Muharram: Between Fact and Fiction
Muharram is the month with which the Muslims begin their lunar Hijri calendar. It is one of the four sanctified months about which the Holy Quran says, “The number of months according to Allah is twelve (mentioned) in the Book of Allah on the day He created the heavens and the earth. Among these (twelve months) there are four sanctified.”
These four months, according to the authentic traditions, are Dhu ’l-Qa‘dah, Dhu ’l-Hijjah, Muharram, and Rajab. All the commentators of the Holy Quran agree upon this point because the Holy Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) during his sermon on the occasion of his last Hajj declared: “One year consists of twelve months, of which four are sanctified months. Three of them are in sequence: Dhu ’l-Qa‘dah, Dhu ’l-Hijjah, Muharram, and the fourth is Rajab.”
The specific mention of these four months does not imply that no other month is sanctified because the month of Ramadan is admittedly the most sanctified month in the year. Rather, these four months are specifically termed as sanctified months for the simple reason that their sanctity was accepted even by the pagans of Makkah.
In fact, every month out of the twelve is intrinsically equal to the other, and there is no inherent sanctity that may be attributed to one of them in comparison to the other months. When Allah Almighty chooses a particular time for His special blessings the same acquires sanctity out of His grace.
Thus, the sanctity of these four months was recognized right from the days of Sayyiduna Ibrahim, upon him be peace. Since the pagans of Makkah attributed themselves to Sayyiduna Ibrahim, upon him be peace, they observed the sanctity of these four months and, despite their frequent tribal battles, held it unlawful to fight in them.
In the Shari‘ah of our Noble Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, the sanctity of the months was upheld and the Holy Quran referred to them as the “sanctified months” (ashhur hurum).
Muharram has certain other characteristics special to it, which are specified below.
Fasting During the Month
The Noble Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, has said: “The best fasts after the fasts of Ramadan are those of the month of Muharram.”
Although the fasts of the month of Muharram are not obligatory, yet one who fasts in these days out of his own will is entitled to a great reward by Allah Almighty.
The hadith cited above signifies that the fasts of the month of Muharram are the most rewarding of the nafl (or voluntary) fasts. The hadith does not mean that the award promised for fasting in Muharram can be achieved only by fasting for the entire month. On the contrary, each fast during this month has merit. Therefore, one should avail of each opportunity as much as he can.
The Day of ‘Ashura
Although Muharram is a sanctified month as a whole, the 10th day of Muharram is the most sacred of all its days. This day is called ‘Ashurah. According to the noble Companion Ibn ‘Abbas (may Allah be pleased with him), when the Holy Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) migrated to Madinah he found that the Jews of Madinah used to fast on the 10th day of Muharram. They said that it was the day on which the Holy Prophet Musa (Moses), upon him be peace, and his followers crossed the Red Sea miraculously and the Pharaoh was drowned in its waters. On hearing this from the Jews, the Holy Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, said, “We are certainly closer to Musa (upon him be peace) than you,” and directed the Muslims to fast on the day of ‘Ashura. (Abu Dawud)
It is also reported in a number of authentic traditions that in the beginning, fasting on the day of ‘Ashura was obligatory upon Muslims. It was only later that the fasts of Ramadan were made obligatory and the fast on the day of ‘Ashura was made optional. Sayyidatuna ‘A’ishah, may Allah be pleased with her, has said:
“When the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, came to Madinah, he fasted on the day of ‘Ashura and directed the people to fast. But when the fasts of Ramadan were made obligatory, the obligation of fasting was confined to Ramadan and the obligatory nature of the fast of ‘Ashura was abandoned. Whoever so desires should fast on it and whoever so likes can avoid fasting on it.” (Abu Dawud)
However, the Holy Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) used to fast on the day of ‘Ashura even after the fasting of Ramadan was made obligatory. ‘Abdullah ibn Musa, may Allah be pleased with him, reports that the Holy Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, preferred the fast of ‘Ashura over the fasts of other days and preferred the fasts of Ramadan over the fast of ‘Ashura. (Bukhari and Muslim)
In short, it is established through a number of authentic hadith that fasting on the day of ‘Ashura is a sunnah of the Holy Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, and makes one entitled to a great reward.
