Ashura (10th of Muharram): A Day of Joy or Grief?

Since 2014-01-09

In this short article, I hope to dispel some of the myths surrounding this day and explain the position of Ahl as-Sunnah with regards to the above two practices.

Ust. Imtiyaz Damiel

All Praise belongs to Allah, the Lord of the Worlds, and may the Peace and blessings of Allah be upon his Messenger, his family and on all of his companions.

Throughout the year Allah (subhAnahu wa ta`Ala) grants His servants with ample opportunities to have their past sins forgiven and to start anew. One of these special occasions is closely approaching us, known as`Ashura.

Much confusion surrounds this day. Some Muslims treat this occasion as a day of celebration and joy, and a time where special dishes are prepared. Conversely, the Shi’ites spend the very same day, beating and injuring themselves, and marking it as a day of sadness and mourning.

In this short article, I hope to dispel some of the myths surrounding this day and explain the position of Ahl as-Sunnah with regards to the above two practices.

I have divided the article into three parts. In the first part, I have gathered some of the ahadith regarding the merits of `Ashura; I have made an effort to distinguish between the authentic and the weak narrations. Then in the following two sections, I discuss the innovation of taking `Ashuraas a day of mourning and the innovation of taking it as a day of joy, respectively.

Some Authentic Ahadith Regarding `Ashura

1. `A’isha (radi Allahu anhA) said: “The people of Quraysh used to fast on the day of `Ashurain the pre-Islamic days. When the Messenger of Allah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) migrated to Madinah, he observed this fast and commanded others to observe it. But when fasting during the month of Ramadan was made obligatory he left the [fast of] `Ashura(i.e. it was no longer obligatory); [1] so whosoever wished to observe this fast, did so, and whosoever wished to leave it, did so.” [Agreed Upon]

2. Abu MusA al-Ash`ari (radi Allahu anhu) said: The day of `Ashurawas one that the Jews respected and treated as a day of festival. The Messenger of Allah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) instructed us: “You should also observe fast on this day.” [Agreed Upon]

3. Humayd b. `Abd ar-RahmAn narrated that he heard Mu`awiyah b. Abu Sufyan (radi Allahu anhuma) say, while delivering a sermon on the pulpit on the day of `Ashurain the year he came for Hajj: “People of Madinah, where are your scholars? I heard the Messenger of Allah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) say: ‘This is the day of `Ashura. Allah has not made fasting on this day compulsory on you, but I am fasting. So whosoever wishes to observe the fast from amongst you, should do so, and whoever does not wish to observe it, may do so.’” [Agreed Upon]

4. Ibn `Abbas (radi Allahu anhu) said: “When the Messenger of Allah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) came to Madinah, he found the Jews fasting on the day of `Ashura. He asked: ‘What is this [that you are doing]?’ They replied: ‘This is a righteous day. On this day Allah saved the Israelites from their enemies, and so Moses, on this day, observed a fast.’ The Messenger of Allah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said: ‘I have a greater right on Moses (alayhis salAm) than you.’ So, he observed the fast (on that day) and ordered the Muslims to also fast.’ [Agreed Upon]. [2]

5. Ar-Rab`i  b. Mu`awadh (radi Allahu anhA) said: “The Messenger of Allah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) sent a envoy to the village of the AnsAr in the morning of the day of `Ashuraannouncing: ‘Whoever has eaten something should not eat but complete the fast, and whoever is observing the fast should complete it.’” She further said: “Since then we fasted regularly on that day and also make our sons fast. We used to make toys of wool for the boys and if anyone of them cried for food, we would give them these [toys] until it was time to break the fast.” [Agreed Upon]

6. `Abd Allah b. `Umar (radi Allahu anhu) narrated: “The Messenger of Allah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) observed the fast on the day of `Ashuraand ordered others to also fast. When fasting during RamadAn was made compulsory, he left it.” `Abd Allah would not fast on this day unless it coincided with his (normal days of) fasting. [al-BukhAri and Ahmad]

7. Ibn `Abbas (radi Allahu anhumA) narrated: “I do not know the Messenger of Allah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) singling out any days for fasting, and considering it more excellent than another, except for this day [the day of `Ashura] and that month – meaning the month of RamadAn.” [Agreed Upon]

