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Ashura and Muharram of Sunni and Shia

Updated: Jul 26, 2022

At the beginning of each Islamic lunar calendar, the first ten days commemorate the most horrific and tragic event in various parts of the Muslim world. In places like Iran and Iraq, Muslims stage passion plays. In India and Pakistan, the community organizes huge processions full of tazias (replicas of the tomb of Hussain). Shia Muslims relive the story of the first ten days of Muharram that took place in the first century of Islam when the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, Imam Hussein, challenged the authority of Yezid, the Umayyad ruler. He established that sometimes life's goals become more important than life itself.

Imam Hussein stood for the Quranic principle of justice and fairness. Imam Hussein spoke on behalf of those marginalized by a class of rulers, laying the foundation of dynastic rules in Islam. He refused to surrender to the forces of oppression, knowing fully well that he could perish.

It is a month of severe reflections for the Muslim world. While Shia Muslims observe the first ten days as public mourning, the Sunni Muslims evade any overt display of happiness, such as weddings, etc., and focus on the fasting of the 10th day of Muharram in memory of the Prophet Moses' exodus from Egypt. By and large, most of the Sunni Muslim community avoids any explicit connection of that day to the martyrdom of Imam Hussain. In many parts of the world, the month is a point of conflict between Shia and Sunni. Thus, Imam Hussein and his legacy have become a sectarian event.

Imam Hussein is the grandson of the Prophet, who lived his life the way he watched his grandfather live it. He embodied the qualities of the Prophet in his character and remained deeply committed to the Quranic values of justice and equality. His struggle was for fairness and Islamic values for ordinary men and women. The Umayyad usurped the power and denied the people the right to elect their Caliph. Instead, they introduced a dynastic rule with little regard for human life and human dignity, freedom, and justice. Imam Hussein mobilized first his family and then his supporters to challenge the authority of Yezid, the Umayyad ruler at that time. Muslims betrayed him and withdrew support at the last minute. But his family stood by him in Kerbala, the modern-day province of Iraq, and faced the brutal might of a well-organized, well-equipped, and well-trained army.

The outcome was evident from the beginning. Imam Hussein was aware of the imbalance in power. He had the choice to make a tactical withdrawal. He had the option of accepting Umayyad's rule and giving legitimacy to their claim. Not only that, but he had the choice to accept the practices of the court in Damascus. Yet, he chose to stand his ground, knowing fully well that he and his followers may not survive at the end of the conflict. He did not run away. He knew why he was there and why he had challenged the authority. Furthermore, he fought bravely and left the world with violent wounds as a testimony of his belief that sometimes in the life of nations come moments when liberty and justice become more important than life itself.

It was a sacrifice given in support of human rights and human dignity. This sacrifice has profoundly impacted the history of ideas in the world, as rooted in the famous line of one of America's great founding fathers, Patrick Henry: "Give me liberty, or give me death." This sacrifice has inspired millions throughout history to challenge injustice and inhumanity on the part of political powers. Imam Hussein is a living legacy of Muslims. So it should and must not lead to Sunni or Shia conflicts. Imam Hussein followed the path of the prophets. If the prophets were alive, they would not have done anything differently.

Shia and Sunni both need to work together to uphold the legacy and sacrifice that the Grandson of Prophet Muhammad, Imam Hussain, gave. Shias need to look at this observance beyond the passion plays, and Sunnis should recognize this historical tragedy beyond a sectarian and political divide. All Muslims need to remember Imam Hussein for his commitment to justice as the Quran teaches: "... Enjoin what is just; forbid what is wrong; bear anything that happens to you steadfastly: these are things to be aspired to." (31:17).

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