Shiite Muslims in Iraq commemorate Ashura holy day

Death of Prophet Mohammed's grandson is considered a symbol of humanity’s struggle against injustice, tyranny and oppression

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Hundreds of thousands of black-clad Shiite Muslims converged on the Iraqi shrine city of Karbala on Tuesday, weeping and beating their chests on Ashura — the holiest day in their calendar.

Ashura is held to mourn the death of the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson Imam Hussein bin Ali. He was killed in a battle outside Karbala in modern day Iraq in 680 AD by the army of the second Umayyad caliph, Yazid bin Muawiyah. Imam Hussein and his brother Imam Abbas are entombed in gold-domed shrines in Karbala.

Iraqi President Barham Salih extended his "sincere condolences" to the Islamic world, Iraqi people and the highest Shiite religious authority. He said Imam Hussein's sacrifice had become a light on the "path of freedom".

Amid rising tension between the country's political rivals over forming a new government since October's national elections, Mr Salih called on Iraqis to come together.

"We need to be inspired by the lessons and concepts of this immortal anniversary to unite and close the ranks to achieve reform and to serve our people," he said.

Black-clad pilgrims massed at the shrines of Imam Hussein and Imam Abbas to listen to a recitation of the story of Hussein's death.

Similar ceremonies took place in the capital Baghdad and in southern cities, including Iraq's second holy city Najaf, where the Prophet Mohammed's son-in-law Ali is buried.

Ashura's origins

The Al Taf battle in which Imam Hussein was killed was part of the dispute over who had the right to be Muslims’ spiritual leader after Prophet Mohammed. This eventually developed into a bitter schism between the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam.

Some Muslims, who became known as Shiites, argued that the Prophet recommended that his cousin and son-in-law, Imam Ali, to be the Muslims' caliph and spiritual leader after him.

But immediately after the death of the Prophet, Muslims chose another caliph with no blood relation to him. Imam Ali assumed that position following three caliphs.

After Imam Ali’s death, Muawiyah, who founded the Umayyad dynasty in Damascus, took power as caliph.

After he named his son Yazid as successor, Imam Ali’s followers rejected this, saying it breached an agreement under which Imam Hussein, Ali's son, should have succeeded.

When Imam Hussein refused to pledge allegiance to Yazid, he moved from Madinah to Al Taf outside Karbala, leading a revolution against him. To quell the revolt, Yazid sent an army that slaughtered Imam Hussein and most of his family in Al Taf.

His death was a defining moment in Islamic history and its commemoration has become the most emotive event for many Shiite Muslims around the world.

That day was called Ashura, meaning the 10th in Arabic, which falls in the first month of the Islamic calendar Muharram.

The death of Imam Hussein is considered by the Shiites as a symbol of humanity’s struggle against injustice, tyranny and oppression.

Ashura is a national holiday in Iraq and devoted pilgrims travel there from neighbouring countries such as Iran, Gulf states, Pakistan and India to mark it.

Ashura rituals mainly involve self-flagellation, with crowds of mourners striking themselves and some lacerating their heads with blades. Volunteers welcome and serve food and drink to large numbers of mourners.

It is not uncommon for Sunnis and other sects and religious minorities to observe Ashura or take part in the procession in Iraq.

Since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led regime and brought Shiites to power, Shiites have been able to commemorate Ashura.

Since then, religious occasions and rituals observed by Shiites have attracted Sunni extremists, who consider the service as heretic.

Pilgrims have been attacked by suicide bombers, rockets and bombs but, since declaring that ISIS had been defeated in late 2017, such attacks have declined significantly.

On Tuesday, Iraqi security forces foiled a suicide attack against mourners in a remote village in the Diyala province in eastern Iraq.

Updated: August 09, 2022, 12:19 PM