first month of the islamic lunar calendar, containing thirty days.
The events that took place on the tenth of Muharram in the year 680 changed forever the character of this month by making it a month of mourning, at least for the Shiʿa. On that date, Husayn—the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and the third Imam of Shiʿite Islam—was brutally killed on the battlefield of Karbala. In this battle Husayn's sons, male relatives, and followers also perished. The women of his encampment were taken as captives to Caliph Yazid in Damascus. This tragic event overshadows any other event in that month. Husayn's ordeal started on the first of Muharram, when he and his party were intercepted by Yazid's troops, and continued even after his death, with the captivity of the Karbala survivors. Although the tenth of Muharram (known as Ashura ), is the actual date of Husayn's death, the mourning has been extended to cover the whole month.
For the Shiʿa, the Muharram tragedy of Husayn is the greatest act of suffering and redemption in history. It acquired a timeless quality, and, therefore, apart from the yearly Muharram observances, the Shiʿa continually try to measure themselves against the principle of the paradigm of Husayn whenever they regard themselves as deprived, humiliated, or abused. In fact, one of the main slogans during the Islamic revolution in Iran (1978/79) chanted by the crowds or scribbled as graffiti on town and village walls was "Every day is Ashura; every place is Karbala; every month is Muharram." This same slogan was intoned on radio and television and was graphically depicted on posters and even postage stamps during Iran's eight-year (1980–1988) war against Iraq.
The Muharram commemoration of Husayn's passion and martyrdom is charged with unusual emotions throughout the world's Shiʿa communities. Even the followers of Sunni Islam and the members of other religions who live among the Shiʿa are greatly affected by these commemorative rituals. That participation in the annual observance of Husayn's suffering and death is considered an aid to salvation on the day of judgment provides an additional incentive for Shiʿa to engage in the many mourning rituals. Elaborate Muharram observances were already carried out in the fourth Islamic century in Baghdad during the reign of Muʿizz al-Dawla of the Shiʿite Buyid dynasty. Many Muharram rituals have developed since, and although they may differ in form from one locality to another, passionate participation in them is universal.
These rituals may be divided into two categories, the ambulatory and the stationary. They are primarily performed during the first ten days of Muharram, with the greatest discharge of emotions and the greatest number of rituals occurring on the day of Ashura. The most common ambulatory rite is a procession, and the participants are divided into different groups of self-mortifiers—those who beat their chests with the palms of their hands; those who beat their backs with chains; and those who wound their foreheads with swords or knives. Some mortify themselves with stones, and others carry the alam, which signify the standard of Husayn at Karbala. In Iran, in some processions, floats with live tableaux representing the scenes from the Karbala tragedy can be seen, as well as Husayn's symbolic bier, called nakhl (date palm). Nakhl is carried because, according to tradition, Husayn's beheaded corpse was carried on a stretcher made of date palm branches. Some nakhl are so large that they require more than 150 people to carry them. Processions are accompanied by bands of martial and mournful music. The most characteristic features of Muharram on the Indo-Pakistani subcontinent are the huge artistic interpretations of Husayn's mausoleum carried or wheeled in the procession. At the end of Ashura day, these structures, called taʿziya, are either cremated or buried at the local cemetery, called Karbala, or are immersed in water.
The Muharram observances were brought as far as the Caribbean basin in the years 1845 to 1917, when indentured laborers from India went there. Muharram is still, after carnival, the most important event in Trinidad. Although the Muharram rituals in Trinidad have more of a festive than a mourning character, the main features continue to be processions. In this case, the processions are parades of colorful cenotaphs for Husayn, called tadja. In India, the Sunni and even the Hindus actively participate in many Muharram rituals. In Trinidad as well, this is a true ecumenical event.
To the stationary rituals belong majalis al-aza, recitation and singing of the story of Husayn at the Battle of Karbala. In Iran, this ritual is called rawda khwani. The storyteller (called rawda khwan ) of the Shiʿite martyrology sits above the assembled crowd on a minbar (pulpit) in a black tent, under an awning, or in a special edifice (Husayniyya or takiya in Iran; ashurkhanah or imambarah in India) and brings the audience to a state of frenzy with recitation, chanting, crying, sobbing, and body language. The most unusual stationary ritual is the taʿziya of Iran—the only serious drama and theater developed in the Islamic world depicting the martyrdom of Husayn and other Shiʿite martyrs. Originally, it was performed in the month of Muharram, but now it is staged year round.
The Muharram processions actually served as prototypes for the massive demonstrations in Tehran and other Iranian cities during the 1978/79 revolutionary upheavals. The mixing of Muharram mourning slogans with political ones has been an old Muharram tradition. The Iranian Revolution utilized the Husayn Muharram paradigm and was carried out in accordance with the Islamic calendar. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's revolution started in Muharram on Ashura, 3 June 1963, when he delivered a speech at the Fayziya Madrasa in Qom, criticizing the internal and external policies of the shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and his government. In the article "Islamic Government," written while he taught in exile in Najaf, Khomeini states: "Make Islam known to the people, then . . . create something akin to Ashura and create out of it a wave of protest against the state of the government" (Islam and Revolution, p. 131). A few days before Muharram on 23 November 1978, in order to accelerate the revolution, Khomeini issued from Neauphlele-Château, France, a declaration called "Muharram: The triumph of blood over the sword," which was recorded in France and distributed in Iran through its network of mosques. The opening paragraph of the declaration reads as follows:
With the approach of Muharram, we are about to begin the month of epic heroism and self sacrifice—the month in which blood triumphed over the sword, the month in which truth condemned falsehood for all eternity and branded the mark of disgrace upon the forehead of all oppressors and satanic governments; the month that has taught successive generations throughout history the path of victory over the bayonet. (Islam and Revolution, p. 242)
Less than two months later, the shah left Iran, enabling Khomeini to return from fourteen years of exile.
