Ashura and Karbala Commemorations
Q: Is it permitted to conduct gatherings in the month of Muharram to commemorate the tragedy of Karbala?
A common practice in some parts of the Muslim world especially in Shia Muslim communities to gather in the month of Muharram and lament the tragedy of Karbala where the grandson of the Prophet ﷺ, Al-Husayn bin Ali, was murdered. These gatherings of mourning were initially done privately in the houses of Shia Muslims during the Umayyad caliphate and become public during the Abbasid and Fatimid caliphates.
The first issue to deal with is the date of this tragedy at Karbala. These are the two earliest chains of narration regarding the date, it is just that one has become more famous than the other (note that ironically none of the early Shia reports have mentioned any date):
- According to Al-Harith (b. Muhammad) – Ibn Sa’d – Muhammad b. ‘Umar (al-Waqidi): Al-Husayn bin Ali was killed in the month of Safar in the year 61AH [November, 680CE]. At that time, he was fifty-five.
- According to Al-Harith (b. Muhammad) – Ibn’ Sa’d – Muhammad b. Umar (al-Waqidi) – Abu Mashar: Al-Husayn was killed on the 10th Muharram [October 10, 680CE] and this is more established.
قال الحارث: قال ابن سعد: أخبرنا محمد بن عمر، قال:
قتل الحسين بن علي ع في صفر سنة إحدى وستين وهو يومئذ ابن خمس وخمسين.
حدثني بذلك أفلح بن سعيد، عن ابن كعب القرظي، قال الحارث:
حدثنا ابن سعد، قال: أخبرنا محمد بن عمر، عن أبي معشر، قال: قتل الحسين لعشر خلون من المحرم قال الواقدي: هذا أثبت.
Also note that between Karbala, near Baghdad in Iraq, and Mecca is the distance of 1200 miles. Al-Husayn (May Allah ﷻ be pleased with him) completed his Hajj before leaving for Iraq with a large army including women, camels, supplies, and breaks, the date of 10th Muharram (known as Ashura) only gives a period of 25 days at most to cover the 1200 miles. Is this possible to do with a travelling army? Is it even possible with a lone rider on the fastest horse? Other reports of an eclipse happening at the time, raise further suspicions regarding the date, as eclipses can only occur at the beginning and end of the lunar month. This shows that there was some early disagreement regarding the date of the incident, however, the 10th of Muharram has become widely accepted now.
The second thing to note is that love for all of the companions and the family of the Prophet ﷺ is an important part of Islam and showing hatred to them or extreme preference to some at the exclusion of others is considered as an act of deviance. There were many greater companions than Al-Husayn who were killed in the most horrific of ways during the month of Muharram and during other Islamic months, even in Ramadan, but none of the companions or early orthodox Muslim scholars ever mandated creating yearly commemorative gatherings for them.
The third point is that the 10th Muharram, Ashura, is a special time for Muslims to attain great reward from Allah ﷻ. Muharram is one of the 4 sacred months mentioned in the Quran and fasting on the 10th day, Ashura, used to be obligatory upon Muslims but is now a highly recommended sunnah. When the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ arrived in Medina, he found that the Jews in Medina were fasting on the 10th Muharram and taking it as a sort of celebratory day based on the fact that Moses (peace be upon him) would fast on that day. The Prophet ﷺ then ordered the Muslims to fast on that day stating that we Muslims are closer and have more right to Moses than the Jews and mentioned that it wipes out the sins of the past year.
The last thing to discuss is the ruling on public gatherings in Muharram with the intention of narrating the events of Karbala. I will suffice with what the jurists of the Hanafi and Shafi’i schools have mentioned:
The Hanafi jurist Muhammad Amin Ibn Abidin al-Husyani quotes:
He said in (the legal text) Al-Nahr, that Ibn al-Izz that there is nothing authentic from him ﷺ regarding the Day of Ashura apart from fasting, and since the Rawafid (Shias) innovated establishing a gathering of mourning and expressing sadness on the Day of Ashura because Al-Husayn was killed on that day, the ignorant of the Orthodox (Sunni) Muslims also innovated expressing happiness, making different types of meals, and wearing eyeliner (kohl) and they narrated fabricated narrations regarding the wearing of eyeliner and being generous to one’s family on that day.
