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Peter Chelkowski
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam


The tenth day of the Muslim month of Muḥarram, ʿĀshūrāʿ had been considered by early Muslims to be an auspicious and joyous day, as many important and happy events, such as the landing of Noah's ark, occurred on that date. This perception was suddenly altered on ʿĀshūrāʿ in the year 680 (61 AH) when Ḥusayn, the beloved grandson of the prophet Muḥammad and third imam of the Shīʿīs, was brutally killed in the Battle of Karbala. The tragic death of Ḥusayn on ʿĀshūrāʿ is viewed by the Shīʿīs as the greatest act of suffering and redemption in history. For the Shīʿīs it has transcended history and become metahistory, acquiring cosmic proportions. This places the ʿĀshūrāʿ passion of the imam Ḥusayn at a time that is “no time” and in a space that is “no space.” In any Shīʿī community that regards itself as deprived, humiliated, and abused, that event of thirteen hundred years ago is looked upon as if it were taking place now.

Vali Nasr writes (Shia Revival, p. 31):

"Every year on the tenth day of the holy month of Muharram, the first of the Islamic lunar calendar, Shia Muslims show a distinctive face of Islam, one that sees spirituality in passion and rituals rather than in law and the familiar practices that punctuate Muslim lives. Open spaces and narrow alleys in cities, towns, and villages take over from mosques and seminaries as Shias individually and collectively make a show of their piety and their identity. No observer of this day, the festival of Ashoura, will remain unaffected by the Shias’ display of fealty to their faith. None will fail to see the uniqueness of Shia Islam or the values and spirituality that define it."

He says further (p. 36) that, “Ashoura is a time of commemoration and penance for the vices and errors of humanity.” The timeless quality of this tragedy allows Shīʿī communities to measure themselves against the example of Ḥusayn in the fight against contemporary injustice, tyranny, or oppression. By doing so, they hope to be considered worthy of the sacrifice of the Prince of Martyrs (Ḥusayn). A pervasive slogan of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the long, bloody defensive war against Iraq (1980–1988)—chanted by the crowds, scribbled in graffiti, intoned on radio and television, and depicted on posters and postage stamps—was “Every day is ʿĀshūrāʿ; every place is Karbala; every month is Muḥarram.”

The commemoration of Imam Ḥusayn's passion and martyrdom is charged with unusual emotions throughout the world's Shīʿī communities. Even the Sunnīs and the members of other religions that live among the Shīʿīs are greatly affected by these commemorative rituals. The belief that participation in the annual observance of Ḥusayn's suffering and death is an aid to salvation on the Day of Judgment is an additional incentive to engage in the many mourning rituals. In the words of Nobel laureate Elias Canetti, the suffering of Ḥusayn on ʿĀshūrāʿ and its commemoration “becomes the very core of the Shīʿī faith … a religion of lament more concentrated and more extreme than any to be found elsewhere. … No faith has ever laid greater emphasis on lament. It is the highest religious duty, and many times more meritorious than any other good work” (1978, pp. 146, 153).


Simple ʿĀshūrāʿ observances started soon after Husayn's death. In 680, a detachment of penitent warriors with blackened faces smote their chests and shed tears on Husayn's tomb. Elaborate ʿĀshūrāʿ observances were being carried out in Baghdad during the reign of Muʿizz al-Dawlah of the Shīʿī Būyid dynasty (932–1055)—bazaars closed, men walked around the city weeping, wailing, and striking their heads while dressed in torn black clothing, and women appeared on the streets disheveled (Ibn Kathīr, Al-bidāyah wa-al-nihāyah [The Beginning and the End], Cairo, 1977, vol. 11, p. 243). Many ʿĀshūrāʿ rituals are still developing in various Shīʿī communities, and although they might differ in form, passionate participation is common to all of them. These rituals are either ambulatory or stationary, and they are performed primarily during the first ten days of Muḥarram; the greatest display of emotion and the most rituals occur on the day of ʿĀshūrāʿ itself. As a result of Iran's adoption of Shīʿī Islam as the state religion in the sixteenth century and the subsequent spread of Shiism and its popular beliefs throughout the country, Iran's observances have become the ne plus ultra of ʿĀshūrāʿ rites.

Iran and Southern Iraq.

Among the ambulatory ʿĀshūrāʿ rituals of Iran are processions as well as floats with live tableaux representing scenes from the Karbala tragedy. The participants are divided into groups of self-mortifiers: sīnahẕan, those that beat their chests with the palms of their hands; zanjīrẕan, those who beat their backs with chains; and shamshīrẕan, those who wound their foreheads with swords or knives. Some also mortify themselves with stones, and others carry the ʿalam, which represents the standard of Ḥusayn at Karbala. Nakhl (date palm trees), some of them huge, are carried in some processions, because Ḥusayn's beheaded corpse is believed to have been borne on a stretcher made of date-palm branches. Processions are accompanied by bands of martial and mournful music. The grandest processions, each unique to a particular district of a town or city, take place on ʿĀshūrāʿ itself.

