Muharram is the first month of the Islamic New year and its significance lies in its mourning with processions and self- flagellation rituals called ‘Talwar Zani’, which makes using blades to hurt one’s body.
Also known as the Day of Ashura, it is observed on the tenth-day of Muharram, which commemorates the day when the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, Husayn ibn Ali was killed in a battle. Also the day celebrates the beginning of ‘hijra’, the migration or the journey of the Islamic prophet Muhammad with his followers from Mecca to Medina in June 622 CE.
All these customs are believed to be showing one’s faith and solidarity Husain and his family and mourn his death. Another angle of the festival is that people regret that they were not able to participate in the battle to fight and save Ali and his family. In the month of Muharram, Muslims are forbidden to fight but the customs is rarely upheld in conflict-ridden zones.
Though both Sunni and Shia Muslims observe the 10th Day of Muharram worldwide, there are difference as most Shia Muslims observe the Day of Ashura as of mourning and commemorates Husayn ibn Ali’s death in the Battle of Karbala on 10 Muharram in the year 61 AH. In many of the Shia countries of Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and others, the commemoration of Husayn ibn Ali is a national holiday.
The Sunni Muslims refer it as the Day of Atonement when the Israelites were freed from the Pharaoh of Egypt. The legend goes that Prophet Muhammad came to Medina and saw the Jews fasting on the tenth day of Muharram. When asked about it, they reportedly said, “This is a good day, this is the day when Allah saved the children of Israel from their enemy and Musa (Moses) fasted on this day.”
Though self-flagellation with knives or chains was banned by the supreme leader of Iran and Shia cleric, Ali Khamenei and by Hezbollah in Lebanon, leaders like Mohammad Al-Shirazi of Iraq still promote the violent rituals as a way of remembering the pain of Husayn ibn Ali.
These difference often lead to violence in countries with significant populations of both sects. Last week’s suicide attack in Lahore, bordering the Wagah gateway to India, witnessed 60 people killed in a blast. Similarly, in 2011, more than 63 people were killed and 160 wounded in a suicide attack at a shrine in Kabul, Afghanistan on Dec.11, 2011.