Muharram, a commemoration of Islamic awakening and revival
By: Salam Al-Attar

Similar to other existing calendars, the Islamic calendar is also composed of 12 months (Figure 1). The uniqueness of this calendar lies in two inherent facts:

  1. It is based on a lunar system; and
  2. Its root year is that in which Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) conducted his famous Hijrah (migration) from the city of Mecca to Medina, which coincided with the year 622 CE.

The first month of the Islamic calendar (which is also called the Hijri calendar), is Muharram. Since it is a lunar month, Muharram, along with other months of the Islamic calendar, moves annually coinciding with different days and months of the Georgian calendar. The word “Muharram” is derived from the word “haram”, meaning “unlawful,” and it is named so because this month is one of four months in which fighting is prohibited, based on the common pre-Islamic traditions in the Arabian Peninsula.












Figure 1. Islamic (Hijri) calendar

With the onset of this sacred month comes to memory a very striking and valiant event in history, Islamic history in particular. The significance of this event runs on various levels, and its impact on Muslims, as well as non-Muslims, resonates from the time of its occurrence to this very day.

As is the situation with every Prophet, people of the time have to endure a great deal of trials and tribulations. Believers in the message, starting with and including the Prophet himself, are affected the most by brewing hardships and are subjected to oppression and cruelty by the non-believers who had fallen into polytheism and idolatry.

Take for instance the father of the Prophets himself, Ibrahim (pbuh), and his encounter with Nimrod, the ruler of Babylon. While everyone prayed and devoted their worship to figures of wood, stone and clay made by their very hands, Ibrahim stood firmly with his belief in one God, the unseen Omnipotent being behind the great creation. With that stance, he was faced with ridicule and was even thrown in the fire as a consequence of his confrontation with the non-believers and the destruction of their idols. Nonetheless, with the mercy of Allah (swt) Ibrahim was saved, and he was granted a pious progeny, one from which the Almighty (with His divine will and wisdom) selected numerous succeeding Prophets for centuries to come. This pure lineage of prophetic progeny is that of Prophets Ismail and Ishaaq.

Despite divine guidance, there is always room to err and stray away from the “straight path.” In addition to the hardships facing the believers externally, history testifies that internal conflicts and trials often took place, resulting in the misguidance of people. A classic example demonstrating this is that of the people of Moses. Despite being victimized under the ruthless regime of the Pharaoh, guided by Moses (pbuh) and crossing the sea, which with the might and will of God the Almighty, was split before their own eyes, they reverted to their traditions of disbelief and idolatry.

O God, bless Muhammad and the People of the House of Muhammad, as you have blessed Ibrahim and the People of the House of Ibrahim amongst all beings, for you are the All praise-worthy, the All Glorious.

The coming of the final messenger to humanity, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), similarly posed a multitude of tests upon the believers and non-believers of the time, and for many years to come. With the passing away of the Prophet (pbuh) on the 12th of Rabi’ al-Awwal (Third Islamic month) in the year 10 Hijri (632 CE), the Muslims faced much confusion due to certain fundamental factors that are beyond the scope of this article. The state in which people were in can be summarized by verse 44 of chapter 3 (Aali Imraan) of the Quran:

وَمَا مُحَمَّدٌ إِلاَّ رَسُولٌ قَدْ خَلَتْ مِن قَبْلِهِ الرُّسُلُ أَفَإِن مَّاتَ أَوْ قُتِلَ انقَلَبْتُمْ عَلَى أَعْقَابِكُمْ وَمَن يَنقَلِبْ عَلَىَ عَقِبَيْهِ فَلَن يَضُرَّ اللّهَ شَيْئًا وَسَيَجْزِي اللّهُ الشَّاكِرِينَ
“Muhammad is no more than a messenger; many were the messengers that passed away before him. If he died or were slain, will ye then turn back on your heels? If any did turn back on his heels, not the least harm will he do to Allah; but Allah (on the other hand) will swiftly reward those who (serve Him) with gratitude.”

