Islamic History

What is the Significance of Muharram?

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Tariq Mahmood, Toronto, Canada

Peer backwards in time: you will find our ancient ancestors living their simplistic lives in huts or houses. Scattered around the world, their cultures and customs couldn’t be more different. But among the contrariety lies a commonality: they knew time was of the essence, and developed robust systems to track the days, weeks, and months as they passed by.

The Arabs were no different: they too divided their year into 12 months, and they too peered into the heavens to track their lives on Earth. The Holy Quran confirms that this 12-month cycle is by the design of Allah, as the Quran states:

The reckoning of months with Allah has been twelve months by Allah’s ordinance since the day when He created the heavens and the earth. Of these, four are sacred.[1]

Thus, when Islam defined the roles each of these months played, the very same spiritually destitute Arabs suddenly rose to great heights. Each month brought about a revolution in them, designed by Allah the Almighty.

This revolution continues to this day. As the Islamic Hijri Calendar is intrinsically tied with Islam, Muslims around the world carefully craft their lives in accordance with significant dates and months.

Muharram: The Muslim January

Each year begins the same: with the month of Muharram.

Muslims follow the Islamic Hijri Calendar, whose inception is marked by the migration of the Holy Prophet (sa) from Makkah to Madinah. That migration is now 1,444 years old, or about 40 generations. The significance of this month is hinted at in the name itself.

What Does Muharram Mean?

Muharram literally means ‘forbidden’. This is because Muharram was a month in which hostilities were forbidden, along with three other months, namely Rajab (the 7th month), Dhu al-Qadah (the 11th month) and Dhu al-Hijjah (the 12th month).

The Arabs believed that these 3 successive months were meant for pilgrimage to the Ka’bah, which they too believed to be the Sacred House of Allah. Thus, in order for pilgrims to peacefully travel and perform their due rites, Arabs had forbidden warfare.

Regarding this, the Second Caliph of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmood Ahmad (ra) states:

‘All manner of fighting must cease during the four Sacred Months. As pilgrims have to travel to and from Makkah during these months, not only are pilgrims and animals of sacrifice not to be molested on the way, but all hostilities must cease and there should be perfect peace so that pilgrims may perform both their inward and outward journeys in complete security.’[2]

The Day of Ashura

Muharram also contains the Day of Ashura. On this day, the Muslims were commanded to fast by the Holy Prophet (sa) prior to the commandment of fasting in Ramadan. Fasting on this day was also a practice of the Jewish people of Madina. The Holy Prophet (sa) himself explains the reason for the sanctity of this day:

Hazrat Ibn Abbas (ra) relates, ‘When the Prophet (sa) arrived at Madinah, the Jews were observing the fast on Ashura (10th of Muharram) and they said, “This is the day when Moses (as) became victorious over Pharaoh,” Upon that, the Prophet (sa) said to his companions, “You (Muslims) have more right to celebrate Moses’ victory than they have, so observe the fast on this day.”’[3]

Thus, Muslims also fasted to remember Allah and thank him for the victory of Moses (as) over Pharoah, a great triumph of Allah’s will over oppression and malice.

Later on, however, Allah the Almighty commanded the Muslims to observe fasting throughout the month of Ramadan. This law was codified in the Holy Qur’an, and thus became an invariable part of Islam. As such, Hazrat Ibn Umar (ra) elucidates:

‘The Prophet (sa) observed the fast on the 10th of Muharram (Ashura) and ordered (Muslims) to fast on that day, but when the fasting of the month of Ramadan was prescribed, the fasting of the Ashura was abandoned.’[4]

In reality, the fasting of Ashura was not abandoned, but rather the obligation was abandoned. The Holy Prophet (sa) however, still gave this day a tremendous amount of importance, as he states:

‘The most virtuous fasting after the month of Ramadan is that of Allah’s month of Al-Muharram.’[5]

The Holy Prophet (sa) had such reverence for this month, that even in the last year of his life, he stated that if he were to be alive next year, he would yet again observe the fast of Ashura.

This desire truly illustrates the significance of the Day of Ashura, demonstrating that even the holiest man on earth waited for this day to return so he could partake of its blessings once more.

The Martyrdom of Hazrat Imam Husain (ra)

Islamic history bears testament to the Day of Ashura as a period of mourning as well. After the assassination of the Fourth Caliph of Islam, Hazrat Ali (ra), Hazrat Amir Mu’awiyah (ra) became king of the Islamic Empire.

It is worthy of mention that there is a clear distinction of Hazrat Ali (ra), a guided Caliph whose rule was based upon the precepts of prophethood. Hazrat Ali (ra) was the fourth and last of the rightly guided Caliphs, the first three being Hazrat Abu Bakr (ra), Hazrat Umar (ra), and Hazrat Uthman (ra).

After Hazrat Ali’s (ra) death, the rightly guided Caliphate ended, because the Muslims did not elect the next ruler to be their Caliph. Secondly, Hazrat Amir Mu’awiyah (ra) gained his leadership after falling into error by choosing to engage in war with Hazrat Ali (ra) during his lifetime.

Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmad (ra), the Second Caliph of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community conclusively states:

‘Hazrat Mu’awiyah (ra) himself was not elected and when his own Khilafat is not proved, how can the Khilafat of his son be proved. We are ready to admit Yazid as successor of Muawiyah (ra), but we cannot call him a Khalifah. When the Khilafat of Mu’awiyah (ra) is not proved then how can that of his son be proved? As Mu’awiyah (ra) was a temporal king, we can admit Yazid to also be a temporal king. But neither Mu’awiyah (ra) was the Khalifah nor was his son.’[6]

During Hazrat Amir Mu’awiyah (ra) rule, Hazrat Hasan (ra) (the Holy Prophet’s (sa) grandson) made an agreement with Hazrat Amir Mu’awiyah (ra) that after his rule, the Muslims would be able to decide their own leader for themselves. A short while after this agreement, Hazrat Hasan (ra) passed away.

