There are deep and intense divisions among jurisprudents about fasting on the day of ‘Ashura. Some jurisprudents believe that it is highly recommended to fast on the day of ‘Ashura. Others say it is prohibited [haram] to fast on the day of ‘Ashura and some believe that fasting on the day of ‘Ashura is disapproved but not absolutely prohibited.
There are also other questions related to this issue. For example, has the fast of ‘Ashura been enacted or legalized for the sake of appeasing and being in agreement with the Jews? Was it enacted before the fast of the holy month of Ramadan and later suspended when the fast of Ramadan was enacted?
Did the Holy Prophet (S) and the Ahl al-Bayt (as) ever fast on the day of ‘Ashura? Did Bani Umayyah put emphasis on this fast to show their happiness and pleasure? These are some of the questions that will be discussed in this chapter.
Jurisprudents differ in their opinions about whether the judgement of the fast of the day of ‘Ashura was enacted before the Qur’anic verse which enacted the fast of the holy month of Ramadan and whether it was obligatory [wajib] to fast on that day or not.
According to certain opinions put forth by some Shi‘ah scholars and the purport of some Islamic traditions, the first possibility is that it was wajib to fast on the day of ‘Ashura before the Qur’anic verse enacting the fast of the holy month of Ramadan was revealed. Also, some Sunnis, among them Abu HHanifah, believe that it was wajib to fast on the day of ‘Ashura.
The Shafi‘i sect apparently believe that it was not wajib to fast on the day of ‘Ashura. Two opinions have been quoted from Shafi‘i and two hadiths have been quoted by Ahmad. We will now mention some of the opinions expressed by jurisprudents belonging to different sects.
1. The renowned researcher Muhaqqiq Qummi says, “What can be deduced from the wording of hadiths is that apparently the fast of the day of ‘Ashura was enacted before the fast of Ramadan and was later abandoned.”1
2. Sayyid ‘Amili writes, “There are a lot of differing opinions about fasting on the day of ‘Ashura. Was it wajib or was it not? That which has been recorded in our hadiths is that fasting on the day of ‘Ashura was wajib before the enactment of fasting in the holy month of Ramadan. Among the people who narrated these hadiths are Zurarah and Muhammad ibn Muslim.”2
3. Allamah Majlisi relates from the book, “Al-Muntaqi” that in the first year of migration to Medina, Allah’s Prophet (S) fasted on ‘Ashura and the other people followed suit.”3
Upon study of the sayings of the Shi‘ah scholars, we infer that they have not put forward a definite opinion about fasting on the day of ‘Ashura. They have contented themselves with narrating the differences which exist among the scholars and in hadiths. Only the renowned researcher Muhaqqiq Qummi has cited hadiths that apparently indicate the necessity of fasting on this day.
1. Qadi ‘Ayni says, “They have differed about the judgement of fasting during the early days of Islam. Abu Hanifah has said that it was wajib to fast on the day of ‘Ashura in the past. Shafi‘i’s companions have given two opinions: the most famous opinion is that it was highly recommended [mustahabb-e mu’akkad] right from the beginning of Islam and Islamic law and never has it been wajib for the Islamic ummah.
After the revelation of the Qur’anic verse enacting the fast of Ramadan, it remained mustahabb, but lost the recommendation and emphasis it enjoyed before. The second opinion of Shafi‘i’s companions is similar to that of Abu Hanifah.