8. Abu QAtada al-AnsAri (radi Allahu anhu) narrated that the Messenger of Allah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said: “Fasting three days every month and [fasting] the whole [month] of RamadAn every year is a perpetual fast. The fast of the day of `Arafah, [I consider it to] expiate the sins of the preceding and the coming year. The fast of the day of `Ashura, [I consider it to] expiate the sins of the preceding year.” [Muslim, Ahmad, Abu Dawud and Ibn Khuzaymah] [3]

9. Ibn `Abbas (radi Allahu anhumA) narrated that when the Messenger of Allah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) fasted on the day of `Ashuraand commanded that it be observed as a fast, they (his Companions) said to him: “Messenger of Allah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam), it is a day which the Jews and Christians hold in high esteem.” Thereupon the Messenger of Allah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said: “When the next year comes, Allah willing, we will observe fast on the ninth.” The Messenger of Allah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) died before the advent of the next year. [Muslim, Ahmad, Abu Dawud and Ibn MAjah] [4]

10. Abu MusA (radi Allahu anhu) narrated that the people of Khaybar, [most of whom were Jews] observed the fast on the day of `Ashuraand treated it as a festive day. Their women would wear ornaments and beautiful dresses. The Messenger of Allah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said: “You (only) observe fast on this day.” [Muslim]

Some Weak Ahadith Regarding `Ashura

1. Ibn `Abbas (radi Allahu anhumA) narrated that the Messenger of Allah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said: “Fast on the day of `Ashuraand differ from the Jews; fast a day before it or a day after it.” [Weak] [Ahmad, Ibn Khuzaymah, al-Humaydi, at-TahAwi in Ma’Ani al-AthAr, al-BazzAr, Ibn `Adi in al-KAmil, al-Bayhaqi in al-Kubra and ash-Shu`ab] [5]

2. Ibn ‘Abbas (radi Allahu anhumA) reports that the Messenger of Allah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said: “He who fasts on the day of `Arafah, his fast will be a compensation for the sins of two years, and he who fast in the month of Muharram will receive the reward of thirty fasts for each fast.” [Fabricated] [aṭ-TabrAni in as-Saghir] [6]

3. Abu Hurayrah (radi Allahu anhu) and others narrate: “One who increases [his spending] on his family on`Ashura, Allah will increase it for him throughout the year.” [Weak] [Al-Bayhaqi in ash-Shu`ab, al-Uqayli in ad-Ḍu'afA, Ibn `Adi in al-KAmil, Ibn al-Jawzi in al-Illal and others] [7]

The Innovation (Bid`ah) of Commemorating `Ashuraas a Day of Mourning

On the 10th of Muharram (the day of `Ashura), in the year 61 A.H. the Prophet’s (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) beloved grandson al-Husayn b. `Ali b. Abi TAlib (radi Allahu anhumA) was martyred. Undoubtedly the murder of the grandson of the Messenger of Allah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) was a sad day in Islamic history. However, he was not the first to be martyred; rather, he was preceded by many great companions who were also killed unjustly, including `Umar, UthmAn, al-Husayn’s own father, `Ali b. Abi TAlib and his brother al-Hassan (radi Allahu anhuma).

After the death of Ali b. Abi TAlib (radi Allahu anhu), some of the companions pledged allegiance to al-Hasan (radi Allahu anhu), regarding whom the Messenger of Allah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said: “This son of mine is a chief, and Allah will make peace between two large groups of Muslims through him.” [al-BukhAri].

After a short period he was also martyred, and some tribes wrote to his brother al-Husayn (radi Allahu anhu) promising him support and allegiance if he was to come to them at Kufa. Ibn `Abbas and Ibn `Umar (radi Allahu anhumA) both advised al-Husayn against accepting their invitation, as they felt that the people inviting him were treacherous and untrustworthy.

Al-Husayn (radi Allahu anhu) relying on the words of the Kufans set out for the city with his family and followers. On the way he was deserted by his followers and betrayed by the Kufans. Consequently, he was left with a small band consisting of his family members and friends (a total of 72 people) in the middle of the sandy desert of Karbala fighting against the governor of Kufa, `Ubayd Allah b. ZiyAd, and his troops of more than 4000 men. The entire group was massacred on the 10th of Muharram.

