAUTHOR

      Rajan Singh Jolly 

      2 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar, INDIA.

      I totally agree, Devika. I love learning about other cultures too. Thank you.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      2 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      It is important to be educated about another culture or any other aspect of life. You definitely did that here.

    • rajan jolly profile imageAUTHOR

      Rajan Singh Jolly 

      2 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar, INDIA.

      Moses or Musa, as the Muslims, call him is revered as one of the prominent prophets in Islam and his narratives are recorded in the Quran.

      Islam believes that Moses received the Torah from God and the Quran mentions that the Torah foretold the arrival of Prophet Muhammad.

      Quite a connection here between both these belief systems, Peggy.

      Thank you for reading.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      2 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Thanks for the education about the significance of Muharram and how it is celebrated differently by the Shias and Sunnis. I was also interested to learn about the Muslim belief in the parting of the Red Sea by Allah. It would seem that there is another connection between the Muslim and Jewish beliefs regarding that same story.

    • rajan jolly profile imageAUTHOR

      Rajan Singh Jolly 

      2 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar, INDIA.

      You have echoed my thoughts exactly Bill. Thank you for reading the article.

    • rajan jolly profile imageAUTHOR

      Rajan Singh Jolly 

      2 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar, INDIA.

      Thank you, John. Glad you like the article.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I know practically nothing of this culture, and therein lies the problem for so many in this world: a lack of education about different cultures leads to misunderstandings, which can ultimately lead to conflict. Thank you for the education.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      2 years ago from Queensland Australia

      This was very interesting, Rajan, especially the different ways the Shia and Sunni Muslims see and celebrate it. I had no knowledge of the Muharram previously.


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