Muharram affects the entire Islamic community; however, it is primarily felt among Shiʿa. Muharram could be expressed both as a mourning depression and an exuberant agitation and will to act. These expressions of Muharram can be and have been converted into political actions.
Ayoub, Mahmoud. Redemptive Suffering in Islam: A Study of the Devotional Aspects of Ashura in Twelver Shiʿism. The Hague: Mouton, 1978.
Canetti, Elias. "The Muharram Festival of the Shiʿites." In Crowds and Power, translated by Carol Stewart. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1984.
Chelkowski, Peter J., ed. Taʿziyeh: Ritual and Drama in Iran. New York: New York University Press, 1979.
Hollister, John Norman. The Shiʿa of India. London: Luzac, 1953.
Khomeini, Ruhollah. Islam and Revolution: Writings and Declarations of Imam Khomeini, translated by Hamid Algar. Berkeley, CA: Mizan Press, 1981; reprint, New York: Kegan Paul, 2002.
"Moharram in Two Cities, Lucknow and Delhi." Census of India, 1961. New Delhi, 1965.
Proceedings of the Imam Husayn Conference, July 1984, London. Alserat 12 (spring/autumn, 1986).
Rizvi, Saiyid Athar Abbas. A Socio-Intellectual History of the Isna Ashari Shiʿis in India. Canberra: Maʿrifat, 1986.
Saiyid, A. R. "Ideal and Reality in the Observance of Muharram." In Ritual and Religion among Muslims of India. New Delhi, 1981.
Von Grunebaum, G. E. Muhammadan Festivals. London: Abelard-Schuman, 1958.
The first month of the Islamic year, Muharram, is the focus of annual lamentation rituals performed especially by Shi˓a Muslims in honor of Husayn b. ˓Ali, the prophet Muhammad's grandson, who died in battle in 680 c.e. at Karbala (Iraq). Besieged by soldiers loyal to the caliph Yazid b. Mu˓awiya, who sought to prevent Husayn from gaining political power, Husayn died on ˓Ashura, the tenth day of Muharram. Family members accompanying him were killed or subjected to imprisonment and humiliation. Commemoration of the Karbala martyrs' sufferings during the yearly mourning season (from the first of Muharram to the twentieth of the month of Safar, with ˓Ashura comprising the focal date) serves to help define Shi˓a communal identity.
Muharram observances vary throughout the Islamic world. Iran is famous for the ta˓ziya, a dramatic enactment of the Karbala battle. Localities in Pakistan and India stage ˓Ashura processions featuring a stallion caparisoned as Zuljenah, the horse ridden into combat by Husayn. In Hyderabad, India, matami guruhan (Shi˓a lamentation associations) sponsor the group performance of matam (gestures of grief ranging from rhythmic chestbeating to self-flagellation with razors and chains). Matam is performed in time to the chanting of nauhas (poems commemorating the Karbala martyrs).
In 1994 a fatwa by Sayyed ˓Ali Khamene˒i, spiritual leader of Iran, forbade the public performance of self-flagellation or other forms of bloody matam. This decree continues a policy promulgated by Khamenei's predecessor, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who advocated taqrib or Sunni-Shi˓a rapprochement for the sake of pan-Islamic cooperation in international affairs. Sunnis have frequently condemned as un-Islamic the bloodier forms of Muharram mourning.
The most common form of Muharram ritual, however, is the majlis al-˓aza or "lamentation gathering," where a preacher recounts the Karbala martyrs' sufferings to stimulate grief among congregants. While lamentation rituals for Husayn have been documented as early as tenth-century Baghdad, Shi˓a authorities trace the history of the majlis al-˓aza to Zaynab bint ˓Ali, Husayn's sister, who was present at Karbala and who is believed to have held the first majlis to mourn Husayn while a captive in Yazid's palace. Traditional Shi˓a belief holds that weeping for the Karbala martyrs gains mourners access to Husayn's intercession for the forgiveness of sins. But recent Shi˓a thinking emphasizes the political dimension of Muharram ritual as a form of communal assertiveness and revolutionary activism.
Muharram rituals are not limited to the Shi˓a. In Ladakh (Jammu and Kashmir, India), where Muslims are a minority in a predominantly Buddhist region, Sunnis cooperate with the Shi˓a in staging Zuljenah processions to demonstrate Islamic solidarity. In Andhra Pradesh (India), Hindus visit Shi˓a shrines during Muharram. And in Darjeeling (West Bengal), where most Muslims are Sunnis, ˓Ashura takes on an air of carnival, with competitions involving drumming and stickfighting.
Halm, Heinz. Shi˓a Islam: From Religion to Revolution. Princeton, N.J.: Markus Wiener Publishers, 1997.
Hegland, Mary Elaine. "The Power Paradox in Muslim Women's Majales: North-West Pakistani Mourning Rituals." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 23 (1998): 391–428.
Pinault, David. Horse of Karbala: Muslim Devotional Life inIndia. New York: Palgrave, 2001.