To the stationary rituals belongs the rawz‥ah khvānī (recitation from the garden [of martyrs], popularly abbreviated to rawz‥ah), a recitation and singing of the story of Ḥusayn, his family, and followers at the bloody Battle of Karbala. The storyteller of the Shīʿī martyrology (rawz‥ah khvān) sits above the assembled crowd on a minbar (pulpit) in a black tent, under an awning, or in a special building called ḥusaynīyah or takīyah, and brings the audience to a state of frenzy with recitation, chanting, crying, sobbing, and body language. The term rawz‥ah khvānī is derived from the title of Rawḍat al-shuhadāʿ (Garden of the Martyrs), a book written in Persian but titled in Arabic by Ḥusayn Vāʿiẓ Kāshifī at the time when Shīʿī Islam was being imposed on the Iranians as the state religion by the Ṣafavid shahs in the early sixteenth century. The book and the performances portray Ḥusayn as a fighter for the Islamic ideal of social and political justice, who fought and sacrificed his life for the unprivileged, the oppressed, and the humiliated. It is an engaging prose narration with occasional verses of poetry. It has dominated popular Shīʿī literature and rituals in many countries for the last five hundred years and has been translated into many languages see RAWZ‥AH KHVāNī; and ḤUSAYNīYAH.

Pardah-dārī is another one-man show of visual and verbal narrative in which a storyteller carries a huge oil painting on a roll of canvas depicting scenes of the Battle of Karbala in a cartoon-strip-like series. As the storyteller arrives at each place he visits, he hangs up the painting, sings, and recites the story using a pointer to elucidate the scenes. The most famous stationary ritual of Iran, however, is the taʿzīyah, the only serious drama ever developed in the Islamic world, in which the martyrdom of Ḥusayn is performed on ʿĀshūrāʿ see TAʿZīYAH.

India and Pakistan.

On the Subcontinent, the ʿĀshūrāʿ rituals follow the Iranian patterns with some changes. The taʿzīyah as a dramatic theatrical form is not known there. The Shīʿī painting recitation is not performed. Sunnīs and even Hindus participate in many ʿĀshūrāʿ rituals. The Sunnīs even have separate rituals. The most characteristic features of ʿĀshūrāʿ commemoration on the Subcontinent are the huge artistic interpretations of Ḥusayn's mausoleum carried or wheeled in the ʿĀshūrāʿ procession. At the end of ʿĀshūrāʿ, these structures, called taʿzīyah, are either buried at the local cemetery, called “Karbala,” or immersed in water. The rawz‥ah khvānī type of commemoration of Ḥusayn's martyrdom, called majlis or majālis in India, is performed in the open or in special buildings called imāmbārah or ʿāshūrkhānah. The final night of ʿĀshūrāʿ is the most spectacular; colorful replicas of Ḥusayn's tomb called tajas, which stand up to fifteen and a half feet high, are paraded to the accompaniment of ṭāsah (kettledrum) and bass drum. In southern Iraq, the procession and the majlis are common features of the first ten days of Muḥarram, coming to a peak on ʿĀshūrāʿ itself.

During the rule of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, ʿĀshūrāʿ observances were restricted for political reasons. Since the American intervention in Iraq in 2003, there have been ʿĀshūrāʿ marches and processions every year in which hundreds of thousands of people participate. The ʿĀshūrāʿ observances seem more elaborate in those countries located at a greater distance from Karbala: this pattern of observances at the periphery being more spectacular than those at the center is common to many religions.

Many of the Indian ʿĀshūrāʿ rituals were introduced by Indian Muslims to the Caribbean basin in the first half of the nineteenth century. The ʿĀshūrāʿ observance there is called Hosay and goes on for three nights and one day. It is, after Carnival, the most important event in Trinidad today.

The Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War.