Amongst the people who worked incessantly to revive the calling to worship God, with no other associates, and maintain the correct traditions of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) were the people of the Household (“Ahlul Bayt” as entitled in Arabic) of the Prophet. According to Sahih al-Tirmidhi, and numerous other sources, the definition of Ahlul Bayt أَهْلَ الْبَيْتِ includes five individuals: Prophet Muhammad, his daughter Fatimah, cousin and son in law Imam Ali, and their sons Hasan and Husain (See footnote for narration details). (The Quran, 33:33)

إِنَّمَا يُرِيدُ اللَّهُ لِيُذْهِبَ عَنكُمُ الرِّجْسَ أَهْلَ الْبَيْتِ وَيُطَهِّرَكُمْ تَطْهِيرًا
“Verily Allah intends to keep off from you every kind of uncleanness O’ People of the House (Ahlul-Bayt), and purify you a thorough purification”

This call to duty (which the People of the Household and companions of the Prophet’s strived to maintain) brought about much hardship for them, and many of them were martyred by the corrupt powers of their time, who concurrently labeled themselves as “Muslims.” The greatest stance of faith witnessed in Islamic history, one of justice versus injustice, was demonstrated in Karbala under the leadership of the 57 year old Imam Husain (as), the grandson of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).

On the tenth day of Muharram, year 61 Hijri (685 CE), on the hot desert plains of Karbala (small city south of Baghdad, the capital of Iraq), a group of 73 noble Muslims were massacred by an army of 5,000 (some say 30,000). The victims of this battle, commonly referred to as the Battle of Karbala or the Tragedy of Karbala, were noble followers of the message of Islam, the same message that the perpetrators of this massacre, and their leader Yazid son of Mu’awiya, claimed to follow. Despite these people having clear knowledge of Imam Husain’s status in the eyes of God as taught by the Quran and as emphasized by the Prophet’s commonly uttered narrations portraying his love to the People of the Household and Husain in specific:

“Husain is from me and I am from Husain, loved by God is he who loves Husain,”


“Hasan and Husain are the Masters of the Youth of Paradise.”

The revolution of Imam Husain against Yazid had one main purpose: to keep alive the message and practice of the Prophet’s traditions (“Sunnah” in Arabic), taking a courageous stand against oppression in general, and the ruthless and brutal oppressors of the time in specific who used their self-appointed religious hierarchies to monopolize the State of Islam. It is in gratitude to the martyrs of Karbala and people who took a similar righteous stance thereafter, that we are privileged today to learn about religion the way we do, because the waves of ignorance and injustice aimed endlessly to eradicate the call to God the Almighty.

Contrary to stereotypical beliefs, the event of the 10th of Muharram, commonly termed “Ashura’” in Arabic, is one that belongs to every Muslim believer, of every age, every nationality, and every school of thought. It is an event that reminds the believers to “witness the truth, even if it is against them.” In this case, Muslims are also reminded of the human weakness of falling for injustice and ignorance, in spite of the clarity of the truth and messages calling towards it. During Ashura’, Muslims commemorate the sacrifice of these blessed martyrs through their prayers on their pure souls, others through fasting the entire day/part of the day and by remembering these shining personalities through their warm tears.

Those who give themselves the chance to fully understand the tragedy of Karbala and the stance of honor that Imam Husain (as) chose to leave his final footprint on this earth with, cannot escape the vivid lessons resonating from the plains of Karbala.

In short, the lessons of Ashura’ are threefold:

  1. to stand for justice and peace from infancy to the grave;
  2. to seek and witness the truth, even when it is against you and irrespective of all consequences; and
  3. to stand firmly against oppressors and to never kneel down before anyone.

Imam Husain and the brave martyrs of Karbala left this world and behind them their battle armor, which they symbolically advised every believer to utilize. The sword they left us with is Knowledge of the Truth, the shield that they advised us to wear is Faith in the Almighty, and the water that they advised the believers to seek for quenching their thirst is none other than the continual burning desire to meet our Lord with the purest of hearts and to be amongst the Prophets and Masters of Paradise in the Day of Judgment.

Sahih al-Tirmidhi, the “Tradition of the Cloak” (v5, pp 351,663). Narrated in the authority of Omar Ibn Abi Salama, the son of Umm Salama (one of the Prophet’s wives), who narrates on the revelation of verse 33 of Chapter 33 of the Quran, whose revelation to the Prophet (pbuh) took place in the house of Umm Salama (as).
Upon the revelation, the Prophet gathered Fatima, al-Hasan, and al-Husain (as), and covered them with a cloak, with which he also covered Ali (as) who was behind him. Then the Prophet said: “O’ Allah! These are the Members of my House (Ahlul Bayt). Keep them away from every impurity and purify them with a perfect purification.” Umm Salama then asked: “Am I also included among them O Apostle of Allah?” the Prophet replied: “You remain in your position and you are toward a good ending.”