Muharram is the first month of the Islamic New Year. It is during Muharram that Prophet Mohammad went from Mecca to Madina. The literal meaning of ‘Muharram’ is forbidden or banned; it is the second holiest month after Ramadan. This year, we observed Muharram from 20th of August to 30th of August (Ashura).
Ashura signifies the 10th day of Muharram and on this day Hussain Ibn Ali (the grandson of Prophet Mohammad) or Imam Hussain was martyred in the battle of Karbala in present-day Iraq. Mourning began in the name of all those martyred from the 1st night of Muharram to the 10th night of Muharram.
The battle of Karbala was fought on October 10,, 680 AD in Iraq. When Imam Hussain was living in Mecca, he received dozens of letter from Muslims of Al Kufa asking him to redeem them from the violent ruler Yazid The First.
Imam Hussain proceeded to Kufa, but was assailed by the Yazid’s enormous army and was forced to move to the desert of Karbala. Here, Imam Hussain and his followers, a total of 70-72 people along with women, children and a few fighting men were held for 10 days and many cruelties were meted out to them.
Despite being massively outnumbered and with limited access to water, Hussain refused to give up. He continuously tried to make peace with Yazid, but on the 10th day of Muharram, the fight broke out. In this bloodshed no man was spared, not even Imam Hussain’s six-month-old infant Ali Asghar. Only women and a few children were released under public pressure.
Each day has its own rituals. For Sunni Muslims, it marks the day Musa (Moses) and Israelites were saved from the Egyptian pharaoh by God, creating a path in the Red Sea. As per rituals, on the ninth and tenth day, both Sunni and Shia observe a fast because Prophet Mohammad used to fast too, although it’s not mandatory.
Shi’ites commemorate on Muharram for the martyrdom at Karbala of Imam Hussain. They observe a fast on the ninth and 10th day of Muharram, but the children, elderly and sick people fast until zawal (afternoon) only. Nizay Fatiha is performed on food after namaz in the name of God and all the martyred of Karbala, before Nizay and Fatiha food is forbidden to eat.
In some places, people wear black clothes and Kada (steel band) to symbolise the chains put around the prisoners of Karbala, one more enthralling ritual is observed on the 10th day of Muharram. This is called ‘Tazia’— a replica of the tomb of Hussain that is carried in processions. Majlis about Karbala is also performed in various part of India.
The first majlis about Karbala was held by Hussain’s sister, Zainab, who stayed in Damascus, Syria for three days after the battle. During this time, she established a Majlis in which she described the brutal killings of the martyrs, who had been thirsty for three days.
A Majlis usually comprises of soaz, hadis and nauha. Soaz is a doleful poem written to give details about atrocities faced by Imam Hussain and his family and sahabah in the battle of Karbala. Hadis is further divided into two parts — fazael and masaebs. During fazael, details from the life of the Prophet and his family are shared. During masaeb, description of the battle is given. Singing nauha is the last part of the majlis followed by chest-beating and religious flagellation, where the sufferings and sacrifice of martyrs are itemised.
Muharram has always been a month to mourn and learn from the sacrifice of Imam Hussain and the martyrs of the battle of Karbala.