Though tradition says this event took place over 1,400 years ago, it remains a powerful — and some may say tragic — episode in Islamic history. To this day, Ashura is marked with solemnity, as people mourn and reflect on what they can still learn from this story.
Sheikh Faiyaz Jaffer of the Islamic Center at NYU tells Refinery29 that Ashura traditions among Shia Muslims are very much grounded in group observances. Rather than spend the day alone, they will gather in community centers or mosques to pray and read lamentation poetry together, he explains: "People literally get together and grieve over this incident that still resonates with the faith today."
The idea that there's something to be gained from reflecting on sadness is something that's easily misunderstood if you're accustomed to celebrating holidays that are solely festive and happy, Sheikh Jaffer says. Some may find it unusual that this holiday is entirely dedicated to mourning, he says, but the man who Ashura commemorates, Muhammad's grandson, represents more than his tragic death.
"He's seen as an embodiment of a lot of sublime themes, like mercy, justice, love, beauty, and peace," Sheikh Jaffer explains. His death tells a story of martyrdom and poses a question to consider: How can they emulate him and be merciful and just in their everyday lives?
Sheikh Jaffer says that it's the communal element of Ashura that helps Shia Muslims reflect on this story and reach a greater understanding of how they might demonstrate their own commitment to Islam. "Within that grief, there should be a means to feel empowered to walk in the footsteps of the grandson of the prophet," he says. Looking back on this dark chapter in history can actually inspire believers to be better people and seek to make changes toward greater acceptance in their communities, he says.
Ed. note: This article has been updated with additional information about the holiday.