The ʿĀshūrāʿ processions also served as prototypes for the massive demonstrations in Tehran and other Iranian cities during the revolutionary upheavals of 1978–1979. The mixing of ʿAshūrāʿ mourning slogans with political ones is an old Muḥarram tradition. Iranian revolutionaries used the Ḥusayn/ʿĀshūrāʿ paradigm and carried out the revolution in accordance with the Shīʿī calendar. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's revolution started on the afternoon of ʿĀshūrāʿ, June, 5, 1963, when he delivered a speech at the Fayz‥īyah Madrasah in Qom in which he criticized the policies of the shah and his government. In the book Islamic Government, written in exile in Najaf, Khomeini writes, “Make Islam known to the people, then … create something akin to ʿĀshūrāʿ and create out of it a wave of protest against the state of the government” (1981, p. 131). A week before Muḥarram on November 23, 1978, in order to accelerate the revolution, Khomeini issued from Neauphle-le-Château, France, his declaration “Muḥarram: The Triumph of Blood Over the Sword,” which was taped and distributed in Iran through its network of mosques. The opening paragraph of the declaration states:With the approach of Muḥarram, we are about to begin the month of epic heroism and self-sacrifice—the month in which blood triumphed over the sword, the month in which truth condemned falsehood for all eternity and branded the mark of disgrace upon the forehead of all oppressors and satanic governments; the month that has taught successive generations throughout history the path of victory over the bayonet (1981, p. 242).Less than two months later, the shah left Iran, enabling Khomeini to return from fourteen years of exile.

When Iran was invaded by Iraq in the fall of 1980, the Ḥusayn/ʿĀshūrāʿ paradigm was invoked again. Many of the Iranian soldiers had slogans written on their helmets or uniforms: “The epic-makers of ʿĀshūrāʿ” or “ʿĀshūrāʿ is the epic of faith, the epic of blood.”

ʿĀshūrāʿ and the Arts in Iran.

The ʿĀshūrāʿ rituals in Iran are managed by the Dramatic Arts Center in Tehran which organizes festivals—the Ashoura Rites Meeting and the Razavi Theatre Festival—featuring the Shīʿī rituals and performing arts. The catalogues describing these festivals are richly illustrated and copiously annotated and suggest that the Shīʿī performing and visual arts are vibrant and well provided for in Iran.

In many countries, and especially in Lebanon, “ʿĀshūrāʿ” has become a generic term for the events and observances marking the death of Ḥusayn. See also KARBALA and MUḥARRAM.


  • Aghaie, Kamran Scot. The Martyrs of Karbala: Shiʿi Symbols and Rituals in Modern Iran. Seattle, 2004. Though this book is devoted primarily to Iran, it considers the importance of ʿĀshūrāʿ in Shīʿī daily life throughout the world. Taking a historical perspective, Aghaie focuses on the complexity of ʿĀshūrāʿ rituals and conveys to the reader the creative process of the rites as well as the aesthetics of popular veneration and the community spirit that produces both.
  • Aghaie, Kamran Scot, ed. The Women of Karbala: Ritual Performance and Symbolic Discourses in Modern Shiʿi Islam. Austin, Texas, 2005. This is the first book-length treatment of the gender dynamics of the Karbala narrative.
  • Alserat 12 (Spring–Autumn 1986). Proceedings of the Imam Ḥusayn Conference held in July 1984, London. This issue of the journal contains a wealth of information on ʿĀshūrāʿ.
  • Ayoub, Mahmoud. Redemptive Suffering in Islām: A Study of the Devotional Aspects of ʿĀshūrāʿ in Twelver Shīʿism. The Hague, 1978. The most important study of ʿĀshūrāʿ.
  • Canetti, Elias. “The Muharram Festival of the Shiites.” In his Crowds and Power, translated from the German by Carol Stewart, pp. 146–153. New York, 1978. Masterful psychological interpretation of ʿĀshūrāʿ crowds.
  • Chelkowski, Peter J.Taʿziyeh: Ritual and Drama in Iran. New York, 1979.
  • Chelkowski, Peter J., and Hamid Dabashi. Staging a Revolution: The Art of Persuasion in the Islamic Republic of Iran. New York, 1999. There are chapters devoted to Shīʿī rituals and their transformation into a mechanism of revolutionary preparedness.
  • Floor, Willem. The History of Theater in Iran. Washington, D.C., 2005. One third of this long overdue book is devoted to the development of the stationary and ambulatory ʿĀshūrāʿ performances. The best sources for the performing arts in Islamic Iran come from European travelers. Because foreigners tend to report unusual things, and because most of the religious performing arts in Iran were acted in the open, the foreigners could easily form part of the audience. Floor, thanks to his familiarity with many languages, covers most of the memoirs and travelogues left by visitors to Iran in the fifteenth to twentieth centuries.
  • Khomeini, Ruhollah. Islam and Revolution. Translated and annotated by Hamid Algar. Berkeley, 1981. Writings and declarations of Imam Khomeini.
  • Korom, Frank J.Hosay Trinidad: Muharram Performances in an Indo-Caribbean Diaspora. Philadelphia, 2003.
  • Nasr, Vali. The Shia Revival. New York, 2006. A penetrating account of sectarian conflict in the Muslim world. The ʿĀshūrāʿ events of 680 CE underlie Nasr's narrative and explain the tension between Shīʿīs and Sunnīs.
  • Von Grunebaum, Gustave E.Muhammadan Festivals. London, 1958.
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