The Meaning of Muharram

The month of Muharram ought to be a month of gratitude, striving and devotion for Muslims. It is a month marked by numerous episodes of history, in which Allah (swt) gave relief from hardship and oppression to those believers who strove in His cause. Here are all the reasons why we have so much to be grateful for in the month of Muharram, and why the 10th day –the day known as Ashura- stands out as one to strive harder on in order to reap its blessings.

The Hijrah and the Islamic New Year

Here’s a chance to observe a New Year which is culturally relevant to us! The first of Muharram is the advent of the Islamic New Year, and marks the Islamic Hijrah. This is when Allah (swt) helped our Prophet Muhammad (saw) and his companions in their difficult and often dangerous migration to Medina.

‘Was not the earth of God spacious enough for you to flee for refuge?’ (4:97)

The early Muslims abandoned their homes to flee the oppression of Quraysh. In doing so, they observed the Sunnah of migration that was carried out by so many of our beloved Prophets. And though the Hijrah to Medina meant security and freedom of religion for the early Muslims, it was by no means easy for them. It is said that as he left with Abu Bakr (ra), the Prophet (saw) turned to look upon Mecca one last time and said: “O Mecca! I know you are the most blessed of the land of God. If your people did not force me to leave I would never have left you.” Upon this, Allah (swt) consoled His Prophet by revealing the following verse, and the promise that one day he would be able to return:

‘Indeed, [O Muhammad], He who imposed upon you the Qur’an will take you back to a place of return.’ (28:85)

The Deliverance of Nuh (as) and his people

According to the Tafsir of Ibn Kathir, the 10th day of Muharram –the day of Ashura- is when the ark of Prophet Nuh (as) landed on Mount Judiyy.

‘And it was said, “O earth, swallow your water, and O sky, withhold [your rain].” And the water subsided, and the matter was accomplished, and the ship came to rest on the [mountain of] Judiyy. And it was said, “Away with the wrongdoing people.”’ (11:44)

With the protection of Allah (swt), this wooden vessel carried Nuh (as) and his faithful followers and all the many animals they had been commanded to take with them, through the eye of the storm. It sailed amidst tumultuous waves as great as mountains, and survived a flood which laid the whole world to waste. Nuh (as) and his people suffered oppression and ridicule at the hands of the misbelievers before the storm. And they endured many unknown hardships during it. Theirs’ wasn’t an easy trial, but in the end, Allah (swt) delivered them and made them the second beginning of mankind.

‘It was said, “O Noah, disembark in security from Us and blessings upon you and upon nations [descending] from those with you. […]’ (11:48)

The Deliverance of Musa (as) and his people

The day of Ashura also marks the deliverance of Prophet Musa (as) and his people, from the oppression of Pharaoh. The story of Musa (as) is beautiful in how it shows that Allah (swt) delivers His believers through mind-blowing miracles when their faith in Him does not waver.

‘And when the two companies saw one another, the companions of Moses said, “Indeed, we are to be overtaken!” [Moses] said, “No! Indeed, with me is my Lord; He will guide me.”’ (26:61-62)

After the many hardships of standing up to Pharaoh, even though he had neither strength nor eloquence on his side, Musa (as) took his people out of Egypt upon Allah’s (swt) command. But his very last trial was waiting for him at the shores of the Red Sea. Here, the children of Israel found themselves facing certain death by drowning or massacre by the armies of Pharaoh, who were in pursuit. But even then, Musa (as) did not give up hope.

‘Then We inspired to Moses, “Strike with your staff the sea,” and it parted, and each portion was like a great towering mountain. And We advanced thereto the pursuers. And We saved Moses and those with him, all together. Then We drowned the others.’ (26:63-65)

A greater claim to Musa (as) and his message

It is the Sunnah of our Prophet Muhammad (saw) to fast on the 10th day of Muharram, and there are many blessings (as we’ve listed below) for doing so. But it’s especially significant how when our Prophet (saw) found out that the Jews of Medina also fasted on this day, he insisted on honouring this practice, despite his sensitivity to imitating the established traditions of non-Muslims.

