Ashura is an Islamic holy day that falls on the 10th day of the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar, Muharram. The holiday is recognized for different reasons by each of the two main branches of Islam. Shia Muslims recognize Ashura as the day of Husayn’s martyrdom. Sunni Muslims, however, celebrate Ashura as the day that Allah split the Red Sea for Moses and his people’s escape from Pharaoh.
What is Ashura?
The disagreement over who would succeed Muhammad as leader of the faith after his death caused the Islamic faith to split into two distinct branches. A large group of Muslims desired for leadership of the faith to remain within Muhammad’s bloodline, while others sought for those that were thought to be more prepared and equipped for the role to take responsibility. Those who elected for leadership to stay in Muhammad’s bloodline became the Shia Muslims. Sunni Muslims are those who believe leadership should be chosen by election or agreement within the community.
After several leaders succeeded Muhammad, Yazid eventually became the leader of the faith. Husayn, a descendant of Muhammad, refused to accept the legitimacy of Yazid’s leadership. Husayn stood against Yazid but was not looking for violence; he practiced peace much like his grandfather, Muhammad. However, Husayn and his followers were massacred in the Battle at Karbala. He is known by the Shia Muslims today as a martyr that stood strong for political justice. The differences in Ashura for the Sunni and Shia Muslims stem from this disagreement.
Shia Muslims recognize the day in remembrance of Husayn’s death and martyrdom at the Battle of Karbala. Since Husayn was the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, he was believed by this sect to be in line for Caliph, leader of the Islamic faith. Ashura is a solemn time of mourning for the Shiites. The day consists of sermons, recounts of Husayn’s life, poetry that portrays his virtues, and passion plays. Some Shia Muslims even harm themselves by self-flagellation or blood-letting in order to pay respect to Husayn. Mourning rituals continue and black clothing is often worn throughout the day.
Sunni Muslims celebrate Ashura as the day that Allah split the Red Sea for Moses and his people’s escape from Pharaoh. Some Sunni Muslims may also recognize Ashura as a day to celebrate Noah leaving the Ark. Ashura is a time to show gratitude and thankfulness to God for the victory He has given to His people. Sunni Muslims do this by participating in fasting. The tone is much more joyful and celebratory than it is for Shia Muslims. The holiday of Ashura symbolizes a time of peace and reflection. For this sect of Islam, it is a celebration rather than a time of mourning.
There are several ways to incorporate the gospel into conversations regarding Ashura. When speaking to a Shia Muslim, the death of Husayn can be related to the death of Jesus. Husayn is believed to be a man of virtue and honor. He died for the sake of what he believed was right. As Christians, we can use this as an avenue to speak about our belief in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the Son of God. He lived a perfect life and died on the cross for the sake of sinners.
When discussing Ashura with Sunni Muslims, we can use our understanding of the splitting of the Red Sea and of Noah’s ark to find common ground. As Christians interacting with Muslims, we must keep in mind that much of the history found in the Bible is found in the Quran as well; this offers us a way to find similarities. Using what is common to both Christians and Muslims can provide a level of understanding on which to start a gospel conversation. Both the parting of the Red Sea and Noah’s ark are examples of God’s deliverance for His people. These stories from the Old Testament can be used to illustrate God’s ultimate deliverance through His Son, Jesus Christ.
As the time of Ashura draws near, we can prepare ourselves to point Muslims to faith in Christ whether it is through a conversation about the Red Sea, Noah’s ark, or the martyrdom of Jesus.
Learn more about sharing the gospel with Muslims.