Ashura and Imam Husayn

“Ashura: Commemorating Imam Husayn”

by Michael Muhammad Knight

Chapter Summary

This chapter explores Ashura, a holiday of central importance to Shi‘a Muslims. Ashura occurs on the tenth day of the Islamic month of Muharram, and commemorates the tragic death of Husayn, the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, at the hands of the ruling Umayyad Muslim dynasty in 680 C.E. in Iraq. Knight allows us to see how for many Shi‘a Muslim Americans, this is “the central event in God’s destiny for humankind, a moment in which oppression and salvation intertwine.” This chapter brings to life the ritual mourning that occurs in different commemorations around the United States–one led by a female religious leader called a zakira, who recounts in dramatic fashion the noble sacrifice of Husayn, and another in which men first beat their chests in mourning and solidarity with Husayn and then further honor him by donating their blood at a Red Cross mobile donation center. Knight also reveals how Husayn’s memory is evoked in the Ansaaru Allah Community, an African American Muslim group established in the 1960s.

Discussion Questions

  • Why is Ashura so important to many Shi‘a Muslim Americans? What are its origins?
  • Describe the different ways that Muslim Americans commemorate Ashura.
  • Are you surprised that women lead Ashura ceremonies? Why or why not?

Group Exercises

  • View the 2015 Ashura Procession in Dearborn, Michigan above. Write down your thoughts and feelings in reaction to the video. Do not put your name on the paper. Collect the papers and have a group leader read them aloud or circulate them. Have an open discussion about your different reactions.
  • Discuss or write about the video using information from the chapter. How do the explanations in the chapter help you understand Ashura better?
  • Compare the ritual mourning and the commemoration of tragedy in Ashura to similar practices in other religions and cultures. Do such practices seem widespread? Give examples in your answers.
Michael Muhammad Knight (Ph.D., North Carolina) is the author of over ten books, including The Taqwacores, The Five Percenters: Islam, Hip Hop and the Gods of New York, and Magic in Islam. He is also a scholar of textual representations of the Prophet Muhammad.