It was after this incident that the Shi’ites, who considered Al-Husayn (radi Allahu anhu) as the third Imam and rightful successor of the Prophet, began to take this day as a day of grief and sadness, mourning the fact that they were not present at the battle to fight and save al-Husayn and his family.

Ibn Taymiyyah writes: “SAtan took the opportunity with the death of al-Husayn (radi Allahu anhu) to introduce two innovations: the innovation of showing sadness and mourning on the day of `Ashuraby slapping, screaming, crying and lamenting, and (the innovation of) cursing the ṢahAbas (companions of the Prophet).”

He then reminds the reader that wailing and excessive mourning over past calamities was clearly prohibited by Allah and His Messenger.

Allah (subhAnahu wa ta’AlA) says in the Qur`An:

“We will try you with fear and hunger, and loss of wealth and lives, and fruits; but give glad tidings to those who are patient. Who, when a misfortune overtakes them, say: `To Allah we belong and to Him we shall return.’ It is these on whom descend blessings and mercy from their Lord, and it is they who are rightly guided.” [Surah al-Baqarah: 155-157]

Also the Messenger of Allah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said: “He who slaps his cheeks, tears his clothes and follows the ways and traditions of the Days of Ignorance is not one of us.” [al-BukhAri]

In another hadith the Messenger of Allah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said: “There are four characteristics among my people that belong to the pre-Islamic (jAhiliyyah) period which they have not abandoned: boasting of high rank, reviling other peoples’ genealogies, seeking rain by stars, and wailing.” He (further) said: “If the wailing woman does not repent before she dies, she will be made to stand on the Day of Resurrection wearing a garment of brass and an armor of mange.” [Muslim]

The Shi’ites—in addition to public processions of ceremonial chest beating, wailing, injuring oneself and cursing Abu Bakr, `Umar (radiyAllahu anhumA) and the rest of the companions—avoid all manifestations of joy during this month. They refrain from eating meat and avoid getting married or wearing new clothes during this month and especially during this day. Images of men and small boys slashing themselves with razors or knives, allowing their blood to run freely over their bodies is common among some of the extreme Shi’ites. Others, recognizing the gruesome nature of this act, have opted out of self mutilation and resorted to donating their blood. Many Shi’ites believe that taking part in these mourning rituals absolves them from their sin. A popular Shi’ites saying says, “A single tear shed for al-Husayn washes away a hundred sins!”

The Innovation of Showing Joy and Happiness During This Day

To counteract the extreme position of the Shi`ites, another extreme group called  “the NawAsib” took this day as a day of happiness. The NawAsibs, which consisted mainly of the KhawArij, held animosity against al-Husayn (radi Allahu anhu) and the Ahle al-Bayt. They celebrated this day by wearing new clothes, cooking special food and spending extra money on their family.

The first sign of the appearance of the KhawArij was during the lifetime of the Messenger of Allah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam).

Abu Sa`id al-Khudri (radi Allahu anhu) narrated: “We were in the company of the Messenger of Allah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) while he was distributing the spoils of war; there came to him Dhul-Khuwaysarah, from the tribe of Tamim. and said: ‘Messenger of Allah, do justice!’ Upon this the Prophet (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said: ‘Woe to you, Who would do justice, if I do not do justice? You would be unsuccessful and incur a loss, if I do not do justice.’ Upon this `Umar ibn KhattAb (radi Allahu anhu) said: ‘Messenger of Allah, permit me to strike off his neck.’ The Messenger of Allah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said: ‘Leave him; he has companions [who would outwardly look to be so religious and pious] that one of you would consider his  prayer insignificant when compared to their prayer, and his fast [insignificant when] compared to their fasts. They would recite the Qur`An but it would not go beyond their collar-bones. They would pass through Islam just as an arrow passes through its prey. He would look at its iron head, but would not find anything there. He would then see at the lowest end, but would not find anything there. He would then see at its grip but there too he would not find anything. He would then look at its feathers and would find nothing stick to them [as the arrow would pass so quickly that nothing would stick to it] neither excrement nor blood. They would be recognized by the presence of a black man among them whose upper arms would be like a woman’s breast, or like a piece of meat as it quivers, and they would come forth at the time when there is dissension among the people.’”