‘He is not one of us who imitates people other than us. Do not imitate the Jews and Christians.’ (Tirmidhi)

So why do we fast on the day of Ashura? Because it is a day full of blessings, and Because the Prophet (saw) insisted that we Muslims are better placed to honour the legacy of Musa (as) than the Jews. According to the hadith reported by Ibn Abbas (ra):

‘The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, came to Medina and found the Jews fasting on the day of ʿAshura. The Prophet said, “What is this day you are fasting?” They said, “This is a great day in which Allah saved Moses and his people, and he drowned Pharaoh and his people. Moses fasted on it due to gratitude, so we also fast on it.” The Prophet said, “We have more of a right to Moses and are closer to him than you.” The Prophet fasted the day of ʿAshura and commanded fasting on it.’ (Bukhari)

The blessings of fasting on Ashura

Here’s an opportunity for a clean slate on all of last year’s sins. That’s right, a way to wipe out all our minor sins from the year 1441 (according to the Hijri calendar)! When asked about the merits of fasting on the day of Ashura, the Prophet (saw) responded that it would ‘expiate thereby for the year that came before it.’ (Muslim). The prophet (saw) is also reported to have said:

‘The most excellent fast after Ramadan is in Allah’s month, al-Muharram; and the most excellent prayer after what is prescribed, is prayer during the night.’ (Muslim)

The Ashura day fast, on the 10th day of Muharram, is one which the Prophet (saw) and his companions observed before fasting in the month of Ramadan became obligatory. About this special day, Aisha (ra) is reported to have said:

‘[…] And on that day the Ka‘bah used to be covered with a cover. When Allah made the fasting of the month of Ramadan compulsory, Allah’s Messenger (saw) said, ’Whoever wishes to fast [on the day of Ashura] may do so; and whoever wishes to leave it can do so”’. (Bukhari)

Now as much as it is prescribed to fast on the day of Ashura, it is also important to observe the Prophet’s (saw) practice of doing things differently from the established traditions of the non-Muslims. So when the companions of the Prophet (saw) noted how Ashura was a special day for the Jews and the Christians, the Prophet (saw) is reported to have made the intention to observe a two day fast in Muharram, instead of just the one.

The Messenger of Allah (saw) said, ‘If I remain [alive] till the following year, I will most certainly fast the ninth [alongside the 10th of Muharram]’ (Muslim).

The Prophet (saw) said, ‘Fast the Day of Ashura and be different from the Jews by fasting a day before it or a day after it.’ (Ahmad)

The blessings of giving on Ashura

As if all of the above isn’t enough to be grateful for, there’s another very easy way to reap the blessings of Ashura. How? Through giving –not just in charity, but also to those we love and care for. Here’s a hadith which highlights that the rewards for giving Sadaqah on this single day, will be equal to the rewards for charity given for an entire year!

‘Whoever fasts on the 10th of Muharram (Ashura), it is as though he has fasted the entire year. And whoever gives charity on this day, it is like the charity of an entire year.” (Imam Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali in his Lata’if al-Ma’arif)

Is that all? Nope, not yet. Because Ashura is also a day for spending on the needs of our families. Just as the reward for our fasting and charity is multiplied on this day, so is the Barakah of our earnings when spent on our household needs, for the sake of Allah (swt).

‘One who generously spends on his family on the 10th of Muharram (Ashura), Allah will be generous on him for the entire year.’ (Baihaqi)

The martyrdom of Husayn (ra)

The 10th of Muharram also marks the day that Husayn (ra), the beloved grandson of our Prophet (saw), was martyred at Karbalah with his family. His struggle for truth and justice was in line with the struggles of countless believers, and the many great companions of the Prophet (saw), who also gave their lives in Allah’s cause. Among these great martyrs were Umar (ra), Uthman (ra), and Ali (ra) –three of the four rightly guided khalifs, as well as Hasan (ra) –the brother of Husayn (ra) and the Prophet’s (saw) other grandson.

‘And We will surely test you with something of fear and hunger and a loss of wealth and lives and fruits, but give good tidings to the patient, Who, when disaster strikes them, say, “Indeed we belong to Allah, and indeed to Him we will return.” Those are the ones upon whom are blessings from their Lord and mercy. And it is those who are the [rightly] guided.’ (Holy Qur’an 2:155-7)

Now we know from the hadith that an excessive show of grief is not befitting to Islamic character. Though grieving is a natural emotional process, and even the Prophet (saw) wept after the death of his own children, he is reported to have said:

“He who slaps his cheeks, tears his clothes and follows the ways and traditions of the Days of Ignorance is not one of us.” (Bukhari)

So the day of Ashura shouldn’t be a time of excessive mourning. Instead, while remembering Husayn (ra), along with all of the great heroes of Islam, it’s probably more fitting to do so with prayers and salawat on the Prophet (saw) and his entire family. What’s more, the martyrdom of such heroes is source of pride and gratitude for us, as we try to live by their example and hope to attain such a lofty station.

‘The ones who have believed, emigrated and striven in the cause of Allah with their wealth and their lives are greater in rank in the sight of Allah . And it is those who are the attainers [of success].’ (9:20)

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