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Ashura 2011: Dates, Rituals And History Explained (PHOTOS)


First Posted: 12/02/11 11:33 AM ET Updated: 12/04/11 08:21 PM ET

WARNING: Some images of Ashura observance are graphic:

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  • Ashura in Iraq

    Iraqi Shiite Muslims march in a parade marking the month of Muharram in preparation for the festival Ashura on Dec. 1 in Baghdad, Iraq. Ashura marks the death of Prophet Muhammad's grandson the revered Imam Hussein in Karbala, Iraq 1,300 years ago. Shiite festivals were prohibited during the time of Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein's rule. Iraq is transitioning as the U.S. military continues its withdrawal from the country by the end of December following the war that began in 2003.

  • Karbala Ashura

    Shiite Muslim pilgrims take part in rituals in the Iraqi holy city of Karbala on Dec. 2 as part of commemoration ceremonies for Ashura, marking the killing of Imam Hussein by armies of the caliph Yazid in 680 A.D.

  • Pakistani Ashura

    Pakistani Shiite Muslims beat their chests during an Ashura procession in Karachi on Dec. 17, 2010. Pakistan imposed blanket security Dec. 17 as Shiite Muslims -- 20 percent of the population -- marked their holiest day, Ashura, which was last year marred by a bomb at a Karachi religious procession that killed 43 people.

  • Karbala Ashura

    Shiite Muslim pilgrims take part in rituals in the Iraqi holy city of Karbala on Dec. 2 as part of commemoration ceremonies for Ashura, marking the killing of Imam Hussein by armies of the caliph Yazid in 680 A.D.

  • Imam Hussein Mosque

    Shiite Muslim pilgrims pray at the Imam Hussein mosque in the Iraqi holy city of Karbala on Dec. 2 as part of commemoration ceremonies for Ashura, marking the killing of Imam Hussein by armies of the caliph Yazid in 680 A.D.

  • Turkish Ashura

    Turkish Shiite men holding a poster portraying Imam Hussein take part in a religious procession held for Ashura in Istanbul on Dec. 5. Ashura commemorates the killing of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, by armies of the caliph Yazid in 680 A.D. Tradition holds that the revered imam was decapitated and his body mutilated in the Battle of Karbala.

  • Turkish Ashura

    A Turkish Shiite girl gestures with a chain as she takes part in a religious procession held for Ashura in Istanbul on Dec. 5. Ashura commemorates the killing of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, by armies of the caliph Yazid in 680 A.D. Tradition holds that the revered imam was decapitated and his body mutilated in the Battle of Karbala.

  • Turkish Shiite Ashura

    Turkish Shiite women take part in a religious procession held for Ashura in Istanbul on Dec. 5, 2010. Ashura commemorates the killing of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, by armies of the caliph Yazid in 680 A.D. Tradition holds that the revered imam was decapitated and his body mutilated in the Battle of Karbala.

  • A Turkish Shiite Ashura

    A Turkish Shiite girl looks on as she takes part in a religious procession held for Ashura in Istanbul on Dec. 5. Ashura commemorates the killing of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, by armies of the caliph Yazid in 680 A.D. Tradition holds that the revered imam was decapitated and his body mutilated in the Battle of Karbala.

  • Turkish Shiite Ashura

    Turkish Shiite men take part in a religious procession held for Ashura in Istanbul on Dec. 5. Ashura commemorates the killing of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, by armies of the caliph Yazid in 680 AD. Tradition holds that the revered imam was decapitated and his body mutilated in the Battle of Karbala.

  • A young Indian Shiite Muslim boy looks on as Indian Shiite Muslim women mourn during a religious procession of the Ashura in New Delhi.

  • Bahraini Shiite Ashura

    Bahraini Shiite Muslims perform rituals for Ashura, a Shiite day of mourning for the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, in the capital Manama on Dec. 2.

  • New Delhi men take part in a ritual beating of themselves as they mourn the martyrdom of Hussein ibn Ali.

  • A Shiite Muslim beats his chest as part of a self-flagelation ritual during a religious procession of the Ashura mourning period.

  • Blood stains the road as a Shiite Muslim takes part in a self-flagellation ritual in New Delhi.

  • A scout treats the wounds of a Pakistani Shiite Muslim after beating himself during an Ashura procession in Rawalpindi.

  • Shiite Muslims stand, bloodied from a self-flagelation ritual, during a religious procession for the Ashura mourning period in New Delhi.

  • Shiite Muslims take part in a self-flagellation ritual during a religious procession of the Ashura mourning period on Dec. 17, 2010 in New Delhi.

  • Blood runs down the back of a Shiite Muslims taking part in a self-flagellation ritual during a religious procession of the Ashura.

  • A Bahraini man holds his blood-soaked head that he cut with the tip of a sword in a traditional display of sorrow.

  • Indian Shiite Muslims flagellate themselves with clusters of knives in Mumbai.

  • Pakistani Shiite Muslims flagellate themselves with knifes during a Ashura procession in Lahore.

  • Pakistani Shiite Muslims flagellate themselves during Ashura, one of the most important holy days for Shiite Muslims, It marks the death of Islam's Prophet Muhammad's grandson Imam Hussein.

Ashura, an optional fast day for Muslims that commemorates different things for Sunnis and Shiites, falls on Dec. 4-5, 2011. The word itself, ashura, means 10, and the holiday is the 10th day of the Islamic month of Muharram. The Islamic calendar is lunar, so the date of Ashura can vary depending on sighting of the moon.

Ashura marks many things: the creation of the world, Noah's departure from the ark, Moses' flight from Egypt and the martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, Hussein ibn Ali, in 680 A.D.

Sunni Muslims consider Ashura a fast day for two reasons: Muhammad fasted then and Moses fasted in appreciation of the successful Exodus for Egypt. Shiite Muslims mark Ashura as a day of mourning for the Prophet Muhammad's grandson. In fact, Hussein's martyrdom is one of two major events that led to the Sunni-Shiite split in Islam. Shiites, who constitute Islam's second-largest denomination (about 10-15 percent of the world Muslim population), consider Hussein to be the one true heir of Muhammad's legacy.

Shiite Muslims observe Ashura through mourning rituals such as self-flagellation and reenactments of the martyrdom. Many travel to Karbala in Iraq, where Hussein was killed, as a pilgrimage on Ashura. Most observers wear black and march through the streets chanting and hitting themselves in the chest. Some use whips and chains -- or cut themselves on the forehead -- to ritually punish their bodies. This practice has been condemned by some Shiite leaders, so Ashura blood drives are often organized as a substitute.

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Filed by Josh Fleet  |  Report Corrections