The son of Allamah Ibn Abidin has mentioned, “And it is not permitted to narrate the events of the killing in the days (before and after) of Ashura because that is a religious symbol (shi’ar) of the Rawafid (Shias).”
This opinion was echoed by the previous Mufti of Syria, Muhammad Abul Yusr Abidin al-Husayni (1889–1981CE).
It is worth noting that Ibn Abidin, his son, and Shaykh Abul Yusr are all descendants of the Prophet ﷺ via his grandson Al-Husayn.
The Hanafi Imam Isma’il Haqqi (1127AH) mentions in his Quranic commentary: In the Chapter of Reprehensible Matters (Karahiyyah) of Al-Quhustani, “If a person wants to mention the killing of Al-Husayn, then he must mention the killing of all of the other companions first in order not to assimilate the Rawafid.”
The great hadith scholar and Hanafi jurist Imam Abdul Hayy al-Lucknowi (1304AH) mentions in his book “Naf’ al-Mufti al-Sa’il” the following:
Query: Is it permitted to relate the story of the martyrdom of Imam Husayn in the first ten days of Muharram by conducting gatherings and people crying over it?
Answer: Matalib al-Muminin (a legal text of the Hanafi School) transmitted from Abu Hanifah that it is not permitted due to assimilation of the Rawafid (Shias).
Even though the attribution to Abu Hanifah seems far-fetched, the book Matalib al-Mu’minin has been mentioned by the author of Kashf al-Zunun (d. 1068AH) as a Hanafi legal text and this shows that earlier Hanafi scholars also deemed such gatherings to be reprehensible.
As for the Shafi’i School, Al-Habib Abdur Rahman bin Muhammad al-Mashhur al-Husayni Ba Alawi, the Mufti of Hadramawt (1265AH) mentioned: “The act of “Ya Husayn” (Karbala remembrance gathering) in the region of India and Java that is done on the Day of Ashura or before or after it is a reprehensible innovation severely prohibited and the one who does it is immoral and misguided.”
The great Shafi’i jurist Imam Ibn Hajar al-Haytami (d. 974AH) states: “Imam Al-Ghazali and others have stated that it is prohibited for a public preacher and others to narrate the killing of Al-Husayn (may Allah be pleased with him), the stories related to it, and the disputes and arguments that occurred between the companions because it incites towards hatred of the companions and defamation of them, yet they are the notables of the religion, the imams of the religion have transmitted knowledge from them and we have taken the understanding of it from the imams. The one who defames them is defamed, defaming themselves and their religion.”
يحرم على الواعظ وغيره رواية مقتل الحسين رضي الله عنه وحكاياته ، وما جرى بين الصّحابة من التّشاجر والتّخاصم ؛ فإنّه يُهَيِّجُ على بُغضِ الصّحابة والطعن فيهم ، وهم أعلام الدّين ؛ تلقى الأئمة الدين عنهم روايةً ونحن تلقيناه من الأئمة درايةً ؛ فالطاعن فيهم مطعون ، طاعن في نفسه ودينه
Answered by Shaykh Bilal Brown
 Tarikh al-Tabari.
 Muslim (1130, 1162) Al-Bukhari (3943).
 Radd al-Muhtar (Chapter of Fasting, Section of what invalidates the fast).
 Al-Hadiyyah al-Ala’iyyah (The Day of Ashura).
 Aghalit al-Mu’arrikhin (page 133, Maktabah al-Ghazali).
 Ruh al-Bayan (Surah Hud, verses 48-52).
 (Naf’ al-Mufti al-Sa’il pg. 482, Dar Ibn Hazm).
 Bughyah al-Mustarshidin (4:486 Epilogue Concerning Various Benefits, Section on the seeking a means with the people of virtue and refuting the people of innovation).
 As-Sawa’iq al-Muhriqah (Chapter of Clarifying the Beliefs of Ahl al-Sunnah wal-Jama’ah Concerning the Companions).