‘Ayad has said that some predecessors used to believe that this fast was wajib and remained wajib without any abrogation even after the verse enacting the fast of Ramadan, but supporters of this opinion have been weakened and vanquished and hence common consensus is that this fast is not wajib, and they maintain that it is mustahabb.”4
2. Ibn Qudamah says, “There are differing opinions about the fast of the day of ‘Ashura as to whether it was wajib or not. Qadi says that it was wajib and this is as a result of religious deduction and conclusion. He has deduced this using two rationales. It has also been quoted from Ahmad ibn Hanbal that the fast of the day of ‘Ashura was wajib.”5
3. Kasani writes, “The fast of the day of ‘Ashura was wajib during those days.”6
4. ‘Asqalani says, “It can be deduced from the total sum of reported hadiths that this fast was wajib.” After this, he has listed six reasons to support and prove his claim.7
Ibn Hajar writes, “In matters where Allah’s command and law had not yet been revealed, the Holy Prophet (S) preferred to follow the Jewish ways, especially in matters where the Jews were opposed to the ways of the idol-worshipers.”8
This claim is opposed to hadiths quoted from the Holy Prophet (S) because he said the following about opposing the Jews,
«صوموا عاشوراء وخالفوا فيه اليهود.»
“Fast on the day of ‘Ashura and by doing so oppose the Jews.”9
Also, Ya‘la ibn Shaddad narrates that he heard from his father that Holy Prophet (S) said,
«صلّوا في نعالکم وخالفوا اليهود.»
“Pray your prayers in your slippers and in this way oppose the Jews.”10
And it has been reported in another hadith that the Holy Prophet (S) said,
«لا تشبّهوا باليهود.»
“Do not resemble the Jews in any way.”11
In light of the above traditions, it cannot be claimed that the fast of the day of ‘Ashura was enacted for the sake of imitating or resembling the Jews.
When we study history, we come to know that the Jews organized their traditions around their own calendar. The Jews had their own months which did not coincide with the Islamic calendar. There is no logic in saying that they ‘fasted on the 10th of Muharram’, unless it could be proven that this date always coincided with the Jewish day of fast. Their fasting did not take place every year on the day of ‘Ashura and certainly not in the holy month of Muharram.
Apparently, the tradition of the Jews at the time of the Holy Prophet (S) was that on the 10th of the month of Tishri of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, the Jews observed a fast. They say God delivered Moses and his people and drowned Pharaoh and his forces on that day. It cannot be said, however, that Pharaoh was drowned on the day of ‘Ashura.
On the contrary, these events are said to have taken place on the 10th of Tishri which does not correspond to the day of ‘Ashura. Therefore, that which has been said about the fast of ‘Ashura having its roots in Judaism and that it has been imported from the Jews is baseless and not founded on truth.
Abu Rayhan says, “Tishri lasts thirty days… and on the tenth day of that month, the Jews start their fast of Yom Kippur, which some call ‘Ashura. This fast carries more virtues for the Jews than the other fasts. That is why it is wajib.”12
Hasan ibn ‘Ali Saqqaf Shafi‘i says, “We do not find any evidence to prove that the Jews used to fast or hold a festival on the tenth of Muharram. There is no written historical evidence to suggest this. On the contrary, they used to fast on the tenth of Tishri.”13
He also says, “The Jews have their own special calendar which has very apparent differences with the Islamic calendar. This calendar begins with the month of Tishri, which is followed by the month of Heshvan, and ends with the twelfth month called Elul…
The number of days in a normal year is either 353 or 354 or 355 days. However, in a leap year, the number of days is either 383 or 384 or 385. And therefore, the calendar that is now observed by the Jews is such that the months are lunar but the years are solar.”14
About the Arab calendar that was used before the Islamic calendar came into effect, Mahmud Pasha Falaki says, “It can be gathered and deduced from history that the Arab Jews also had ‘Ashura, but their ‘Ashura was on the tenth of Tishri which is the first month of their calendar according to Jewish civil law and the eighteenth month of their religious calendar. Also, the Jews follow a solar calendar.
Therefore, the day of ‘Ashura on which Pharaoh was drowned is not at all connected to Muharram. In addition to that, it was merely accidental that it coincided with the Holy Prophet’s (S) entry into Medina.”15
There is a number of hadiths that have mentioned the fast of ‘Ashura:
With recourse to Shi‘ah sources of hadiths, we come to know that it has been narrated in some hadiths that the one who quits this fast has to atone and expiate for his actions for up to one year. It has also been reported that the Holy Prophet (S) himself used to fast on the day of ‘Ashura, and strongly advised everyone, even children, to fast on that day.
