Although ‘Ashūrā’ (the 10th of Muḥarram) was the day on which Imām Ḥusayn (A.S.) was martyred, most Muslims in the 21st century identify the day primarily with fasting, although for many the day passes unnoticed. This practice of fasting on ‘Ashūrā’ is most often associated with the Sunnī Muslim tradition, with many Shī‘ī Muslims viewing it negatively as an attempt to disregard the commemoration of Karbala or, worse, a diabolical attempt to transform it into a day of joy which celebrates the death of al-Ḥusayn. Although there is absolutely no doubt that in certain (pro-Umayyad and anti-Alid) circles, there were attempts to encourage the observance of the day of ‘Ashūrā’ in a festive manner, this is not the case for the vast majority of Muslims. Despite the polemics, it is important to point out that the tradition about fasting has been interpreted differently by different people across the centuries. For many Sunnis, who strongly adhere to the prophetic tradition which prescribes fasting, the day of ‘Ashūrā’ is also taken as a day of solemn reflection upon the martyrdom of Imām Ḥusayn. Other Sunnis will fast on the day of ‘Ashūrā’ without even remembering Karbala. And there will always be those who will take Karbala as a day of festivity and joy, as per the Umayyad-era tradition which promotes this. In this post, I hope to contribute to the understanding of the complexity of the tradition about fasting by sharing a few hadiths I translated which prescribe fasting. However, unlike those in wide circulation, these traditions are all found within Shi’ite books of hadith and jurisprudence , with narrations going back to the blessed Imāms of the Family of the Prophet (A.S.). I hope that the translation of these hadith allows Shi’ites to appreciate that the tradition about fasting cannot be simply explained away as “Umayyad propaganda” while I hope that Sunnis will respectfully understand that, despite the existence of these hadith in Shi’ite tradition, the broader Shi’ite community has given greater priority to the commemoration of the martyrdom of the Prophet’s beloved grandson. (A small note: there also exists a large number of hadith in Shi’ite collections which prohibit fasting on the day of ‘Ashūrā’. It is the responsibility of the jurist to authenticate these traditions, but as a historian my job is to highlight their existence and expound upon the potential significance of this fact. This is not an attempt to define “Shiism” in any sense, but only an attempt to show that many of our assumptions about a certain tradition [even our own tradition!] may be dispelled by looking critically at the sources).
The first group of hadith are found in one of the works of Shaykh al-Ṭā’ifa al-Ṭūṣī (d. 1067) entitled al-Istibṣār, considered to be one of the four most important collections of Imāmī (Twelver) Shī‘ī hadith, in the sections about fasting (page numbers will vary depending on which edition one utilizes):
علي بن الحسن بن فضال عن هارون بن مسلم، عن مسعدة بن صدقة عن أبي عبد الله عليه السلام عن أبيه أن عليا عليهما السلام قال: صوموا العاشوراء التاسع والعاشر فإنه يكفر ذنوب سنة.
‘Alī ibn al-Ḥasan ibn Faḍḍal—Harūn ibn Muslim–Maṣ‘ada ibn Ṣadaqa narrated that Abū ‘Abd Allāh [Ja‘far al-Ṣādiq] peace be upon him, stated: “You should fast on the day of ‘Ashūrā’ and on the ninth of Muḥarram, for it expiates the sins of an entire year.”
عنه عن يعقوب بن يزيد عن أبي همام عن أبي الحسن عليه السلام قال: صام رسول الله صلى الله عليه وآله يوم عاشوراء
Shaykh al-Ṭūṣī—Ya‘qūb ibn Yazīd—Abū Hammām narrated from Abū al-Ḥasan [‘Alī al-Hādī] peace be upon him who said: “Verily, the Prophet Muḥammad—peace be upon him and his family—fasted on the day of ‘Ashūrā’.” [This hadith can also be found in Wasā’il al-Shī‘a, the jurisprudential work of the seventeenth-century scholar Al-Ḥurr al-‘Amilī (d. 1693)]
سعد بن عبد الله عن أبي جعفر عن جعفر بن محمد بن عبد الله عن عبد الله بن ميمون القداح عن جعفر عن أبيه عليه السلام قال: صيام يوم عاشوراء كفارة سنة
Sa‘d ibn ‘Abd Allāh—Abū Ja‘far—Ja‘far ibn Muḥammad [al-Ṣādiq] narrated from his father [Muḥammad al-Bāqir] peace be upon him that he said: “Fasting on the day of ‘Ashūrā’ is an expiation for a year’s worth of sins.”
