As we welcome the new Islamic year, we should take the time to reflect on ourselves and how we can make this year better than the last. One of the best opportunities to get a fresh start is by fasting the day of Ashura. Ashura literally means ‘the tenth’ and refers to the 10th day of Muharram, the first month in the Islamic calendar year
. It is a day that our Prophet Muhammad ﷺ fasted and encouraged us to fast as well. He ﷺ tells us that fasting on this day
forgives our sins from the previous year! What better way to get started on a clean slate?
The Prophet ﷺ never abandoned fasting the day of Ashura. We are told that, “There are four things which the Prophet never gave up: fasting Ashura, fasting during the ten days [of Dhul Hijjah], fasting three days of each month, and praying two rak’at before al-ghadah [i.e., Fajr].” [Sunan Al-Nasa'i #2416].
Given that fasting Ashura was so important to the Prophet ﷺ, you might be curious as to why this day is significant. Many of you may have heard that the Prophet ﷺ began fasting the day of Ashura when he arrived in Madinah and found the Jews fasting this day because it coincided with Passover. Ibn Abbas (rA) narrated that:
“When the Prophet ﷺ arrived at Madinah, the Jews were observing the fast on Ashura, and they said, ‘This is the day when Moses became victorious over Pharaoh.’ On that, the Prophet ﷺ said to his companions, ‘You (Muslims) have more right to celebrate Moses' victory than they have, so observe the fast on this day.’”
[Sahih Al-Bukhari #4680]
The importance of the day of Ashura, however, can be traced back to an earlier time. In fact, the Arabs from the Quraysh tribe used to fast this day before Islam. Aisha (rA), for example, tells us:
“During the pre-lslamic Era of Ignorance (Jahiliyya), the Quraysh used to observe fasting on the day of Ashura, and the Prophet ﷺ himself used to observe fasting on it too. But when he came to Madinah, he (continued) fasting the day and ordered the Muslims to fast it too. When (the command of fasting) Ramadan was revealed, fasting in Ramadan became an obligation, and fasting on Ashura was made voluntary. Whoever wished to fast it did so, and whoever did not wish to fast on it, did not fast.”
[Sahih Al-Bukhari #4504]
The fact that the pre-Islamic Arabs were observing Ashura tells us that doing so was, in reality, a remnant from the teachings of Prophet Ibrahim that they observed, similar to the rituals of Hajj. Another hadith, although it is weak, adds that Ashura “is the day that the ship of Prophet Nuh settled upon Mount Judi, and so Prophet Nuh fasted the day out of thankfulness to Allah” [Musnad Ahmad #8717].
Later in history, the Prophet’s grandson al-Husayn would be martyred at Karbala on the day of Ashura while opposing the unjust governance of his time. Imam at-Tabari reported that, in the days leading up to the massacre, al-Husayn reflected on the moral deterioration of some Muslims since the time of the Prophet ﷺ. The loss of truth and justice prompted him to think that true believers would wish to meet Allah to avoid these tribulations. He then concluded, “I can only regard death as martyrdom and life with these oppressors as a trial.” While the tragedy at Karbala holds theological implications for Shia Muslims that it does not hold for Sunni Muslims, we can interpret it in the grander scheme as another moment in which Allah saves His servant from oppression—this time through martyrdom.
Altogether, these events illustrate to us the historic significance of the day of Ashura. Not only did the Prophets of the past observe this day, but it seems to also be connected to moments of God’s victory on earth: Nuh (as) escaping the ridicule and opposition of his people, Musa (as) escaping the tyranny of the Pharaoh, and al-Husayn (rA) escaping the oppressors in power.So as we fast this day in pursuit of Allah’s forgiveness, let's reflect on the examples of the prophets and the righteous, who opposed tyranny and oppression
while standing up for the religion of Allah. As the new year unfolds, we pray that Allah forgives our sins of the past and gives us the strength to stand up for His Truth.