The Significance of Ashura in Sunni Islam

by E. Anne Hunter
Shia Muslims, shown here, commemorate Ashura differently than Sunni Muslims.

Shia Muslims, shown here, commemorate Ashura differently than Sunni Muslims.

Ashura is observed by both Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims on the 10th day of the Islamic calendar month Muharram. The day of Ashura commemorates both the day that Noah left his ark and the day that Moses was saved by Allah from the Egyptians. Shia Muslims observe the day with public mourning, because they also use Ashura to commemorate the death of the prophet Mohammed’s grandson Imam Hussein. While Sunni Muslims do not recognize Ashura as a major festival in the way that Shia Muslims do, the day retains significance in Sunni culture and involves voluntary fasting.

Sunni and Shia Perspectives on Ashura

The day of Ashura has become a point of difference between Sunni and Shia, with Sunni Muslims celebrating the victorious exodus from Egypt and Shia Muslims remembering the tragic martyrdom of Imam Hussein. Sunni Muslims treat the day of Ashura as an added opportunity to seek God’s forgiveness and reward. For Shia Muslims, Ashura is a much more solemn affair marked by public festivals of mourning that can include bloody self-flagellation. Though such bloodletting is discouraged by some Shia clerics, the day remains for Shia a serious occasion of sorrow and reflection.

Fasting on Ashura

Fasting is considered the best type of worship in Islam and is encouraged, but voluntary, for Sunni Muslims on the day of Ashura. Some Islamic scholars believe that fasting on Ashura was obligatory in the early days of Islam, but became voluntary upon introduction of obligatory fasting for Ramadan. Some Sunni Muslims, particularly in Turkey, finish their post-fast dinner with a dessert called Ashura, or Noah’s pudding, symbolic of Noah leaving the ark.

Other Sunni Ashura Traditions

Like fasting, no other types of worship are required of Sunni Muslims on Ashura, but may be voluntarily undertaken. These include visiting and learning from Islamic scholars, performing works of charity, being kind to orphans, showing kindness to family and reciting prayers.

Conflicts Surrounding Ashura

The martyrdom of Imam Hussein, marked on Ashura by Shia Muslims, led to the split of Islam into Sunni and Shia sects. Throughout history, this division has caused both peaceful disagreement and violent conflict, sometimes on the day of Ashura itself, as in the Kabul University riot in 2012. In many predominantly Islamic locations, security is heightened on Ashura to maintain peace, such as in Iraq where 2011 marked the first Ashura in eight years without significant sectarian violence.

About the Author

E. Anne Hunter has more than a decade of experience in education, with a focus on visual design and instructional technology. She holds a master's degree in education. Hunter has contributed to several professional publications, covering education, design, music and fitness, among other topics.

Photo Credits

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