This demonstrates and proves that the day of ‘Ashura and its fast are overflowing with heavenly blessings.16
In other reported hadiths, the opposite has been narrated; that is to say, the fasting on the day of ‘Ashura has been forbidden and is one of the prohibited actions. Some other hadiths say it is an act of innovation, and fasting on that day is not a part of the religion.
Others have gone so far as to say that the reward of fasting on the day of ‘Ashura is the fire of Hell. It has been reported in other hadiths that the Holy Prophet never used to fast on that day.
As regards the conduct of the Infallible Imams (as), it is important to mention that no hadith has reached us suggesting that they or their companions used to fast on the day of ‘Ashura. If fasting on this day were mustahabb, the Infallibles would not fail to fast on that day.17
The hadiths which have been recorded in Sunni books regarding this issue are also varied. The meaning of many of these hadiths is that it is highly recommended [mustahabb-e mu’akkad] to observe the fast of ‘Ashura.
However, another group of hadiths contradict the first, in the sense that they say that the Holy Prophet (S) never used to fast on that day and never at all ordered anyone to fast on that day after the Qur’anic verse enacting the fasting of the month of Ramadan.18
1. On his own chain of transmission Shaykh Saduq narrates that Imam al-Baqir (as) said,
«کان صومه قبل شهر رمضان، فلمّا نزل شهر رمضان ترك.»
“The fast of the day of ‘Ashura used to be observed before the Qur’anic verse about the fast of the holy month of Ramadan, but after that it was discontinued.”19
2. Kulayni on his own chain of transmission narrates from both Imam al-Baqir (as) and Imam al-Sadiq (as) that they said,
«لا تصم في عاشوراء، ولا عرفة بمکة، ولا في المدينة، ولا في وطنك، ولا في مصر من الامصار.»
“On the days of ‘Ashura and ‘Arafah, do not fast whether you are in Medina, your hometown, or any other city.”20
3. Kulayni has also narrated that he asked Imam al-Baqir (as) about fasting on the day of ‘Ashura. Answering his question, Imam al-Baqir (as) said,
«صوم متروك بنزول شهر رمضان، والمتروك بدعة.»
“This is a fast which was discontinued after the Qur’anic verse enacting the fast of the holy month of Ramadan was revealed. Doing that which is abandoned is an act of innovation.”21
The narrator (Kulayni) says, “I asked this same question from Imam al-Sadiq’s (as) father, too. He gave the same answer as Imam al-Sadiq (as) and added,
«أما انّه صوم يوم ما نزل به کتاب، ولا جرت به سنّة، الاّ سنّة آل زياد بقتل الحسين بن علي.»
‘Beware! This is a fast about which no Qur’anic verse has been revealed and is not an observed way of conduct. It was only the way of conduct for the partisans of Ziyad when they killed al-Husayn ibn ‘Ali (as)’.”
4. Kulayni again on his own chain of transmission narrates that ‘Abd al-Malik said, “I asked Imam al-Sadiq (as) about fasting on the ninth day of Muharram and the day of ‘Ashura. Imam al-Sadiq said, ‘The ninth day is the day when al-Husayn ibn ‘Ali (as) and his companions got besieged and surrounded by the enemy.
It was the day that the mounted soldiers of Sham were enlisted and brought to Karbala where they camped. Ibn Marjanah and ‘Umar ibn Sa‘d were very pleased because of the great numbers of mounted soldiers and considered al-Husayn (as) and his companions as weak. They believed that no help would come for al-Husayn (as) because the people of Iraq would not help him.
O my Father! May I be sacrificed for you, O you who were oppressed in a foreign land!’ Then, Imam al-Sadiq continued, ‘However, the day of ‘Ashura is the day when al-Husayn ibn ‘Ali (as) fell to the ground (was martyred) along with all his companions. Should fasting be observed on such a day? Never at all!
