Ashura marks the death of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, the revered Imam Hussein in Karbala, Iraq 1,300 years ago.
Ashura, an optional fast day for Muslims, falls on Dec. 4-5, 2011. The word itself, ashura, means 10, and the holiday is the 10th day of the Islamic month of Muharram. The Islamic calendar is lunar, so the date of Ashura can vary depending on sighting of the moon.
Here’s how it’s done:
Shiite Muslims observe Ashura through mourning rituals such as self-flagellation and reenactments of the martyrdom. Many travel to Karbala in Iraq, where Hussein was killed, as a pilgrimage on Ashura. Most observers wear black and march through the streets chanting and hitting themselves in the chest. Some use whips and chains — or cut themselves on the forehead — to ritually punish their bodies. This practice has been condemned by some Shiite leaders, so Ashura blood drives are often organized as a substitute.
Thousands of Muslim men beating themselves bloody with steel chains. What could be better?
Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, was killed by armies of the caliph Yazid in 680 AD. He was said to be decapitated and his body mutilated in the battle at Karbala, now in Iraq, Reuters reports. As is custom, the crowds — many of the them hordes of shirtless men — re-enacted the killing of Hussein, hitting their backs with knife-covered chains and cutting their heads with swords, even though the self-flagellation traditions have been banned by some members of the Shiite clergy.