Muharram is the first month of the Islamic calendar. Muslims believe it to be one of the four sacred months, along with Dhul Qa’dah, Dhul-Hijjah and Rajab. The entire month is hallowed, but the tenth day (Ashoora) is the most significant. On this day, according to reports in al-Muslim and al-Bukhari, prophet Moses observed a fast as a token of gratitude to God for helping him liberate Israelites from the tyranny of the Egyptian pharaohs. In a grand expression of prophetic affinity, the last Prophet of Islam emulated Moses and commanded his followers to fast on Ashoora.

For Shias, Muharram marks the beginning of a mourning period. During the first 10 days of the month, they recall the events that ended in the Battle of Karbala in which on the day of Ashoora in 61 Hijri (A.D.680) the Prophet’s grandson, Hazrat Husain, and his family and followers, were killed by the forces of Umayyad ruler Yazeed Ibn Muawiyah for opposing and refusing to recognise Yazeed as Caliph.

Different Muslim sects may have different ritualistic ways of recognising the importance of Muharram; but its sanctity demands a deeper understanding of the reason behind its symbolic veneration. When the Prophet prioritised Ashoora he was exemplifying the hard-won Mosaic victory and the importance of positive liberty wherein a nation empowers itself with resources to fulfil its own potential. This was the common goal of prophets Moses and Muhammad, which they achieved by liberating their people from despots.

In other words, the Prophet’s commemoration of the defeat of the pharaoh serves as an exhortation to Muslims not to allow themselves to be overpowered by evil forces. In today’s context, this would mean Muslims must work to free themselves from the bondage of poverty, illiteracy and social disenfranchisement. They should commit themselves to undertake intellectual jihad against the forces of extremism which seek to lead them on the path of intolerance.

This is what Hazrat Husain stood for. To start emulating his qualities from the day of Ashoora will be a fitting tribute to him.

A. Faizur Rahman

(The author is secretary-general of the Islamic Forum for the Promotion of Moderate Thought)