The month of Muharram is significant for Muslims as it marks the new year in the Islamic calendar. It has two highly respected and commemorated moments: the Islamic New Year on the 1st of Muharram and the Day of Ashura on the 10th of Muharram.
The 1st of Muharram becomes a moment for Muslims to perform reflection. As the new year in the Gregorian calendar, they welcome Muharram with renewed enthusiasm and new hopes to enhance their worship and get closer to Allah.
Besides, Muslims fast as an act of respect and devotion. Ashura fasting is believed to have been adapted from Jewish tradition rather than being an original Islamic practice. This assumption is supported by the hadith of Ibn Abbas.
عَنْ ابْنِ عَبَّاسٍ رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهُمَا: أَنَّ النَّبِيَّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ لَمَّا قَدِمَ الْمَدِينَةَ وَجَدَهُمْ يَصُومُونَ يَوْمًا يَعْنِي عَاشُورَاءَ فَقَالُوا هَذَا يَوْمٌ عَظِيمٌ وَهُوَ يَوْمٌ نَجَّى اللَّهُ فِيهِ مُوسَى وَأَغْرَقَ آلَ فِرْعَوْنَ فَصَامَ مُوسَى شُكْرًا لِلَّهِ فَقَالَ أَنَا أَوْلَى بِمُوسَى مِنْهُمْ فَصَامَهُ وَأَمَرَ بِصِيَامِهِ
Narrated Ibn Abbas: When the Prophet came to Medina, he found (the Jews) fasting on the day of Ashura (i.e. 10th of Muharram). They used to say: “This is a great day on which Allah saved Moses and drowned the folk of Pharaoh. Moses observed the fast on this day, as a sign of gratitude to Allah.” The Prophet said, “I am closer to Moses than they.” So, he observed the fast (on that day) and ordered the Muslims to fast on it [Sahih al-Bukhori].
The hadith tells us that, on the 10th of Muharram or 10th of Tishrei in the Hebrew lunisolar calendar, Prophet Moses and the Children of Israel achieved a significant victory over Pharaoh and his army. This event, known as Yom Kippur in Jewish history, involves fasting and abstaining from daily activities as a form of atonement for past sins. This historical influence is believed to be a reason for fasting on the Day of Ashura in Islamic tradition.
The reason for the Ashura fasting has a different perspective according to another hadith. ‘Aisha narrated that even before Islam, the Quraysh used to fast on the Day of Ashura. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), during his time in Mecca before migrating to Medina, continued this fasting tradition until the obligatory fast of Ramadan was prescribed.
عن عائشة ، رضي الله عنها ، أن قريشا كانت تصوم يوم عاشوراء في الجاهلية ثم أمر رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم بصيامه حتى فرض رمضان وقال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم : من شاء فليصمه ، ومن شاء أفطر
Narrated ‘Aisha: (The tribe of) Quraish used to fast on the day of Ashura in the Pre-Islamic period, and then Allah’s Apostle ordered (Muslims) to fast on it till the fasting in the month of Ramadan was prescribed; whereupon the Prophet said, “He who wants to fast (on Ashura ‘) may fast, and he who does not want to fast may not fast.”
The hadith indicated that although the Ashura fasting resembles the Jewish tradition in Medina, there are notable distinctions in its meaning and origin. According to Imam al-Qurtubi, as cited by Imam Ibn Hajar, the practice of fasting Ashura by the Quraysh can be traced back to the teachings of Prophet Ibrahim and has been continued through generations, similar to the Hajj pilgrimage.
The fasting of Prophet Muhammad on the Day of Ashura was not a result of adopting or imitating practices from other religions. Instead, it was a deliberate choice guided by Allah’s permission and direct guidance. As a Prophet and Messenger, he faithfully obeyed Allah’s command to observe the fast on that particular day, signifying its significance as a divine directive.
Upon reaching Medina, Prophet Muhammad became aware of the Jews’ observance of fasting on the Day of Ashura. Curious about this, he inquired about their practice, as he had already been observing the Ashura fast during his time in Mecca, in line with the remnants of Prophet Ibrahim’s teachings within the religion. He sought to understand the reasons behind the Jews’ fasting on the Day of Ashura in Medina.
Upon reaching Medina, Prophet Muhammad discovered that the Jews also fasted on the Day of Ashura. During his time in Mecca, he inquired about this as he had observed Ashura fasting following the remnants of Prophet Ibrahim’s teachings within the religion. He wanted to ascertain the reasons behind the Jews’ fasting on the Day of Ashura in Medina.
In Medina, the Jews cited another reason for fasting on Ashura, which revolved around the event of Prophet Musa’s (Moses) deliverance from Pharaoh’s army. This event holds great historical significance in Judaism. However, Prophet Muhammad believed that he had a stronger claim to observe Ashura fasting as the final Prophet and the seal of all Prophets and Messengers. He recognized that the practice of Ashura fasting was a part of the religious heritage stemming from Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) and other significant historical events.
The Jews in Medina fasted on Ashura to commemorate the deliverance of Prophet Moses from Pharaoh’s army—a significant event in Judaism. However, Prophet Muhammad considered himself more rightful to observe Ashura fasting as the last Prophet and Messengers. He understood that Ashura fasting was part of the religious heritage originating from Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) and other significant historical moments.
Recommendation to Tasu’a Fasting
In addition to fasting on the 10th of Muharram (Ashura), Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) also recommended fasting on the 9th of Muharram, which is known as the fast of Tasu’a. The hadith regarding this recommendation is narrated by Ibn Abbas.
عَبْدَ اللَّهِ بْنَ عَبَّاسٍ رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهُمَا يَقُولُا : حِينَ صَامَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ يَوْمَ عَاشُورَاءَ وَأَمَرَ بِصِيَامِهِ قَالُوا يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ إِنَّهُ يَوْمٌ تُعَظِّمُهُ الْيَهُودُ وَالنَّصَارَى فَقَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ فَإِذَا كَانَ الْعَامُ الْمُقْبِلُ إِنْ شَاءَ اللَّهُ صُمْنَا الْيَوْمَ التَّاسِعَ قَالَ فَلَمْ يَأْتِ الْعَامُ الْمُقْبِلُ حَتَّى تُوُفِّيَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ
Ibn ‘Abbas reported that when the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) fasted on the day of Ashura and commanded that it should he observed as a fast, they (his Companions) said to him:
Messenger of Allah, it is a day which the Jews and Christians hold in high esteem. Thereupon the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) said: When the next year comes, God willing, we would observe fast on the 9th But the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) died before the advent of the next year.
According to the hadith, Prophet Muhammad recommended fasting on the 9th of Muharram, known as Tasu’a. This additional recommendation distinguishes Muslim practices from Jewish traditions. Even though Prophet Muhammad’s passing prevented the realization of the next year’s fasting, the tradition holds an essential lesson about the perfection of worship and the significance of remembering history and respecting religious teachings.
Both Ashura and Tasu’a fasting hold profound meanings and spiritual values. Ashura fasting teaches the lesson of standing against oppression and achieving victory over evil with Allah’s help. On the other hand, Tasu’a fasting emphasizes the importance of distinguishing Islamic worship from other religious practices, allowing Muslims to fast on two consecutive days to reflect on significant historical events.