Thursday, 20 September 2018

Reality of Ashura (10th of Muharram)


Today is Ashurah, the tenth day of the sacred month of Muharram. Muharram is the first lunar month in the Islamic calendar and it is one of the four sacred months mentioned in the Holy Qur’an (Surah 9:36). On this holy day, Muslims commemorate the deliverance of the people of Moses from the oppression and tyranny of the accursed Pharaoh of Egypt. In Judaism, Yom Kippur, likewise on the tenth day of the first month of Tishrei, is commemorated by fasting and prayer. When the Prophet Muhammad observed the Jews of Medina fasting on this day, he proclaimed:
نَحْنُ أَوْلَى بِمُوسَى مِنْهُمْ فَصُومُوهُ
“We are closer to Moses than them, so observe fast in it”
Initially the observance of fasting on the day of Ashurah was obligatory, but when Allah Most High obligated the month long fast of Ramadan, it became optional, though, of course, still highly encouraged. In order to distinguish the Muslims from the Jews, the Prophet said:
لَئِنْ بَقِيتُ إِلَى قَابِلٍ لأَصُومَنَّ التَّاسِعَ
“If I remain till the next [year], I shall fast on the ninth”
(Sahih Muslim)
Muslims should therefore fast on the ninth and tenth days of Muharram, and not merely on the tenth, in order to distinguish themselves from the Jews. There are some narrations about fasting on the eleventh in combination with the tenth, but they are not rigourously authenticated reports. Therefore, it is superior to stick to fasting on the ninth and tenth days of Muharram. The reader should bear in mind the fact that the Islamic calendar is a purely lunar calendar, while the Hebrew calendar was gradually changed in several ways from how it was originally instituted by the Torah. Like Muslims, the Israelites used to determine the beginning of the lunar month through moon-sighting. Where the crescent moon had been sighted, they would use fire-signals or smoke-signals to inform neighboring areas of the beginning of the new lunar month. Medieval rabbis then based their calendar on astronomical and mathematical calculations, motivated by a desire to fix the dates of important religious festivals well ahead of time. Incidentally, the modernist trend within the Muslim Ummah of today is following the footsteps of those medieval rabbis in wanting to change the Islamic calendar so that it too is based on astronomical calculations and not the traditional moon-sighting method. Now acccording to the Hadith narrated by Ibn Abbas ؓ, the Prophet observed the Jews fasting on this day and asked them why they were fasting, to which they answered:
هَذَا الْيَوْمُ الَّذِي ظَهَرَ فِيهِ مُوسَى عَلَى فِرْعَوْنَ
“This is the Day when Moses became victorious over Pharaoh”
It was then that the Prophet Muhammad said: “We are closer to Moses than them”. But it must be pointed out that, according to Judaism, it is Pesach (Passover) that commemorates the deliverance of Israel from Pharaoh, while Yom Kippur, the holiest of holy days, is a day of atonement and purification from sin. Passover is commemorated beginning on the fifteenth of the Hebrew month of Nisan. Nisan itself is the seventh month, but becomes the eighth month of the Hebrew calendar during the leap-year. Interestingly, the fifteenth of the Islamic lunar month of Sha’ban (the eighth lunar month), which according to many Muslims is a special night during which Allah Most High forgives His servants, except the polytheist infidel and the mushahin, meaning the innovator, as Imam al-Awza’i has explained. However, all of the Hadith regarding the virtue or distinction of the fifteenth of Sha’ban are weak. But regarding the month of Sha’ban itself, the Prophet did say that it is the month in which our deeds are raised up and presented to Allah Most High. Hence, it is the Sunnah to fast during the month of Sha’ban, so that one’s good deeds are presented to Allah while one is in a state of fasting (Sunan an-Nasa’i #2359). The point I would like to make is that while the date of the fifteenth of Sha’ban seems to correspond more closely to that of the date of Passover (both on the fifteenth day of their respective months), and likewise the date of the tenth of Muharram definitely corresponds to the date of Yom Kippur (both on the tenth day of their respective months – the first month of both calendars), what they commemorate seems to have been flipped. The tradition of the fifteenth of Sha’ban corresponds to the purpose of Yom Kippur, when God forgives His servants, and the reason for fasting on Ashurah, to commemorate the deliverance of the people of Moses from Pharaoh, is similar to the observance of Passover, which seems to commemorate the same thing. It is quite possible that the narrator of the Hadith regarding the virtue of fasting on Ashurah made a mistake regarding the reason for why the Jews were fasting on that day. By saying “we are closer to Moses than them”, the Prophet Muhammad may not necessarily have been referring to the deliverance of the people of Moses from Pharaoh, but merely the greater right of the Muslims to commemorate a day that was commemorated in the Torah (Leviticus 16:29-34; 23:27-32). And Allah knows best.

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