The Islamic holiday of Ashura takes place on the tenth day of Muharram, mourning the death of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad and third Shia Imam who died at the Battle of Karbala in 680. The events leading up to and including Husayn’s death solidified the split between Sunni and Shia Islam, with Shias believing the legitimate Islamic Caliphs should be descended from Imam Ali, who ruled as the fourth and last of the Rashidun Caliphs and was the cousin of Muhammad. As Husayn was one of Ali’s sons, Shia Muslims rallied around him as their candidate for Caliph after the death of the Umayyad Caliph Muawiya in 680, as Muawiya broke his promise to pass the Caliphate on to a descendant of Muhammad by declaring his son, Yazid, his successor. Subsequently, Husayn set out on a journey from Mecca to the town of Kufa (in modern Iraq) where his support was strong. Yazid sent out his men along the way to Kufa to quell dissent and to target any messengers sent by Husayn. Even though faced with likely death, Husayn continued his journey to Kufa, where he and his followers encamped at a place known as Karbala. It was here Yazid’s men attacked and killed Husayn, eternalising his memory as a martyr among Shia Muslims.
Whilst officially recognised as a day of significance in the Islamic calendar by all Muslims, this day of commemoration takes on a hugely significant role within the global Shia community. For a large part of their history, and in many countries still today, Shia Muslims have constituted a minority sect within the societies in which they live. Ashura has often been a way for the Shia community to reinforce and maintain their identity in societies that have frequently oppressed them and have often been the catalyst of many resistance and protests movements throughout Shia history. One of the primary features of Ashura is the idea of the rightful martyr, an idea which in recent decades has been mobilised by Shia groups and communities as a political tool.
The society where Ashura rituals and commemorations have been most appropriated into political tools is in Iran, the only Middle Eastern country that consists of predominantly Shia Muslims and is ruled by a Shia political elite. Ashura has been a powerful rallying point for protests movements in Iran as evidenced in both the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the Green Movement protests in 2009, which in both cases saw the complete and partial banning respectively of Ashura ceremonies either nationally or at sites of religious significance. The fact that even the ruling Shia elite of the Islamic Republic would issue partial restrictions demonstrates the power of these mourning processions to inspire social unrest. However, Ashura and the martyrdom of Husayn has also been used to strengthen the identity of the Islamic Republic, especially in its formative years during the 1979 revolution and the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). Throughout both of these events, the ruling elite encouraged and could even demand sacrifice on the battlefield by dressing it up as ‘martyrdom’, portraying it as a kind of reward and state of higher exaltation. Today, many of these martyrs are commemorated throughout Iran through city murals and posters, reinforcing the power of the ‘cult of the martyr’ in the minds of Iranian society, and looking to rituals of commemoration to legitimise its rule.
Lebanon is another state in which the commemoration of Ashura is of major significance. Prior to the late 1970s, Ashura in Lebanon had been commemorated in more traditional forms such as public chest beating and weeping. These traditional forms of commemoration began to be replaced with more activist commemorations as the national (and regional) Islamic movement began to grow, all of which solidified during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-90) and Israeli invasion and occupation of 1982. During this period, Ashura processions saw processional reciters framing the lessons of Husayn’s martyrdom at Karbala as acts of resistance against oppression, and subsequently drawing parallels between their situation of Israeli occupation and that of Husayn against the Caliph Yazid. Ashura is also weaponised as a political tool by the Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah, who frequently reinterpret the events of Karbala in its yearly Ashura posters. These posters frequently posit Hezbollah fighters as noble martyrs just like Husayn, fighting against global oppression, evidencing their reliance on Shia history as an oppressed minority to reinforce their identity.
The politicisation of Ashura continues today, where most recently the Afghan Shia community, the Hazara, have had to alter their usual commemorations due to the return of the Taliban, which resulted in self-censorship and scaled back Ashura processions across the country, largely due to reported instances of Taliban persecution, such as reports of a massacre of Hazara in the city of Ghazni on 19 August. Whilst promising to form an inclusive and representative government, at the time of writing, the Taliban have over the last month been found to be unlawfully killing members of the Hazara community, as well as forcibly evicting them off their land with only a few days’ notice provided. Therefore, as the cases of Iran and Lebanon have shown, it would not be surprising if the commemoration of Ashura acts as a future rallying point for the Hazara to protest and resist Taliban rule, using the well-established narratives of Karbala as an inspiration to resist oppressive rule.