January 25, 2007

'Ashurah - Shi'a holy day...and target for the Sunnis

The holiest day for Shi'a Muslims, 'Ashurah, is celebrated on the 10th day of the Muslim month of Muharram. The word is Arabic for "the tenth." This year that equates to Sunday, January 28.

The story

Shi’a Muslims make up about 15 percent of the of the world’s second largest religion. The difference between the sects is as old as the religion itself and revolved around the issue of succession – who would follow Muhammad as the leader of the faithful? The Arabic word for “one who follows or succeeds,” - khalifah (Caliph) - was adopted as the title. Many believed that the successor to Muhammad should be a family member, someone in the bloodline of the Prophet.

However, Muhammad had no son, no male heir to the caliphate. Muhammad did have a daughter, Fatimah, who was married to Muhammad’s cousin ‘Ali bin Abu Talib. The people who favored the selection of ‘Ali as the caliph were called the shi’at ‘ali, the “partisans of ‘Ali,” hence the name Shi’a.

The other school of thought, held by many prominent Muslims of the day, was that the caliph should be drawn from one of the senior and learned members of the faith, the ummah or “community.” These were the Sunnis, the traditionalists. The Sunni position prevailed and the first three caliphs were not of Muhammad’s bloodline. Finally, a convergence occurred in 656 when ‘Ali (regarded by the Shi’a as the first Imam) was named the fourth Caliph. ‘Ali was soon murdered and his son Hasan became the second Imam. However, real political power at this time rested with the Sunni caliph in Damascus. Hasan abdicated in favor of these ‘Umayyad rulers.

Hasan’s brother Husayn assumed the Shi’a imamate, presaging what became the major divide in Islamic history. In 680, Husayn was killed in battle against superior ‘Umayyad (Sunni) forces in Karbala’, Iraq on the tenth (‘ashurah) day of the month of Muharram. This day is commemorated by all Shi’a as a day of mourning and perfidy on the part of the Sunnis.

The problem

As part of the commemoration of the death of Imam Husayn, more than a million pilgrims are expected to march to the city of Karbala, located about 60 miles south of Baghdad. To get to Karbala, most pilgrims coming from the Baghdad area travel a road that traverses a Sunni area commonly called the "triangle of death." Shi'a pilgrims have usually been attacked by Sunnis along this stretch of road.

'Ashurah is a major security concern for Iraqi security forces and American troops. Given the level of sectarian violence in Iraq, violence during the 'Ashurah observances is highly likely.