Ashoura Holiday Highlights Sectarian Tensions Among Muslims In Middle East (Andrea Stanton)

Current Events

This week marks the Muslim holiday of Ashoura, quite literally the tenth (ten in Arabic being `ashara) day of the month of Muharram. The day is known throughout the Muslim world, and is an official holiday in many countries, including Algeria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and Pakistan. But it is a multi-layered holy day, and whether it is celebrated or mourned can give it a highly sectarian mark.

Muslims consider major religio-historical events to have fallen on Ashoura: the emergence of Noah from the ark after the flood, the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt, and the death of Muhammad’s grandson Hussein and most of his family in an attack at Karbala.

For the first, the exegetical traditions relate that Noah’s ark came to rest on Mount Judi on the tenth day of Muharram, and that Noah fasted in gratitude for their deliverance. Turks eat a dessert known as “ashure” or “Noah’s pudding” in memory of this event, and call it the oldest dessert in the world. Today, the dessert is referenced as a sign of religious tolerance and cultural pluralism, and used in interfaith events.

For the second, the hadith narratives relate that Muhammad learned that Medina’s Jews were fasting to commemorate the exodus from Egypt, because Moses had done so. “We are closer to [Moses] than you are”, he is reported to have said. He instructed Muslims to fast on the day of Ashoura – a visceral way of claiming the Jewish heritage as part of the Islamic tradition. Ashoura fasting was considered obligatory until abrogated by the divine command to fast during the entire month of Ramadan, and has since then been considered meritorious but voluntary.

There are less dominant exegetical traditions that also identify Ashoura as the day on which God forgave Adam after his fall from Paradise, and on which God gave the ten commandments to Moses, as well as being the day on which Jonah escaped from the whale.) Yet although these first two Ashoura commemorations involve fasting, they are primarily celebratory.

But the third event for which Ashoura is known is no celebration. It is also by far the most famous, because it is the most significant date of the Shiite calendar. Ashoura for Shiites is a day of mourning, marking the martyrdom of Hussein, whom Shiites consider the rightful leader of the Muslim community after the death of Muhammad and his son-in-law Ali (Hussein’s father). It is considered a treacherous act against the family of Muhammad, and the moment when despotic rule replaced good governance.

Historically, it was considered a day for grieving both the loss of Hussein and right leadership for Muslims, and also grieving Muslims’ failure to save him. While passion plays, prayers, and processions have been the most typical Ashoura commemoration, depictions of self-flagellation still “dominate media coverage”.

For the past several decades, however, Ashoura has been reconfigured as a day of empowerment: a day to stand for social justice, give blood, or give water in memory of the thirst that Hussein’s entourage suffered before being killed. Ashoura is described by Shiite clerics like the late Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, the figure of reference for Hizbullah and many Lebanese Shiites, as an inspiration for reform and revolution, standing up against oppressors – and not as an occasion for crying.

The countries that include Ashoura as an official holiday and those that do not might appear to divide almost strictly on sectarian lines: Bahrain, Bangladesh, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and Pakistan, all of which do, have Shiite populations that range from 10% to over 90% of the total citizenry. Countries with Shii populations that do not recognize Ashoura tend to be officially Sunni, like Saudi Arabia. Yet the picture is more complex.  Syria, with a historical Shiite population of approximately 5%, does not recognize Ashoura, and nor does Shiite-majority Azerbaijan, which celebrates other Muslim holidays.

Further, some almost exclusively Sunni countries, like Algeria and Comoros, do mark Ashoura as a state holiday – although perhaps more due to local traditions like the blessing of children by lining their eyes with kohl.

Because of the sectarian markings that attach to whether Muslims celebrate or mourn on Ashoura, the holiday has had the potential to play into sect-based state relationships, but as with other contentious holidays, like that of the mawlid, or birth of Muhammad, it has not done so.

Instead, sectarian issues have come to the fore at the domestic level, in the case of states with a Sunni identity but a sizeable Shiite population. In states like Bahrain, where a Sunni monarchy dominates the Shiite majority population, Ashoura commemoration is allowed but tightly policed. “Misusing the occasion to engage in criminal activity will not be allowed,” said Bahrain’s head of public security in a recent interview, adding: “those in charge of the commemoration events should make sure to keep the religious aspect of Ashura as the focus of the activities.”

In recent years, the greatest sectarian tensions over Ashoura commemorations have been in Pakistan, where in 2013 the city of Rawalpindi saw gun attacks on the annual Muharram procession (a typical South Asian Shiite commemorative practice) that resulted in nine deaths and dozens of injuries, as well the burning of shops and other buildings. On the theory that Sunni clerics had encouraged or inspired the attacks (one in particular for making anti-Hussein and pro-Yazid statements during a khutba), the government in subsequent years has banned particular clerics from Rawalpindi and other “highly sensitive” cities, including Lahore, Karachi, Quetta, Peshawar, and others.

The buildings burned in 2013 – a Sunni seminary, mosque, and the fabric market area of the Raja Bazaar – were rebuilt, with the expenses covered by the regional government, and the seminary reopened at the end of September. To prevent a recurrence of the 2013 violence (and presumably avoid the cost of rebuilding yet again), the Rawalpindi police have asked the seminary to close for Ashoura, “saying the situation in the country will be critical in the coming days”.

Even where efforts to regulate Ashoura events appear protective, the securitization and level of state control is striking. In Bangladesh, police efforts appear aimed at preventing a recurrence of the previous year’s bomb and other attacks on Shiite mourners. Yet they also limit the time and location of Shiite observances, while placing all participants under closed circuit camera surveillance.

This year’s regulations include limitations on the times and days of passion play processions, prohibiting all sharp objects (including scissors) from processions, limiting the length of flag or banner poles carried in the processions, requiring that anyone participating in the procession first obtain permission from the Shiite leadership council (Imambarha Council), and that the complex used for Ashoura activities will be under CCTV camera surveillance.

Whether at the level of road closures and traffic announcements, the identification of “sensitive spots”, or the regional suspension of mobile services during Ashoura, these efforts highlight the state’s contemporary role in managing Ashoura commemorations – one that is both defensive and restrictive.

Andrea Stanton is Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies, focusing on twentieth and twenty-first century Islam in the Middle East and globally. Her research focuses on media and religious identity, and investigates the sometimes conflictual, sometimes cooperative relationships between new technologies and claims to religious authority. Her most recent historical work examines government management of religious broadcasts in Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s, connecting this to a broader trend of Middle Eastern states controlling religious communities’ access to radio and television. Her most recent contemporary work examines the emergent phenomenon of “Islamic emoticons,” which appear in online Islamic chat forums and websites.  Stanton’s recent work on the Middle East includes an examination of the role of the Olympic Games in fostering national and regional identities in Lebanon and Syria, and an analysis of themes found in US-based Syrian aid appeals and in Syrian political cartoons.

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