Muharram- History, Celebrations, And Significance Of Ashura

Muharram is the New Year’s Day of Muslims and it is a pious and important festival of the community. According to traditional customs, Muharram is the first month of the Islamic calendar and it means “forbidden”. As the name suggests this is a period of prayer and reflection of Muslims, where some Muslims do not participate in any joyous celebrations.

The Shias mourn on this day while Sunnis observe fasting for the entire day.

Muharram 2021

This year, Muharram will fall on Thursday, 19th August 2021 in India.

Considered to be an important festival among the Muslim community, the Muharram celebration continues for a period of 10 days. The 10th day, called the Day of Ashura is a public holiday in India. Therefore, Government offices, institutions, post offices, and banks are closed on this day.

Religious Background

According to legends, the third Shia Imam Hussain ibn Ali was the son of Hazrat Ali and the grandson of Prophet Muhammad. According to beliefs, in 680 AD Hussain ibn Ali protested against Caliph Yazid and he met martyrdom.

To honor Imam Hussain, Shia Muslims start mourning from the first night of Muharram and continue for ten nights. These are the most significant days as during this time Hussain was beheaded and his family members were imprisoned and were deprived of water. Moreover, most of his followers were killed by the army of Yazid I at the Battle of Karbala. Muslims remember this massacre on the 10th day, called “Ashura“. Muslims belonging to the Shia sect often wear black clothes on Muharram. 

battle of karbala- Ashura
Battle of Karbala

On the other hand, the Day of Ashura is an auspicious day for Sunni Muslims. They observe this 10-day period as a time of fasting as they remember the victory of Moses over the Pharaoh of Egypt.

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It was also during this time that Prophet Muhammad migrated from Mecca to Medina, which is known as Hijrah.


Muslims celebrate their new year by visiting the mosque, praying to Allah for well-being, and spending time with their families and friends.

People also like to cook sweet dishes like zarda rice, sooji ka halwa, Poha Kheer, Muharram ka sharbat during the festival and share with their family and friend circle when breaking their fast. Fakia, a traditional food platter made up of nuts, seeds, dried fruits, and sweets is delivered to loved ones on Ashura.

fakia a Muharram dish
Fakia- A Muharram Dish

Reading Ziarat Ashura – the book containing salutations to the martyrs of Karbala, on the Day of Ashura is a traditional practice.

An important part of the Muharram celebrations is bringing taziya, which is a replica of the mausoleum of Imam Hussain. The word taziya comes from the Arabic word aza which translates to commemorating the dead. Muslims bring Taziya with immense care and place it inside the azakhana (a private imambada), a temporary space created for Muharram. Then they aesthetically embellish it with flowers and itr (perfume). After this people perform matam (gentle beating of the chest and head to mourn the tragedy of Karbala). You can bring home Taziya on any day between the eve of the first day of Muharram and the ninth day. Then, it is buried on the tenth day , when Imam Hussain was martyred.

tazia procession during Muharram
Processions carrying Tazia

Facts About Muharram

Here are some interesting facts to know about the festival.

1. According to Prophet Muhhamad fasting on the Day of Ashura will wash away all the sins of the last year. Hence, many Muslims choose to fast on the ninth and tenth days of this month.

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2. Shia Muslim sects often practice chest-beating, and some also self-flagellate and cut their foreheads.

Chest beating during Muharram
Whereas, Sunni Muslims consider Ashura as a day of respect for the Prophet Moses and do not take part in this ritual.

3. For the first 10 days of Muharram, Shia Muslims observe a period of mourning for the martyred grandson of the Holy Prophet Muhammad. They refrain from any joyous celebrations like eating meat, especially during the day, Donning new outfits. They will not even marry during the Muharram period. 

4. During Muharram, women perform mourning rituals in an azakhana and men practice Muharram outside in processions and in imambade (plural of imambada).

5. They dress in black mourning clothes out of respect for Imam Hussain and to represent their internal grief.

Muharram Celebrations In India

Muharram celebrations take place all across the country especially in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, and Karnataka. Mappilas, The Muslim community in Kerala, celebrate Muharram by carrying out processions in memory of Hussain ibn Ali.

In Hyderabad, Shia Muslims organize parades and processions and read the book of Ziarat Ashura.

Significance of Muharram

While for Sunni Muslims, Muharram is a day of celebration, for Shia Muslims, it is a day of mourning. However, both the sects have almost identical traditions.

muharram greetings

Muharram is of great significance to Islamic culture, and it serves as a door to new beginnings and opportunities in the coming year. During this festival, Muslims also pray for forgiveness of sins and, most importantly, remember Hussain ibn Ali.