I swear upon the Lord of the Sacred House (the Ka‘bah)! Such a day is not a day for fasting. That day is only reserved for sorrow and mourning that has been inflicted on the inhabitants of the skies and the earth altogether. It is a day of happiness and pleasure for the son of Marjanah and Ibn Ziyad’s partisans and the people of Sham.
Allah’s curse be on them and their offspring. The day of ‘Ashura is a day when all the tombs and mausoleums of the earth except the tombs of Sham cry for al-Husayn. Therefore, Allah will unite on the Day of Resurrection anyone who fasts on that day or looks upon that day as a day of celebration with Ibn Ziyad and his partisans, discontent with a transformed heart…’”22
5. Kulayni also quotes from Ja‘far ibn ‘Isa that he said, “I asked Imam al-Rida (as) about fasting on the day of ‘Ashura. I also asked his opinion about what people say about this fast. The Imam (as) said,
«عن صوم ابن مرجانة تسألني.»
‘You are asking me about the fast of the son of Marjanah?’”23
6. On his own chain of transmission, Kulayni quotes from Zayd Narsi that he said, “I heard ‘Ubayd Allah ibn Zurarah asking Imam al-Sadiq about fasting on the day of ‘Ashura. Imam al-Sadiq (as) replied saying,
«من صامه کان حظّه من صيام ذلك اليوم حظّ ابن مرجانة وآل زياد.»
‘The reward for anyone fasting on that day will be given to the son of Marjanah and Ibn Ziyad’s partisans’.”24
Zayd says, “I asked what the reward of fasting on that day is.’ The Imam (as) replied,
«النار، اعاذنا الله من النار، ومن عمل يقرب من النار.»
“The Fire, may Allah save us from the Fire. Anyone who fasts on the day of ‘Ashura has made himself nearer to the Fire.”25
Although the chains of transmission of hadiths which denote that fasting on the day of ‘Ashura is prohibited have been disputed by some jurisprudents, we can nonetheless vindicate them and make up for their weak forms and aspects:
1. These hadiths have been recorded in reliable and credible books. Naraqi is quoted to have said, “The weaknesses of chains of transmission for these hadiths cannot prevent us from utilizing them because these hadiths have been recorded in authoritative and credible books, especially those that are situated among authentic hadiths.”26
2. These hadiths are common; perhaps they are even close to a state of successive transmition. Sayyid ‘Ali Tabataba’i writes, “Texts that exhort and encourage fasting on the day of ‘Ashura, because of the weaknesses of their chains of transmission and the absence of someone to put them to general practical application, contradict many hadiths. These are contradictory hadiths that are near to successive transmission; as such it is not at all possible to act upon them even out of laxity…”27
3. Hadiths which prevent fasting on the day of ‘Ashura have credible chains of transmission because Shaykh Tusi has proven that there is opposition and discrepancy between these hadiths and hadiths that encourage and exhort fasting on the day of ‘Ashura. This denotes the credibility of hadiths which prevent fasting on the day of ‘Ashura because contradictions are secondary to the credibility and dependability of the chain of transmission.
4. Hadiths which prevent fasting on the day of ‘Ashura are very credible because they conform with the way of life of the Infallibles (as) and their companions and also the way of life of all those committed and faithful to the religion.
In conclusion, it is preferable to avoid fasting on the day of ‘Ashura.
Some contemporary Shi‘ah jurisprudents have issued religious edicts [fatwas] that fasting on the day of ‘Ashura is undesirable [makruh] but not absolutely prohibited [haram]. Other Shi‘ah jurisprudents, such as Bahrani and Majlisi, have gone so far as to say that it is haram to fast on the day of ‘Ashura.
We will now examine the proofs put forward as reasons for the abhorrence [kirahat] of fasting on the day of ‘Ashura:
1. Fasting on the day of ‘Ashura was a way of life for the enemies of Islam and the Ahl al-Bayt (as) which Muslims should not revive and imitate.