Afterwards however, Hazrat Amir Mu’awiyah (ra) instructed his son Yazid to inherit the throne when he would pass away. Thus, Yazid became the leader of the Muslims after the death of Hazrat Amir Mu’awiyah (ra).

Hazrat Husain (ra), the other grandson of the Holy Prophet (sa) rejected the kingship of Yazid immediately, and soon began travelling with his family members and some close followers to Kufah, a city in present-day Iraq.

This rejection was not rooted in disobedience or rebellion; rather, many companions did not take the pledge of allegiance, considering the kingship of Yazid to be a mockery. Thus, it was completely justified for Hazrat Husain (ra) to reject allegiance to a tyrant. Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmad (ra) states:

‘If Mu’awiyah (ra) had not presented the case of Yazid before the people in his presence, and later on, the people had elected him, we could have called him an elected king. But now we can neither call him Khalifah nor an elected king.’[7]

Hazrat Imam Husain (ra) attempted to maintain peace with the government, telling the soldiers that he did not want war. He asked to be sent back so that he could pray, or perhaps be sent into battle on the border so that he could be martyred. If not these two, he asked to at least meet Yazid so that he could try to make him see reason.

Yazid had already ordered his capture however, and his army cornered Hazrat Imam Husain (ra) with his small band near the Euphrates River. Thus, there remained no option for him and his small party other than to fight.

Arrows were hurled at this beloved grandson of the Holy Prophet (sa). According to narrations, Hazrat Imam Husain (ra) had 45 arrow wounds on his body, in addition to spear and sword wounds. He embraced martyrdom on the 10th of Muharram.

The callous and cold-blooded soldiers then used their horses to stamp and trample the body. In their extreme barbarism and brutality, they cut off the head of the beloved grandson of the Holy Prophet (sa) and sent it to the governor of Kufah.

All of the 72 courageous warriors were martyred at the hands of Yazid’s 4,000 soldiers. These barbaric individuals couldn’t even bring themselves to spare the other family members of the Holy Prophet (sa), and by the time the two armies had fought, 20 members of the family of the Holy Prophet (sa) had been martyred.

The tragedy of this day emanates in the minds of all Muslims. The very same grandson who climbed on the back of the Prophet (sa) while he prayed, who would walk the streets of Madinah as a child, interacting with the companions of the Holy Prophet (sa), it was this grandson who was mercilessly martyred. History bears witness to the tragedy of Karbala.

This oppression and its subsequent martyrdom have become synonymous with the month of Muharram worldwide. Each year, Muslims mourn the death of the grandson of the Holy Prophet (sa). Thus, Muharram has also become a month of remembrance, when the innocent blood of the grandson of the Holy Prophet (sa) was spilled.

What Muharram Teaches Us

Many of our fellow human beings around the world find new ways to better themselves every single year. For some, religious celebrations evoke a desire to be better, and for others, the new year ushers in a somewhat fitting reset.

Goals are made and efforts begin anew.

Muharram too offers us the opportunity to better ourselves in every facet of our lives. It strives to advance our spirituality and deepen our connection with Allah through prayer. It provides an escape from our corporeal lives, helping us transcend our carnal selves through fasting.

It also serves as a reminder of the fickle state of this world, as Allah states:

‘All that is on it (earth) will pass away. And there will remain only the Person of thy Lord, Master of Glory and Honour.’[8]

The month of Muharram also educates us on what it means to stand in the face of tyranny and oppression. As chaos cascades from all parts of the world and injustice prevails, Muharram reminds us to uphold truth, justice, and decency, even if it be against an enemy much more powerful, and even if our lives must be sacrificed.

As we approach the month of Muharram, we must strive to bring about the changes that Allah desires for us. As others celebrate by beating their chests and holding processions, we too must celebrate, keeping in mind the essence of Hazrat Husain’s (ra) sacrifice. Regarding this, the Fifth Caliph of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (aba) states:

‘Thus, if the month of Muharram teaches us any lesson, it is that we should constantly send Durud (salutations) upon the Holy Prophet (sa) and his family.’[9]

It is with this reflection that Islam demands a reformation in the holy month of Muharram, so that righteousness, just like the year’s beginning, may be revitalised once more.

About the Author: Tariq Mahmood is a graduate of the Ahmadiyya Institute of Languages and Theology in Canada and serves as Secretary of The Existence Project Team for The Review of Religions


[1] The Holy Qur’an, 9:36.

[2] Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmood Ahmad (ra), The Five Volume Commentary of the Holy Qur’an, 5:3.

[3] Sahih al-Bukhari, The Book of Commentary, Chapter: And we took the Children of Israel…, Hadith 4680.

[4] Sahih al-Bukhari, The Book of Fasting, Chapter: Fasting is Obligatory in Ramadan, Hadith 1892.

[5] Jami’ al-Tirmidhi, The Book of Prayer, Chapter: What is Stated About Fasting at Night, Hadith 438.

[6] Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmood Ahmad (ra), Khilafat-e-Rashidah, pp. 189-190.

[7] Ibid., 191.

[8] The Holy Qur’an, 55:27-28.

[9] Friday Sermon, December 10, 2010.