Sundown today marked the beginning of the Islamic holiday known as Ashura or عاشورا (ʿāshūrā). This is the tenth day of the month of Muharram (محرم), or in other words the tenth day of the new Islamic year, and it takes its name from the Arabic name of the numeral ۱۰ (our 10), عشر (ʿashr). Please read some of the general information about the holiday at my Arabic site, but then come back here for the story of why it is such an important day in Shiʿism.
Ashura is fundamentally important in Shiʿism because on this day, in the Hijri year 61 (680 for non-Muslims), Imam Husayn (حسین), the son of Ali (علی), was martyred in battle with the armies of the Umayyad Caliph Yazid I (یزید) at Karbala, in modern Iraq. Yazid was the son of the previous Caliph, Muʿawiyah (مُعاویه), who had promised when he became Caliph that he would not appoint his son as his successor, so, um, it was kind of awkward when he did exactly that. Before he died Muʿawiyah warned Yazid that the latter would have to do something about Husayn, who as the son of Ali and grandson of Muhammad (محمد) was uniquely positioned to re-litigate the grievances of the civil war that had put Muʿawiyah in power. When Husayn, who was living in Medina but relocated to Mecca around the time that Yazid took power, got wind that Yazid was probably about to send an army into Arabia (Yazid ruled out of Damascus as his father had done) after him, he proposed to leave Mecca and go to Kufa, in Iraq. In doing this he intended to spare Mecca the ravages of war and to establish himself in a city that had strongly supported his father Ali during the aforementioned civil war.
Husayn sent an emissary to Kufa to pave the way for his arrival, who was warmly received by the Kufan people. Husayn set out, but as he approached Kufa word came that the newly appointed governor there had executed Husayn’s emissary and that the people of Kufa really hadn’t tried to stop him, nor did they seem inclined to come out in support of Husayn. With a Caliphal army bearing down on him and no sanctuary ahead, Husayn could either stand and fight or try to retreat back into Arabia; he chose to fight. The Battle of Karbala was over before it really began; Husayn’s men were outnumbered on the order of 35-to-1 in the most generous historical estimate (5000 in Yazid’s army against 150 in Husayn’s force; the army Yazid sent may have been as large as 100,000 against as few as 80 or so of Husayn’s men). Although Husayn is reputed to have fought incredibly well, he was eventually surrounded and killed.
Husayn’s martyrdom, commemorated each year on Ashura, is arguably the event that crystallized what we now know as Shiʿi Islam. Although the roots of Shiʿism go back to Ali and his right to succeed Muhammad, Husayn’s death was the point of no return for Sunni-Shiʿi relations. It’s a bit analogous to the Christian emphasis on Easter, but instead of celebrating a resurrection Ashura mourns an execution; it’s also analogous to Good Friday in this way. Fasting is in order, and pilgrimages to Karbala and to Husayn’s shrine there are common. It’s also an opportunity for Shiʿi worshipers to seek repentance on behalf of those in Kufa who turned their backs on Husayn in his hour of need. Practices like self-flagellation are common but usually discouraged by mainstream Shiʿa clerics (like Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, for example). This is not a celebratory holiday and there is no special greeting that one would use on this day.
Because Ashura is such a heavily sectarian holiday, it takes on modern political overtones and has in the past seen brutal sectarian violence. Reza Shah Pahlavi tried to ban the commemoration in the 1930s because he feared its implicit reverence for the idea of martyrdom against an unjust or repressive authority (like, say, the Pahlavis). Saddam Hussein tried to stop Iraqi Shiʿa from commemorating the day, again because of the whole “resistance to repressive authority” thing but also because he feared the day’s power to unite Iraq’s Shiʿi majority. Virtually every Ashura since Saddam was shuffled off this mortal coil has seen some violence directed at Shiʿi mourners in Karbala; this year’s Ashura has been no different. Ashura violence has struck at one time or another in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran, and it’s entirely possible that this Ashura will see some kind of violent clash in Egypt.