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The month of Muharram is one of the holiest in Islam. Find here about history, significance, customs and dates.

Muharram is the first month of the Islamic or the Lunar Calendar, which means, the New Year starts with the start of Muharram for Muslims. The lunar calendar is 10 -12 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar; hence the date of Muharram may vary year to year according to Gregorian calendar. Muharram is considered one of the most sacred months after Ramadan, thus it has great religious importance. The term Muharram has been derived from the word 'Haram' which means forbidden. According to the Holy Quran, it is forbidden and considered unlawful to fight in the month of Muharram.

History & Origin of Muharram
According to the Holy Quran, the almighty Allah created twelve months out of which four are considered as sacred. The names of these four months are Zulqadah, Zulhijjah, Muharram and Rajab. While the month of Ramadan has its own purity and sacredness but the sanctity of these four additional months had been recognized even by the Pagans of Makkah. There is no difference in the twelve months but it is believed that when Allah wishes a particular month to bestow his blessings, that month is considered 'Holy'. Thus the purity of these 4 months is observed since the days of Sayiddina Abraham (Ibrahim). The pagans of Makkah belong to Sayiddina Abraham and followed the sacredness of these four months and despite their traditional wars, they consider it illegal to fight in these months.

According to one of the stories, the pre-Islamic era in the Arabian Peninsula was full of battles and wars in the absence of strong leadership, wars and conflicts rose on minor issues. However, war was forbidden in the four months of the year. Muharram was one of those holy months. This tradition of inactivity was followed even after the beginning of Islam with the condition to involve and accept battle in exceptional situations like peril to the kingdom. The battle of Karbala was fought against this tradition and law of Islam.

The people who resided at the banks of the river Euphrates were the conventional rivals and it was carried by the Muhammad to some extent. But when his son-in-law named Hazrat Ali, became the 'caliph' (religious leader who is considered the Allah's representative on earth), the ever-long enmity disappeared. Hazrat Imam Hussain and Hazrat Imam Hassan were the two descendants of Hazrat Ali. Hussain ruled the part of the empire known as Iran in the present day and there was another division in present day Iraq which was ruled by the Umayyads.

Kufa was a small town in Umayyad inhabited by Shia Muslims and called upon Hussain to declare himself as the leader of the Islamic community. Since, this was against the desires of Yazid, who was the then leader of Kufa, he instructed his governor, Ibn-e-Ziad to take necessary action. Meanwhile, Hussain had already started his journey to Kufa along with his family members. Upon reaching Karbala, en-route Kufa, Hussain's troupe of 70 people was surrounded by Ibn-e-Ziad's forces that tortured and killed the entire troupe and Hussain was beheaded and the head was presented to the king of Kufa. Since then, the Ashura, 10th day of Muharram is mourned by the Shia Muslims in remembrance of the martyr Hussain.

But Sunni Muslims have different belief attached to the celebration of Muharram. Though they observe fast on this holy day and the 9th or the 11th day in continuation, but they celebrate the triumph of Musa (Moses) over the Pharaohs of Egypt.

Significance of Muharram
The process of celebration of Muharram differs between Shia and Sunni Muslims. Sunni Muslims keep fast and celebrate the day of Ashura observing the triumph of Musa over the Pharaohs. Though the religious sentiments are the same but Shia Muslims mourn on this pious day observing the sacrifice of Hussain at the war of Karbala. When Muharram approaches, Shias put on black clothes and keep themselves away from all the joyous events and music for the entire 10 day period. Every day till the ninth day of Muharram, assemblies called 'Majalis' are held where Shia speakers depict the story of martyrdom of Hussain and his troupe. On the day of Ashura, religious Shia Muslims go out in large congregation and parade the roads carrying the banners and models of mausoleum of Hussain and his folks. Some Shia sects, in order to mourn on this day harm themselves by beating themselves by chains in public and cutting themselves with knives. This is considered to their expression of sorrow on the death of their religious leader, Hussain. Everyone in the procession wails by loudly chanting the slogan 'Ya Hussain'. A white horse is decorated and included in the parade. Free drinks and juices are served by the Shia community on this day for the people participating in the procession.

Muharram and Ashura to the Sunnis & Shias
Muharram is often believed to be synonymous with 'Ashura' which is the tenth day of the month Muharram. Though the entire month of Muharram is considered a holy month, but Ashura is most significant for both the sects of Islam, 'Shias' and 'Sunnis'. However, the rituals followed by Shias and Sunnis are different on the day of Ashura.

Sunnis fast on the 9th and the 10th day of Muharram because according to the records of hadith (is considered as one of the several reports depicting the actions, words, habits, etc. of the prophet Muhammad of Islam), Musa and his folks triumphed over the Pharaoh of Egypt on the 10th day of Muharram knows as Ashura and the 9th day is called Tasu'a. According to another Hadith, one should fast for two continuous days, either on the 9th and the 10th or the 10th and the 11th, the reason being Jews also used to fast on the day of Ashura and the Sacred Prophet in order to differentiate the Islamic rule of fasting, instructed Muslims to fast for one additional day in continuity.

But Shia Muslims follow different rituals on the day of Ashura and consider this a day of mourning, as Hazrat Imam Hussain who was the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad was killed at the battle of Karbala on this day.

Muharram is one of the pious months for Muslims, whether a Shia or a Sunni. The term 'Haram' (forbidden) is applicable on both and no religious Muslim would indulge into unnecessary fights and battles during the month of Muharram.