The month of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic (Hijri) calendar, is one of four months that, in addition to Ramadan, are explicitly identified as sacred months in the Qurʾan. This is probably an extension of a pre-Islamic Arabian tradition wherein certain months were set aside to be free from violence. The tenth day of Muharram, Ashura (ashr is the Arabic word for “ten”) is observed by both Sunni and Shiʿa Muslims, but for different reasons. For Sunnis, this is believed to be the day when God parted the Red Sea to allow Moses and the Israelites to flee the oncoming Egyptian army, and it’s also a day of atonement similar to the Jewish Yom Kippur (and, since the Jewish and Hijri new years fell on the same Gregorian date this year, Ashura and Yom Kippur will also fall on the same date, October 12).
For Shiʿa Muslims, Ashura is the day when, in the year 61 AH (680 CE if you’re on the Gregorian calendar) the third imam, Husayn, was killed (martyred if you prefer) at the Battle of Karbala. Ashura commemorations involve prayer, battle reenactments, marching, chanting, self-mortification (in extreme cases), and, in particular, a large (though not as large as the one that happens 40 days later) pilgrimage to Husayn’s shrine at Karbala. It is the climax of a ten day period of mourning, beginning on the first day of Muharram (i.e., today).
Unfortunately, the modern world being what it is, this large gathering of Shiʿa pilgrims has been roughly handled for many years now, first by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which mistreated its Shiʿa population in general, and in more recent years by ISIS (in all of its incarnations), which will take advantage of any chance it gets to murder large numbers of Shiʿa. Since 2004 some kind of violence has attended the Ashura pilgrimage every year, and this year, with the Iraqi army and its allies nearly ready to begin their offensive to drive ISIS out of Mosul but with ISIS still quite capable of striking viciously inside Shiʿa-controlled parts of Iraq, it seems the violence has already begun:
A bomber targeted a market in the Amil neighbourhood of southern Baghdad on Monday, killing at least six people and wounding 16.
A similar attack hit a procession in the eastern Mashtal district, killing five and wounding 18, the sources added.
Ali al-Fraiji, an Iraqi journalist, told Al Jazeera from Baghdad that a third attack also took place that killed three people and injured seven others.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), claimed responsibility for the blasts that took place at events commemorating Ashoura, which marks the killing of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, by the army of Caliph Yazid in 680 AD.
Since the more ISIS loses on the battlefield the more violent its terrorist response usually gets, this has the potential to be a tragically violent Ashura. The effectiveness of Iraqi security forces will be tested over the next nine days, and what happens will tell us a lot about ISIS’s remaining capacity to dish out pain and suffering.
I would be remiss if I didn’t note that sectarian violence doesn’t just accompany Ashura in Iraq. Over the past few years there have been attacks against Ashura gatherings in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia as well. This is, sadly, that time of year.