2. Hadiths which denote the permissibility or even the incumbency of fasting on the day of ‘Ashura can be interpreted as staying hungry as a result of deep sorrow on the day of ‘Ashura, not for the sake of ritual fasting, and/or can be interpreted as instances of dissimulation [taqiyyah].
3. Fasting on the day of ‘Ashura was not customary among the Ahl al-Bayt (as) and their companions. It was not their way of life.
4. We interpret the hadiths that appear to prohibit fasting on the day of ‘Ashura to denote abhorrence, not absolute prohibition, because there is unity of conjecture and analogy between them and those hadiths which prohibit fasting on the day of ‘Ashura, especially that some of those prohibitive hadiths appear to denote abhorrence.
Many Shi‘ah jurisprudents have issued religious edicts that it is recommended [mustahabb] to abstain from food from morning up to mid-afternoon on ‘Ashura, but not with the intention of fasting. Among those who have issued this fatwa are Shahid Thani28, Muhaqqiq Kurki29, ‘Allamah Hilli30, Muhaqqiq Ardabili31, Shahid Awwal32, Shaykh Baha’i33, Sabzevari34, Fayd Kashani35, Hurr ‘Amili36, Majlisi37, Kashif al-Ghita’38, Naraqi39, Muhaqqiq Qummi40, and others.
Bani Umayyah not only opposed holding mourning ceremonies for the Doyen of Martyrs, Imam al-Husayn (as), but they also went so far as to introduce it as a day for festivities and happy celebrations. They did this as a practical measure of opposing mourning for Imam al-Husayn (as).
Abu Rayhan Biruni writes, “Muslims believed that it was ominous and a cause of bad omens to burn tents or cause fires, carry the heads of dead people on spears, making horses race or run over dead bodies on the day of ‘Ashura because that was the day when the child of the Holy Prophet was killed.
These ominous actions have never at all occurred in the history of mankind, even among the most corrupt and perverted peoples. However, Bani Umayyah used to decorate and adorn themselves and hold festivities on the day of ‘Ashura. They used to invite guests to participate in their happy celebrations.
This custom was prevalent during their reign, and continued to exist even after their decline. On the other hand, the Shi‘ahs used to mourn and weep and visit the holy land, Karbala, where Imam al-Husayn (as) was killed.”41
Maqrizi writes, “The ‘Alavis, followers of Imam‘Ali (as), in Egypt used to mourn and cry on the day of ‘Ashura. After the fall of the Fatimids and their government, the Ayyubis ascended to power and started holding joyful celebrations in the same way and custom as the Shamis.
This vile custom was established by Hajjaj ibn Yusuf during the reign of ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan for the sake of opposing the Shi‘ahs of ‘Ali (as) who used to mourn and express sorrow on the day of ‘Ashura.” Then, he adds, “I myself have experienced and witnessed the celebrations held by the Ayyubis.”42
Ibn Hajar Haythami says, “The first person who instituted and inaugurated celebrations on the day of ‘Ashura was Hajjaj ibn Yusuf Thaqafi. He did this in the presence of ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan and a number of the Holy Prophet’s (S) companions and tabi‘in. It was then that it was announced that remembering al-Husayn (as) and his afflictions in sermons was forbidden [haram].43
Hasan ibn ‘Ali Saqqaf Shafi‘i says, “In the book called, “Al-Amir”, Makiyafilli has written about these issues and derived the contents of this book from facts regarding political survival. One of the strategies for political survival that he has adapted is the logic that “the end justifies the means”.
According to this principle, it is permissible for political leaders to bury the event of ‘Ashura for the sake of achieving their political aims; even though this is inconsistent with religion and acceptable moral standards; they have tried to extinguish the fire of ‘Ashura and have endeavored to bury the event of Karbala in this manner.
