This week marked the beginning of the Islamic New Year, Muharram and soon Ashura, but for those of us who aren’t so familiar what do all these terms mean?
Muharram — The New Year & The Sacred Months
Muharram is simply the first month of the lunar calendar; marking the start of the new year in the Islamic (Hijri) calendar.
Along with Muharram, Rajab, Dhū al-Qaʿdah, and Dhū al-Ḥijjah these four months make up what Allah has called in the Qur’an "The Sacred Months":
"إِنَّ عِدَّةَ ٱلشُّهُورِ عِندَ ٱللَّهِ ٱثْنَا عَشَرَ شَهْرًا فِى كِتَـٰبِ ٱللَّهِ يَوْمَ خَلَقَ ٱلسَّمَـٰوَٰتِ وَٱلْأَرْضَ مِنْهَآ أَرْبَعَةٌ حُرُمٌ "
"God decrees that there are twelve months- ordained in God’s Book on the Day when He created the heavens and earth- four months of which are sacred" — Qur’an 9:36
Fighting and war is prohibited in these sacred months. One of these months is Rajab, the other three months allow for sanctity during the time of Hajj and the adjacent months. Providing safety of travel for those performing Hajj in Dhul-Hijjah, or travelling to or from Hajj in the preceding and succeeding month.
On top of this Muharram is considered the best of months for fasting, after Ramadan:
The Prophet (ﷺ) said:
" أَفْضَلُ الصِّيَامِ بَعْدَ صِيَامِ شَهْرِ رَمَضَانَ شَهْرُ اللَّهِ الْمُحَرَّمُ "
"The most virtuous fasting after the month of Ramadan is Allah's month Al-Muharram." — [Tirmidhi Sahih]
Apart from generally trying to fast within the month of Muharram, are there any specific days we are encouraged to fast? That brings us to the oft-discussed and sometimes contentious topic of Ashura.
Ashura is the 10th day of Muharram and has much historical significance for Muslims as well as Jews.
"When the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) reached Medina (after Hijrah), he found the Jews fasting the Day of Ashura, so he asked them: ‘What is this day you are fasting?’
They said: ‘This is a tremendous day. Allah saved Moses and his people on this day and drowned Pharaoh and his people. Moses fasted it out of thanks, so we fast it too.’
The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) said: ‘And we are more deserving of Moses than you are.’ So he fasted this day, and ordered that it be fasted." — [Bukhari]
As Muslim, Moses is not just a prophet for us, but also the most mentioned Prophet in the Qur’an. As such many Sunni Muslims will fast on this day.
" أن رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم سئل عن صيام يوم عاشوراء فقال: يكفر السنة الماضية"
"The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) was asked about fasting on the tenth day of Muharram, and he replied: ‘It is an expiation for the sins of the preceding year.’" — [Sahih Muslim]
In addition to this it is recommended for those fasting the 10th of Ashura to also fast one day either before or after Ashura, i.e either the 9th or 11th of Ashura.
The Prophet (ﷺ) said: “Fast the Day of Ashura and be different from the Jews by fasting a day before it or a day after it.” [Ahmad]
The day of Ashura, 10th of Muharam, also marks the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ). Killed at the battle of Karbala his sacrifice is considered to be one of the ultimate sacrifices for Allah.
"وَلَا تَحْسَبَنَّ ٱلَّذِينَ قُتِلُوا۟ فِى سَبِيلِ ٱللَّهِ أَمْوَٰتًۢا ۚ بَلْ أَحْيَآءٌ عِندَ رَبِّهِمْ يُرْزَقُونَ
فَرِحِينَ بِمَآ ءَاتَىٰهُمُ ٱللَّهُ مِن فَضْلِهِۦ وَيَسْتَبْشِرُونَ بِٱلَّذِينَ لَمْ يَلْحَقُوا۟ بِهِم مِّنْ خَلْفِهِمْ أَلَّا خَوْفٌ عَلَيْهِمْ وَلَا هُمْ يَحْزَنُونَ
يَسْتَبْشِرُونَ بِنِعْمَةٍ مِّنَ ٱللَّهِ وَفَضْلٍ وَأَنَّ ٱللَّهَ لَا يُضِيعُ أَجْرَ ٱلْمُؤْمِنِينَ"
"Think not of those who are slain in the way of Allah as dead. Nay they are living! With their Lord they have provision. Jubilant are they because of that which Allah hath bestowed upon them of His bounty, rejoicing for the sake of those who have not joined them but are left behind: that there shall no fear come upon them neither shall they grieve. They rejoice because of favour from Allah and kindness, and that Allah wasteth not the wage of the believers" — Qur’an 3:169-171
This day is considered the most tragic day in Islamic history, after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ). As such it is lamented by Muslims across the world. Among those mourning will be both Sunnis and Shias, with a main difference being that Shias won’t fast for Ashura while many Sunnis will. However this small difference doesn’t preclude both parties honouring and remembering the martydom of Imam Hussain.
"It was the supreme sacrifice that is for God’s Sake… Muharram may just as easily be called the ‘month of sacrifice’" —Shaykh Faid Mohammed Said
This year Muharram 1443 AH began on 10th August 2021 — Ashura will be on Thursday 19th August 2021 insha’Allah.
I hope and pray that we all may benefit from it and if we are able to fast, may it be an expiation for our sins of the last year insha’Allah.
Ashura can oftentimes be a source of division in the community due to different approaches taken by Sunnis and Shias at this time. I’ve only skimmed the surface in my brief writing and would highly recommend the following reading for those looking to learn more.
Sacred months: https://muslim.sg/articles/4-sacred-months-in-islam