According to another hadith, it is more advisable that the fast of ‘Ashura either be preceded or followed by another fast. This means that one should fast two days: the 9th and 10th of Muharram, or the 10th and 11th. The reason for this additional fast as mentioned by the Holy Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, is that the Jews used to fast on the day of ‘Ashura alone, and the Holy Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) wanted to distinguish between the Muslim method of fasting and that of the Jews. Therefore, he advised the Muslims to add another fast to that of ‘Ashura.
Some traditions signify another feature of the day of ‘Ashura. According to these traditions, one should be more generous to his family by providing more food to them on this day as compared to other days. These traditions are not rigorously authentic according to the principles of hadith criticism. Yet, some scholars like Bayhaqi and Ibn Hibban have accepted them as reliable.
What is mentioned above is all that is supported through authentic sources about ‘Ashura.
Misconceptions and Baseless Traditions
There are some legends and misconceptions with regard to ‘Ashura that have managed to find their way into the minds of the uneducated and have no support from authentic Islamic sources. Some very common misconceptions amongst them include the idea that it is the day on which Adam (upon him be peace) was created. Or that it is the day when Ibrahim (upon him be peace) was born. Or that it is the day when Allah accepted the repentance of Sayyiduna Adam, upon him be peace. Or that it is the day when Qiyamah (Doomsday) will take place. Or, lastly, that whoever takes a bath on the day of ‘Ashura will never get ill. All these and other similar whims and fancies are totally baseless and the traditions referred to in this respect are not worthy of any credit.
Some people take it as a sunnah to prepare a particular type of meal on the day of ‘Ashura. This practice, too, has no basis in the authentic Islamic sources.
Some other people attribute the sanctity of ‘Ashura to the martyrdom of Sayyiduna Husayn, may Allah be pleased with him, during his battle with the Syrian army. No doubt, the martyrdom of Sayyiduna Husayn, may Allah be pleased with him, is one of the most tragic episodes of our history. Yet, the sanctity of ‘Ashura cannot be ascribed to this event for the simple reason that the sanctity of ‘Ashura was established during the days of the Holy Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, much earlier than the birth of Sayyiduna Husayn, may Allah be pleased with him. On the contrary, it is one of the merits of Sayyiduna Husayn, may Allah be pleased with him, that his martyrdom took place on the day of ‘Ashura.
Another misconception about the month of Muharram is the idea that it is an evil or unlucky month because Sayyiduna Husayn, may Allah be pleased with him, was killed in it. It is due to this misconception that people avoid holding marriage ceremonies in the month of Muharram. This is again a baseless concept, which is contrary to the express teachings of the Holy Quran and the Sunnah. If the death of an eminent person on a particular day renders that day unlucky for all times to come, one can hardly find a day of the year free from this bad luck because every day is associated with the demise of some eminent person. The Holy Quran and the Sunnah of the Holy Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, have liberated us from such superstitious beliefs.
Lamentations and Mourning
Another wrong practice related to this month is to hold lamentation and mourning ceremonies in the memory of the martyrdom of Sayyiduna Husayn, may Allah be pleased with him. As mentioned earlier, the event of Karbala is one of the most tragic events of our history, but the Holy Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) has forbidden us from holding mourning ceremonies on the death of any person. The people of Jahiliyyah (the days of ignorance) used to mourn their deceased through loud lamentations, tearing their clothes, and beating their cheeks and chests. The Holy Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, prevented the Muslims from it all and directed them to observe patience by exclaiming “Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji‘un” (We are indeed Allah’s and to Him shall we return). A number of authentic hadiths are available on the subject. To quote only one of them:
“He is not from us who slaps his checks, tears his clothes, and cries in the manner of the people of Jahiliyyah (the Age of Ignorance).” (Sahih Bukhari)
All the authentic jurists are unanimous on the point that the mourning of this type is impermissible. Even Sayyiduna Husayn (may Allah be pleased with him) shortly before his demise had advised his beloved sister Sayyidah Zaynab (may Allah be pleased with her) not to mourn over his death in this manner. He said, “My dear sister! I swear upon you that in case I die you shall not tear your clothes, nor scratch your face, nor curse anyone for me or pray for your death.” (al-Kamil, Ibn al-Athir 4:24)
It is evident from this advice of Sayyiduna Husayn, may Allah be pleased with him, that this type of mourning was condemned by even the same blessed person for the memory of whom these mourning ceremonies are held. Every Muslim should avoid this practice and abide by the teachings of the Holy Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, and his beloved grandchild Sayyiduna Husayn, may Allah be pleased with him.