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Shia mourners touch Ziarat and Alams, Sukkur, Pakistan | © Asianet-Pakistan/Shutterstock
Shia mourners touch Ziarat and Alams, Sukkur, Pakistan | © Asianet-Pakistan/Shutterstock

The Islamic New Year: What is Muharram?

Picture of Jessica Harn
Updated: 22 September 2017

Muharram, one of the most important months of the year for Muslims, is the Islamic New Year. This year Muharram falls on 21st of September and lasts until approximately 19th of October.

Based on the lunar Hijra calendar, it is the first month of the Muslim New Year and is often considered to be the holiest month—second only to Ramadan. In fact, it is considered so holy that the meaning of the word “Muharram” is “forbidden”, and, during this specific month, any form of fighting or war is strictly forbidden. Many Muslims make an extra effort to avoid any kind of negativity and arguing in order to fully appreciate the important of peace and non-violence. In addition to this, many Muslims choose to fast during Muharram to remember and show thankfulness to Allah.

Shiite Muslim mourning procession in Peshawar. Pakistan | © Asianet-Pakistan/Shutterstock

Shia Muslim mourning procession in Peshawar, Pakistan | © Asianet-Pakistan/Shutterstock

The 10th day of Muharram, called Ashura, is also an extremely important day for Muslims. As is narrated through hadith (the records of what the Prophet Mohammad said and did), the 10th of Muharram was also the day on which the Prophet Musa crossed the Red Sea with his people and the Pharaoh was then drowned in the sea.

The Prophet Mohammad is said to have heard about this from the Jews living in the city of Medina, who used to fast on this day to remember Musa. After learning that the Jews remembered Musa’s victory in this way, the Holy Prophet told his Muslim followers that they should fast also, in remembrance of Musa, who Muslims revere. It is, therefore, extremely common for Muslims to fast on the day of Ashura, as well as on other days in the month of Muharram, to show thankfulness.

While for many Sunni Muslims this month is the beginning of the Islamic New Year and symbolizes non-violence and reflection; for those Muslims who follow the Shia branch of Islam this month also symbolizes a sad and reflective remembrance of Islamic history.

For Shia Muslims, the month of Muharram commemorates the death of the Prophet Mohammad’s grandson, Hussein Ibn Ali. Hussein was murdered by opposing forces who believed him to be a threat to their leadership. During the Battle of Karbala, which occurred on the Day of Ashura in the year 680 AD, Umayyad Caliph Yazid fought Hussein and his followers because the Prophet’s grandson had questioned the legitimacy of Yazid’s leadership.

Shia Muslims walk on coals during mourning for Imam Hussein | © Prabhat Kumar Verma/ZUMA Wire/REX/Shutterstock

Shia Muslims sometimes walk on coals during mourning for Imam Hussein | © Prabhat Kumar Verma/ZUMA Wire/REX/Shutterstock

Those who followed Hussein—who believed that he was chosen by his father Ali, who, in turn, was chosen by the Prophet Mohammad himself to lead the Islamic world—are today’s Shia population. Due to the brutality of the Battle of Karbala and the murder of the Prophet’s grandson during a month when fighting is forbidden, many Shia mourn and remember the bravery of the Prophet’s family. They gather at mosques to cry over the Hussein’s death and to remember the importance of what the Prophet’s family did for justice.

Battle of Karbala | © Islam Blog: Ashura/WikiCommons

The Battle of Karbala | © Islam Blog: Ashura/WikiCommons

Whether Muslims are celebrating the beginning of the Islamic New Year or lamenting the loss of life, Muharram is an important and a holy month for everyone. Many Muslims fast, give extra prayers, and spend longer hours in the mosque. They try to understand the many layers of their Islamic traditions and history. Muharram, with all of its complexity, will always be a month of deep reflection and thankfulness for Muslims across the world.