Ashura is the 10th day of the Islamic month of Muharram. While it is primarily a holy day for Shia Muslims, Ashura is also a day of fasting for some Sunni Muslims. The basis for Ashura in Sunni Islam, according to tradition, is the prophet Muhammad's adoption of this practice after observing Jews in Medina fasting on this day.

Sunni vs Shia Islam

Islam began in the year 610 when the prophet Muhammad began receiving messages from Allah (the Arabic word for God). With the death of Muhammad in 632, the Islamic community was in need of new leadership. What followed were contrasting opinions over the rightful caliph (or successor to Muhammad), which were the basis of the Sunni-Shia schism. Sunnis believed the choice should be based on experience, and thus favored Abu Bakr, Muhammad's friend and father-in-law. Shias believed only members of Muhammad's bloodline should be eligible, and thus favored Ali, his nephew and son-in-law. The first four caliphs were Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali. Sunnis accept them all and call them the Righteous Caliphs. Shias, however, reject this idea and consider Ali as the first caliph in Islam. Eighty percent of the world's Muslims are Sunnis.

Ashura in the Islamic Calendar

Unlike the western Gregorian calendar, which measures years based on the Earth's rotation around the sun, the Islamic calendar is lunar-based, meaning that months are measured by the cycles of the moon. Ashura (from the Arabic word "ashr," or "ten") is the 10th day of Muharram, the first month out of 12 total in the Islamic calendar year. The Islamic calendar began with the Hijra, or Muhammad's move from Mecca to Medina, in 622, or 1 A.H. (After the Hijra). Since 12 lunar cycles are shorter in length than one solar year, the exact date of Ashura moves roughly five days sooner in the Gregorian calendar every year.

The Religious Origins of Ashura

In Islam, the Quran is the compendium of messages that the prophet Muhammad received from Allah in the Arabic language, while hadith (from the Arabic root "hadatha," meaning to speak) are sayings of Muhammad that were recorded later by a second party. Ashura in Sunni Islam comes from a hadith in which the prophet Muhammad encountered Jewish followers in the Arabian Peninsula who were fasting from the ninth to the 11th day of the month of Muharram. Pleased by this showing of piety, Muhammad chose to shorten the length of the Jewish fast to the 10th day of Muharram while making it a permanent obligation for Muslims.

The Practical Meaning of Fasting during Ashura

The religious significance of Ashura in Sunni Islam is to memorialize the role of Allah in saving Moses and the Israelites from the Egyptian pharaoh. Islam includes many aspects of Jewish tradition, including the example of Allah bestowing his benevolence on Moses by splitting the Red Sea. The general purpose of fasting in Islam is to raise awareness of an important religious theme by denying everyday pleasures. This is obligatory during the Islamic month of Ramadan in order to recognize the plight of less fortunate Muslims in the world. In the case of Ashura in Sunni Islam, fasting is not obligatory, but it is recommended as a way for Muslims to recognize the omnipotence and benevolence of Allah.