It is for this same reason that they resorted to fabricating and forging hadiths and attributing them to al-Husayn’s (as) ancestor, the Holy Prophet (S). Because the government propaganda apparatus was not consistent, discrepancies and contradictions appeared. They forged numerous hadiths for the sake of burying the event of Karbala, but none of these were successful.
The only thing that continued to hold and survive against all the odds was the event of Karbala. The issue of considering shedding the blood of al-Husayn (as) to be permissible [halal] is truly significant…”44
We can interpret the Shi‘ah hadiths which permit or even order fasting on the day of ‘Ashura to have been said out of dissimulation [taqiyyah] for the sake of bringing about agreement and conformity with hadiths narrated by the Sunnis and avoiding hostility and conflict. Therefore, the contradiction of these hadiths should not be considered.
Even if we consider these inconsistencies in Shi‘ah hadiths, we should put into practice those hadiths which oppose the Sunni belief of fasting on the day of ‘Ashura; that is to say, those hadiths which prevent fasting on this day.
Regarding those hadiths which say that the Holy Prophet (S) used to fast on the day of ‘Ashura, we interpret them to mean that the Holy Prophet (S) used to do this before the Qur’anic verse enacting the fast of the holy month of Ramadan.
In addition, those hadiths that have permitted fasting on the day of ‘Ashura and consider this fast to be recommended [mustahabb] do not seem to be correct because the hadiths narrated by Hasan ibn Abi Ghandar indicates that it is not acceptable to fast on a day of affliction and sorrow, but on the contrary fasting is done for the sake of thanksgiving and good fortune.
When we consider these hadiths together, we understand that it is recommended to abstain from food on the day of ‘Ashura up to the afternoon, but without the intention of fasting, and that we have to eat before the evening prayers. This is the purport and meaning of the hadiths narrated by Ibn Sanan.
Hadiths in this regard narrated by the Sunnis can also be justified and explained:
First of all, recently the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia have published an encyclopedic collection of fifteen volumes about weak [da‘if] hadiths arranged according to subject in a comprehensive manner.
A group of renowned instructors including ‘Ali Hasan ‘Ali Halabi, Dr. Ibrahim Taha Qaysi and Dr. Hamdi Muhammad Murad have done this extensive job. Twelve volumes of this work are about weak hadiths and three volumes are a table of contents of the hadiths. Some of the hadiths shown to be weak in this extensive work are about the event of ‘Ashura.
They have arranged these particular hadiths under various topics, such as: the heavens and the earth were created on the day of ‘Ashura; the event of ‘Ashura was on the ninth day; the fast of ‘Ashura atones for sins for a period of one year; anyone who provides the needs of his family on the day of ‘Ashura will be provided for a period of one year; on the day of ‘Ashura Allah divided the Red Sea for the Children of Israel [Bani Isra’il].
Secondly, the contents of hadiths narrated about fasting on the day of ‘Ashura are various: some denote that the Holy Prophet (S) ordered that we should fast on the day of ‘Ashura, but they have not made it clear when this order was issued; some denote that the Holy Prophet (S) gave this order in Medina;
some denote that the Holy Prophet (S) used to observe this fast before the advent of Islam and that it was abrogated after the Qur’anic verse which enacted the fast of the holy month of Ramadan; some say that this fast was begun when the Holy Prophet (S) entered Medina and this was done just for the sake of appeasing the Jews; some say that fasting on the day of ‘Ashura was instituted for the sake of opposing the Jews;
some say that the Holy Prophet (S) did not order anyone to fast on the day of ‘Ashura after the Qur’anic verse which instituted the fast of the holy month of Ramadan; some say that the fast of ‘Ashura continued to be observed up to the time when the Holy Prophet (as) passed away.
The many inconsistencies noted weaken the dependability of these hadiths.
Thirdly, many of these hadiths have either weak or false chains of narration, in spite of the fact that they have been narrated in the most dependable books of Sunni hadiths.
Fourthly, some of these hadiths have problems and weaknesses of denotation.