Abu Sa`id (radi Allahu anhu) said: “I testify to the fact that I heard it from the Messenger of Allah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam), and I testify to the fact that `Ali b. Abi TAlib (radi Allahu anhu) fought against them and I was with him. He gave the orders for that man and he was sought for; when he was brought, I looked at him and he was exactly as the Messenger of Allah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) had described.” [Muslim]

The Shi`ites and the KhawArij opposed each other by introducing an innovation in the religion. So while one group lamented and mourned on this day the other group celebrated and made it a day of happiness.

As for the Ahl as-Sunnah they oppose both of these groups, neither making it a day of celebration nor a day of mourning. This is the established practice of the companions and the pious predecessors, including the four Imams: Imam Abu Hanifah, Imam Malik, Imam ash-Shafi’i and Imam Ahmad (May Allah be pleased with them all).

The Messenger of Allah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said: “You must follow my sunnah and the sunnah of the rightly-guided caliphs. Hold on to it and stick fast to it. Avoid newly invented matters [in the religion], for every newly invented matter is an innovation, and every innovation is a misguidance.” [Abu Dawud, Ahmad and at-Tirmidhi]

Ibn Taymiyyah writes in his FAtawA:

“As for cooking special foods, wearing new clothes, applying kohl, spending extra money on the children, doing special prayers, having a special bath…all of this is a wretched innovation (bid`ah) which the Messenger of Allah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) never practiced nor did the rightly guided caliphs, and neither was it recommended by any of the great Imams such as, Malik, at-Thawri, al-Layth b. SAd, Abu Hanifah, al-AwzAi, ash-ShAfi’i, Ahmad b. Hambal, IshAq b. RAhuyeh (may Allah be pleased with them all), nor by other such scholars. Rather some of the later followers started to instruct in some of these things and claimed that there were some authentic ahadith supporting their view. But these people are clearly mistaken and are in error according to the people of knowledge.

Imam Ahmad was asked about the hadith: “One should spend on his family on the day of `Ashura” and regarded it as unauthentic.

In fact the best narration they have is what is reported from Ibrahim b. Muhammad b. al-Muntashir from his father that he said: “It reached us that one who increases (his spending) on his family on [the day of]`Ashura, Allah will increase it for him throughout the year.” SufyAn b. ‘Uyaiynah said: “Ibrahim b. Muhammad was from Kufa and he did not mention from whom he heard it or how it reached him. It is most likely that the one who related this [to him] was someone from the people of Bid`ah who hates the companions and wants to oppose the Rafidhah with lies. So they oppose corruption with corruption and an innovation with an innovation.” [8]

To conclude, what is clearly established from the Sunnah is the fasting on the 9th and 10th of Muharram. As for mourning, displaying sadness, or celebrating by making special foods, wearing new clothes, etc. then it is all innovations.

Finally, I leave you with the statement of Imam Malik: “He who introduces an innovation (Bid’ah) in Islam, regarding it as something good has claimed that Muhammad (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) has betrayed his trust to deliver the message. As Allah says: ‘Today have I completed your Din (religion)’ Whatever was not part of the Din during the time of the Prophet cannot be considered as part of the Din today.” [al-I`tisam, ash-Shaṭibi]

He also said: “Nothing will benefit the later ones from this Ummah, except that which benefited the earlier ones (i.e., the companions).” [Ibn Taymiyyah, al-Qa'idah al-Jalilah]

Allah knows best.

May the Peace and blessings be upon our beloved Prophet Muhammad (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam), his family, and his companions.

End Notes:

[1] See Ibn al-Qayyim, Zad al-Ma’ad, Volume two, page 68, Mu`assasah al-Risalah, 1424 A.H.

[2] Imam Ahmad reported a similar hadith on the authority of Abu Hurayrah with the additional words: “On this day the ship [of Noah] settled on [Mount] al-Judi.” This is a weak narration due to the presence of `Abd as-Ṣamad b. Habib, who is weak, and Habib b. `Abd Allah, who is unknown. Ibn Kathir in his Tafsir (2/448) stated that this was a strange report.

