Muharram: The start of the Islamic calendar

MUHARRAM is the first month of the Islamic Hijrah calendar. It is one of the four sanctified months about which the Holy Qur’an says, “The number of the months according to Allah is twelve months (mentioned) in the Book of Allah on the day in which He created heavens and the earth. Among these (12 months) there are four sanctified.”

These four months, according to the authentic traditions, are the months of Zulqadah, Zulhijjah, Muharram and Rajab. All the commentators of the Holy Qur’an are unanimous on this point, because the Holy Prophet, in his sermon on the occasion of his last Hajj, had declared:

“One year consists of twelve months, of which four are sanctified months, three of them are in sequence; Zulqadah, Zulhijjah, Muharram, and the fourth is Rajab.”

The specific mention of these four months does not mean that any other month has no sanctity, because the month of Ramadan is admittedly the most sanctified month in the year. But these four months were specifically termed as sanctified months for the simple reason that their sanctity was accepted even by the pagans of Makkah.

In fact, every month, out of the 12, is originally equal to the other, and there is no inherent sanctity, which may be attributed to one of them in comparison to other months. When Allah Almighty chooses a particular time for His special blessings, then it acquires sanctity out of His grace.

Thus, the sanctity of these four months was recognised right from the days of Sayyidina Ibrahim. Since the pagans of Makkah attributed themselves to Sayyidina Ibrahim, they observed the sanctity of these four months and despite their frequent tribal battles, they held it unlawful to fight in these months.

In the Shariah of our Holy Prophet the sanctity of these months was upheld and the Holy Qur’an referred to them as the “sanctified months.”

The month of Muharram has certain other characteristics peculiar to it which are specified below.


Fasting during the month

The Holy Prophet has said: “The best fasts after the fasts of Ramadan are those of the month of Muharram.”

Although the fasts of the month of Muharram are not obligatory, yet, the one who fasts in these days out of his own will and choice is entitled to a great reward by Allah Almighty. The Hadith cited above signifies that the fasts of the month of Muharram are most reward-able ones among the Nafl fasts i.e. the fasts one observes out of his own choice without being obligatory on him.

The Hadith does not mean that the award promised for fasts of Muharram can be achieved only by fasting for the whole month. On the contrary, each fast during this month has merit. Therefore, one should avail of this opportunity as much as he can.


The day of Ashurah

Although the month of Muharram is a sanctified month as a whole, yet, the 10th day of Muharram is the most sacred among all its days. The day is named Ashurah.

According to the companion, Ibn Abbas, the Holy Prophet, when he migrated to Madinah, found that the Jews of Madinah used to fast on the 10th day of Muharram. They said that it was the day on which the Prophet Musa and his followers crossed the Red Sea miraculously and the Pharaoh was drowned in its water.

On hearing this from the Jews, the Holy Prophet said, “We are more closely related to Musa than you” and directed the Muslims to fast on the day of Ashurah. (Abu Dawood)

It is also reported in a number of authentic traditions that in the beginning, fasting on the day of Ashurah was obligatory for the Muslims.

It was later that the fasts of Ramadan were made obligatory and the fast on the day of Ashurah was made optional. Sayyidah Aishah has said:

“When the Holy Prophet came to Madinah, he fasted on the day of Ashurah and directed the people to fast it. But when the fasts of Ramadan were made obligatory, the obligation of fasting was confined to Ramadan and the obligatory nature of the fast of Ashurah was abandoned. One can fast on this day if he so wills or can avoid fasting, if he so wills.”

However, the Holy Prophet used to fast on the day of Ashurah even after the fasting in Ramadan was made obligatory.

Abdullah Ibn Masud reports that the Holy Prophet preferred the fast of Ashurah to the fast of other days and preferred the fast of Ramadan to the fast of Ashurah. (Bukhari and Muslim)

In short, it is established through a number of authentic hadith that fasting on the day of Ashurah is Sunnah of the Holy Prophet and makes one entitled to a great reward.

According to another Hadith, it is more advisable that the fast of Ashurah should either be prefixed or suffixed by another fast. It means that one should fast two days: the 9th and 10th of Muharram or the 10th and 11th of it. The reason of this additional fast, as mentioned by the Holy Prophet, is that the Jews used to fast on the day of Ashurah alone, and the Holy Prophet wanted to distinguish the Islamic way of fasting from that of Jews. Therefore, he advised the Muslims to add another fast to that of Ashurah.

Some traditions signify another feature of the day of Ashurah

According to these traditions, one should be more generous to his family by providing more food to them on this day as compared to other days. These traditions are not very authentic, according to the science of Hadith. Yet, some scholars like Baihaqi and Ibn Hibban have accepted them as reliable.

What is mentioned above is all that is supported through authentic sources about Ashurah.

Some people take it as Sunnah to prepare a particular type of meal on the day of Ashurah. This practice has no basis in the authentic Islamic sources.

Some other people attribute the sanctity of Ashurah to the martyrdom of Hussein ibn Ali during his battle with the Syrian army. No doubt, the martyrdom of Sayyidina Hussein is one of the most tragic episodes of our history. Yet, the sanctity of Ashurah cannot be ascribed to this event for the simple reason that the sanctity of Ashurah was established during the days of the Holy Prophet much earlier than the birth of Sayyidna Hussein.

On the contrary, it is one of the merits of Sayyidna Hussein that his martyrdom took place on the day of Ashurah.

Another misconception about the month of Muharram is that it is an evil or unlucky month, for Sayyidna Hussein was killed in it. It is for this misconception that people avoid holding marriage ceremonies in the month of Muharram. This is again a baseless concept which is contrary to the express teachings of the Holy Qur’an and the Sunnah. Such superstitions have been totally negated by the Holy Prophet. If the death of an eminent person on a particular day renders that day unlucky for all times to come, one can hardly find a day, free from this bad luck, out of 365 days of the whole year, because each and every day has a history of the demise of some eminent person. The Holy Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Holy Prophet have made us free from such superstitious beliefs and they should deserve no attention.

Another wrong practice related to this month is to hold the lamentation and mourning ceremonies in memory of martyrdom of Sayyidna Hussein.