Muslims worldwide commemorate Ashura today, Thursday, a date which divides Sunni and Shia Muslims.  23 Muslims were murdered in Iraq yesterday, because of this day and its heavy symbolism, and millions of black-clad Shia have taken to the streets in Iran and Lebanon in public mourning today. Why?

Ashura (cognate with the Hebrew eser, meaning ten) is the tenth day of the Muslim month of Muharram.   All Muslims consider this month as holy, for its beginning marks the successful flight (hijrah) of Muhammad in 622 AD from his persecutors in Mecca to Yathrib (now Medina), where Jews welcomed him and gave him asylum.  That month begins the Islamic year, and the first Muharram, in 622 AD,  begins the entire Muslim calendar.

On Ashura, this tenth day of the first month, according to Islamic tradition, Muhammad found the Jews of Yathrib fasting.  He asked them why.  They explained that they were remembering The Creator’s deliverance of Moses and the Children of Israel from the ancient Egyptians.  Muhammad said that Moses was a Prophet of Islam and that Muslims too should celebrate this victory.  He also ordained that they should fast on that day, as an expiation for their sins over the previous year.  To this day, Sunni Muslims consider it praiseworthy to fast on this special day.  Some call it the Day of Atonement.

Originally, all Muslims were united around Muhammad.  Whatever he said, they believed to be dictated to him by the angel Gabriel.  When Muhammad died, the succession to his leadership was hotly disputed.  Broadly speaking, they separated into two main camps – the majority, who followed those chosen by the leaders of the community (Sunni), and a minority who followed Muhammad’s bloodline through his daughter Fatima and son-in-law Ali (Shia.)  Today, very roughly 75-90% of all Muslims are Sunni, and almost all the rest are Shia.  Both groups have evolved differing codes of law, and their attitudes to Ashura are markedly different.  Some in each group even consider the other group as heretics.

For Shia, the most important event in their history occurred on Ashura.  For it was on this day that their leader, Ali’s son Hussein, was decapitated and 72 of his followers were killed by the Sunni leader Yazid in 680 AD at the Battle of Karbala (in modern Iraq.)  In Shia eyes, Hussein, their Imam, was martyred, and they commemorate this each year with mourning and grief and long poems describing his suffering.  To a few, his pain is considered so great and distressing, that they cut themselves with knives or chains to share some of his pain.  This grieving has totally changed the nature of Ashura for the Shia, to the extent that Ashura is a public holy day throughout the Shia world.

Ashura symbolizes the difference between the two main branches of Islam, and has occasionally been a flashpoint for violence.  In 2004 and 2008, hundreds were killed and wounded on this day, during the Shia pilgrimage to Karbala.  The day has also witnessed great bloodshed from bombs in Baghdad, Karachi and Kabul in recent years.  Today’s victims in Iraq are a tragic consequence of the continuing hatred between extremists in the two communities.  Al Qaeda and its allies, viscerally anti-Shia as well as anti-Western, are often blamed for the slaughter.

In Shia eyes, Ashura, because of the clash of Hussein’s forces against the Sunni establishment, also symbolizes rebellion against what Shia see as evil government.  For this reason Reza Shah (the last Shah of Iran’s father) and Saddam Hussein forbade the public celebration of Ashura for some years, for fear of uprisings against their regimes.

Today, there is increasing competition between Sunni and Shia throughout the Islamic World.  Because of Shia Iran’s increasing power, enormous oil reserves, mushrooming nuclear industry and extensive missionary work worldwide, many of her Sunni neighbours and others feel threatened.  Shia power extends to Iraq, Assad’s Syria and Lebanese Hizbullah, a crescent of haters of Israel.  Wikileaks revealed American statements on how Sunni Saudi Arabia hopes that Israel will stop Iran from gaining nuclear weaponry.  If the Iranians get their bomb, Saudi Arabia will develop or purchase its own bomb, with help from its Pakistani allies, who already have it.  Sunni Turkey and Egypt have also considered joining the nuclear arms race.

Some Shia, intent on inspiring their coreligionists to confront their opponents, state that their Imam Hussein said “every land is Karbala.”  Influential Ayatullah Morteza Motahhari, the assassinated disciple of Ayatullah Khomeini, claimed that Palestine is today’s Karbala, and Israel is the killer of Hussein.  This kind of rhetoric, common in Iran, has inflamed many Iranians’ animosity towards Israel.  For there ever to be Peace, such words, such thoughts, must be avoided. They do not assist the Palestinians.  But they do increase the prospects of war and lesser military operations.  Israel, entirely justifiably, will take the steps it needs, so as not to be wiped off the map.

On this Ashura, we in Britain are currently mourning our great mystical composer, Sir John Tavener, who devoted much of his later life to building bridges between the Faiths.  An Orthodox Christian himself, he set to music The Lord’s 99 names in Arabic.  He told me he would have liked to add texts in Hebrew, but he respected Jewish Law’s requiring the Name of The Creator to remain ineffable.  If only we were all as tolerant and considerate as Sir John…

Greetings to our Sunni and Shia Brothers and Sisters.  May this Ashura and the entire new year be spared further bloodshed and nuclear proliferation.

Andrew M Rosemarine runs an international law office and is a former Fellow of the Harry S Truman Institute for Peace

Copyright Andrew M Rosemarine 2013