[It should be noted that the opinion of Shaykh al-Ṭūṣī himself is that it is improper to fast on the day of ‘Ashūrā’ as per the other traditions he cites in the chapter, but it is nonetheless interesting that he includes these ones which do prescribe fasting within his collection]
The next group of hadith are taken from Wasā’il al-Shī‘a, the jurisprudential work of the seventeenth-century scholar Al-Ḥurr al-‘Amilī (d. 1693):
عن الصادق قال: من أمكنه صوم المحرم فإنه يعصم صاحبه من كل سيئة
Ja’far al-Ṣādiq said: “Whoever is able to fast the month of Muharram, then his fasting shall protect him from every sin”
عن النبي صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم قال: إن أفضل الصلاة بعد الصلاة الفريضة الصلاة في جوف الليل، وإن أفضل الصيام من بعد شهر رمضان صوم شهر الله الذي يدعونه المحرم
The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his family) said: “The best prayer after the obligatory prayers is the one which is prayed in middle of the night, and the best fasting after the month Ramadan is the fasting during the month known as Muharram.”
عن علي عليه السلام قال: صوموا يوم عاشوراء التاسع والعاشر احتياطاً، فإنه كفارة السنة التي قبل
‘Ali (peace be upon him) said: Fast on the day of ‘Ashūrā’, the 9th and 10th [of Muharram] for substitution, for it is an expiation for the sins of the past year”
The existence of these many traditions which prescribe fasting on the 10th of Muharram has not gone unnoticed by modern Shi’ite scholars. Indeed, Grand Ayatollah Abūl Qāsim al-Khū’ī (d. 1992), in his book of jurisprudence (Mustanad al-‘Urwa al-Wuthqa) which was a commentary on al-‘Urwa al-Wuthuqa by Muḥammad Kādhim al-Yazdī (d. 1919) unequivocally affirmed that those traditions which encourage fasting are more reliable and authentic than those which prohibit it. He goes on to explain that fasting on this day can allow one to connect with the suffering and oppression endured by the Family of the Prophet. His overall assessment of these traditions, therefore, is that it is encouraged (mustahhab) to fast on the 10th of Muharram:
فالروايات الناهية غير نقية السند برمتها، بل هي ضعيفة بأجمعها، فليست لدينا رواية معتبرة يعتمد عليها ليحمل المعارض على التقية كما صنعه صاحب الحدائق. واما الروايات المتضمنة للامر واستحباب الصوم في هذا اليوم فكثيرة، مثل صحيحة القداح: ” صيام يوم عاشوراء كفارة سنة ” وموثقة مسعدة بن صدقة: ” صوموا للعاشوراء التاسع والعاشر فانه يكفر ذنوب سنة ” ، ونحوها غيرها، وهو مساعد للاعتبار نظرا إلى المواساة مع أهل بيت الوحي وما لا قوه في هذا اليوم العصيب من جوع وعطش وساير الآلام والمصائب العظام التي هي أعظم مما تدركه الافهام والاوهام. فالاقوى استحباب الصوم في هذا اليوم من حيث هو كما ذكره في الجواهر أخذا بهذه النصوص السليمة
My personal view is that–regardless of whether one is Sunni or Shi’i–whichever position one eventually agrees with regarding the fast itself, the day of Ashūrā’ is absolutely central due to the fact that Imām Ḥusayn (A.S.) was martyred on this day. It is therefore essential that every believer in God and His Prophet take at least several minutes out of their days to reflect upon his mission, his martyrdom, and the deeper meanings of Karbala. To fail to even recite a prayer for the blessed martyrs of Karbala on this day would truly be a failure to understand the deeper meanings of fasting and remembrance. It would also reflect our failure to internalize the centrality of the eternal struggle between the oppressed and the oppressor, justice and tyranny, which lay at the very heart of Imām Ḥusayn’s struggle at Karbala.