Ashura Traditions, Customs and Activities

For Shi’a Muslims the Ashura is a day to make pilgrimages, for those who can, to a shrine in Karbala, the Mashhad al-Husayn, where the tomb of Husaynibn Ali is. Shi’a Muslims wear mourning clothes and there is no sign of joy, no music, no dance and no earthly enjoyment. It is prohibited to plan any wedding or parties for this day, or near it. There is crying as poems are read out loud recalling the battle in Karbala and the martyrdom of Husaynibn Ali.

The only sound heard is the sound of the voice who reads the marsiya, noha, latmiya and soaz in memory of Husaynibn Ali and a drum. These events are held in Imambargah and Hussainia, which are congregation halls for Shi’a ritual ceremonies, and it is not the same as a mosque and it is mostly only used on this day of Ashura.

There are processions when people beat their chests in signal of grief and sorrow. And there are cities where they organize the reenactment of the battle of Karbala, with actors portraying the events of that day. Even though many of the Shi’a spiritual authorities have prohibited and discouraged the practice of self flagellation, there are many believers that still follow the practices of zanjeerzani or zanjeermatam, zani and matam are chains. It is common for people to donate food for all those who attend the rituals, these meals are called niazz.

For Sunni Muslims the Ashura is a day of joy and celebration with family and friends of the victories of Allah through His prophets like Moses. It is a day of joy that contrasts in great with the Shi’a Ashura.

Because of this, and their historical rivalry, it is common that on this day, and especially in countries with strong communities of both Shi’a and Sunni Muslims to have deadly attacks on each other communities as they celebrate the Ashura.



Ashura is a religious observance for Muslims all over the world.

Ashura literally means tenth, and it is celebrated on the 10th day of Muharram, first month on the Islamic calendar. It is celebrated by both Sunnis and Shi’a Muslims, for different reasons.

History of Ashura

The 3 days of the Ashura festival started long ago when the prophet Muhammad with his followers found the Medina community of Jews fasting for the Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement. When Muhammad asked the Jews why they were fasting, they answered that they were fasting to remember the day when Moses was saved from the Egyptians by God.


And so thought Muhammad that they, as Muslims should also do the same, as Moses is a prophet for the Islamic faith. So it was declared that they should fast in the tenth day of the month of Muharram. As the Islamic faith grew, Muslims and Jews did not get along, and Muhammad decided to make Ramadan the fasting month for Muslims. Ashura was left as fasting voluntary observance. Still, Muslims followed the fasting on this day. After the death of Muhammad, a big schism happened in the Muslim community to whom should succeed Muhammad, and it originated the split between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims.


For the Shi’a Muslims this day of Ashura earned a new meaning after the death of Husaynibn Ali, the grandson of Muhammad and the third Shia Imam. Ashura for Shi’a Muslims is the mourning for the martyrdom of Husaynibn Ali in the battle of Karbala in 680. they believe that the battle of Karbala was a battle between good and evil, and that the stand of Husaynibn Ali, even if he died, allowed the Islamic faith to continue living. This also originates two differences in the celebration of Ashura, for Sunnis it is a time for joy since it celebrates the victory of Allah through Moses against the Egyptians, but for Shi’a Muslims it is a day of sorrow.



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