[3] The predominant view among the scholars is that it expiates minor sins, as for major sins, repentance is required. This was explicitly expressed by an-Nawawi in al-Majmu` (6/382) and Ibn Taymiyyah in al-Fatawa al-Kubra (4/428)

[4] Imam an-Nawawi in his commentary to this hadith writes: “This is a clear statement from Ibn `Abbas that according to him `Ashurais on the ninth of Muharram…The majority of early and later scholars are of the opinion that `Ashurais on the tenth of Muharram. From those who held this view are: Sa`id b. al-Musayyib, al-Hassan al-Basri, Malik, IshAq and others. This is the apparent meaning of the hadith, and the proper understanding of the word.”

Ibn al-Qayyim was of the view that Ibn `Abbas did not differ on this issue and had only told the questioner to fast the ninth, since it was already assumed that he would be fasting the tenth. (Zad al-Ma’ad 2/75)

[5] This hadith has been graded weak by numerous scholars. Ash-Shawkani said: “This report in Ahmad via Dawud b. `Ali from his father from his grandfather was narrated by Ibn Abi Layla and therefore is weak and rejected (munkar).”

Muhammad b. Abi Layla is known to have an awful memory and was graded weak by Ahmad, Ibn Ma`in, and others. See: Tahdhib al-Kamal(25/622) and Mizan al-I`tidAl (3/No. 7825). Likewise, Dawud b. `Ali, is also weak. Ad-Dhahabi writes in al-MizAn (2/13): “He is not an authority.”

Al-Bazzar writes: “The hadith is reported from ibn `Abbas (radi Allahu anhu) with different wordings. We do not know anyone narrating: “Fast a day before it or a day after it,” except Dawud b. `Ali from his father from Ibn Abbas from the Prophet (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam).

`Ata and others reported from Ibn ‘Abbas as a saying of his (Mawquf) with a different wording.

On the authority of ibn Jurayj, who was informed by Ata from ibn Abbas who said: “Fast the ninth and the tenth and differ from the Jews.” (`Abd ar-Razzak (7839), al-Bayhaqi (4/287) and aṭ-Tahawi in Sharh Ma`ani al-Athar (2/78).

Ibn Rajab graded this narration authentic. (al-LaṭA’if, pg. 108)

Ibn Hajr, Ibn al-Qayyim, al-Mubarakpuri and others, who deemed the hadith in Ahmad as acceptable, mentioned three levels of fasting during these days:

1. Fasting on the 9th/10th and 11th. (This being the best form)

2. Fasting on the 9th and 10th.

3. Fasting on the 10th only.

According to the Hanafi School fasting just on the tenth is disliked (makruh) and this was also the opinion of Ibn `Abbas (radiyAllahu anhu) and Imam Ahmad (Iqtida’ as-Ṣiraṭ al-Mustaqim 1/420). Ibn Taymiyyah was of the view that it was not makruh (al-FAtawa al-Kubra 4/461).

[6] There are several problems with this chain. Ad-Dhahabi accused al-Haytham b. Habib, one of the narrators, of falsehood. As for SalAm aṭ-Tawil, he is well known among the hadith scholars for fabricating ahadith. Ibn Karras said: “He is a liar.” Ibn Hibban said: “He narrates fabrications from trustworthy people.” Al-Hakim said: “He narrates fabricated ahadith.” Additionally, Layth b. Abi Salim, another narrator in the chain, is also weak. From a textual point of view there is another problem, one of the narrations mentioned by aṭ-Tabarani in his al-Kabir, with the same chain, ends with “or every day he has thirty blessings.” instead of “thirty days”.

[7] Al-Bayhaqi argued that although the hadith is weak it can be strengthened by supporting channels. This claim is true if all the channels are only slightly weak, but a study of the channels, demonstrate that they are extremely weak and cannot be strengthened by one another. All of the channels have individuals either accused of fabricating or known to be extremely weak. It is for this reason that, ad-DAraqutni, ad-Dhahabi, Ibn Taymiyyah, al-Haythami and others regarded this hadith as weak. Ibn al-Jawzi regarded it as a fabrication.

[8] Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmu`ah al-FAtawa, Volume 13, page 169, Dar al-WafA, 1426 A.H.

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