Hamsare Mosafer * – Ashura is a major religious festival commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hossien, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad Salallahu Alaihi Wasallam at Karbala in 680 AD.
Ashura, which falls on the 10th day of Muharram, is a day of great mourning in Iran when strong emotions are expressed in the many rituals and activities connected to this day.
In Iran, the commemoration has become a national holiday and all ethnic and religious communities participate in it. The day is of particular significance to the Iranian Shi’a Muslims. It is a time for sorrow and respect for Imam Hussein, and it is also a time for self-reflection, when one commits oneself to the mourning of their third Imam completely.
In Tehran, as in other cities and towns in Iran, the people express their mourning by crying and listening to poems about the tragedy and sermons on how Hussein and his family were martyred. This is intended to connect them with Hussein’s suffering and martyrdom, and the sacrifices he made to keep Islam alive. Hussein’s martyrdom is widely interpreted here as a symbol of the struggle against injustice, tyranny and oppression.
During most of the Ashura processions that we have observed in Tehran, certain rituals like the traditional flagellation ritual called zanjeer zani or zanjeer matam (chest beating), involving the use of a zanjeer (chain) are usually performed. These are not religious customs but are popularly done for the sake of Imam Hussein and his family.
Commemoration of Ashura, in essence, is not a festival, but rather a sad event. Ta’zieh and passion plays are also performed reenacting the battle of Karbala. Many of the male participants in the procession congregate together in public for ceremonial chest beating as a display of their devotion to Imam Hussein and in remembrance to his suffering.
Forty days after the day of Ashura, there is another religious observation known here as Arbaeen. Arbaeen which means forty in Arabic falls on the 20th day of the Muslim month of Safar. It marks an important turning point in the movement of Karbala. The day is no less important to the day of Ashura. According to the tradition here, it is primarily the day when the Ahlul Bayt reached the land of Karbala and performed the visitation to Sayyid ash-Shuhada al-Hussien (as) and the loyal family and friends who gave their life for the cause of Islam.
During the forty days from Ashura to Arbaeen, usually the people refrain from any kind of entertainment such as music and singing in public which are considered impolite. It is supposed to be a period of intense grief and mourning.
At the end of every Ashura processions (and sometime after the Arbaeen procession), it is customary for some people to donate free meals, food and drink (Niazz) to all people. Lambs and cows are usually slaughtered and cooked at various locations throughout the city to cater for all participants and the general public.
At last year’s Ashura procession, we were kindly invited to observe the ritual at a makeshift camp in the city where foods were cooked and prepared. In fact throughout the day, one can always find rows of people queuing up along the main streets, to receive their free meals of rice and beef or lamb. Even when you are staying home, there will always be kind-hearted neighbors around to surprise you with packs of traditional rice dishes, sufficient for the day’s lunch!
* Hamsare Mosafer is pen name for a traveling wife of a Brunei diplomat who spent some years in Iran. You can find her on her weblog Story of a Trailing Spouse.