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  • Shia Muslim Foundation

A Primer on Muharram for Non-Muslims

Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, holds deep spiritual and historical significance for Shia Muslims around the world. It is a time of reverence, introspection, and remembrance. To those unfamiliar with this tradition, let's delve deeper into understanding what Muharram represents for Shia Muslims and how it is commemorated, particularly in the city of Karbala, located in Iraq, a major center for these observances.

However, to those unfamiliar with Islamic customs and history, understanding Muharram can be a challenge.

This article seeks to explain the significance of Muharram, its historical background, and its contemporary practices. We will explore its profound importance within the Islamic community, particularly amongst the Shia Muslim community. The aim is to foster understanding and respect for this sacred occasion and offer insight into the cultural and religious implications of this period.

A Shia scholar recites a "majlis" in front of mourners

Understanding Muharram

To Shia Muslims, Muharram is synonymous with the tragic events of the Battle of Karbala in the year 680 AD, where Imam Husain, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, was martyred along with many of his family members and supporters. The day of his martyrdom, known as Ashura (which falls on the 10th day of Muharram), is a day of intense mourning for Shia Muslims.

Imam Husain's stand was seen as a protest against the tyranny and corruption of the ruling power at the time, personified by the Caliph Yazid. Shia Muslims view Imam Husain as a symbol of resistance against injustice and oppression, and his martyrdom is regarded as a sacrifice made for the preservation of the values of Islam.

Practices During Muharram

Shia Muslims commemorate Muharram in various ways, which include prayers and public processions. One common practice is attending gatherings known as "majalis," where sermons and narratives about the events of Karbala are recounted to foster a sense of community and shared mourning. These gatherings are often held in mosques and community centers, and even in private homes.

Muharram Observances in the United States and Other Western Nations

In the United States and other Western countries, Shia Muslims also observe Muharram with a deep sense of reverence and respect. While the nature of the commemorations may vary depending on the local cultural context and regulations, the essence remains the same: remembrance of Imam Husain and the values he stood for.

In these regions, communities often gather in local mosques, Islamic centers, or even in private homes to participate in majalis, or assemblies, where stories of Imam Husain's stand in Karbala are recounted. These sessions often involve readings from the Quran, poetic recitations, and sermons dedicated to the historical and moral aspects of the event.

To facilitate a broader understanding among non-Muslims in these countries, some communities organize public processions or exhibitions. These public events are designed to promote peaceful interfaith dialogue, highlighting the universal values of justice, truth, and resistance against oppression. Such activities provide opportunities for individuals from different faiths to learn about the significance of Muharram and the rich history of Shia Islam.

In schools and universities, Muslim student associations often host informational sessions about Muharram and Ashura, offering their peers a chance to learn about these important aspects of Shia Islam. They present historical context and discuss the ongoing relevance of Imam Hussein's stance against tyranny.

Despite being far from Karbala, Shia Muslims in Western nations continue to maintain the tradition of Muharram, fostering a sense of unity and identity within their communities. It's a testament to the enduring strength and flexibility of these practices that they can be meaningfully observed in such a variety of cultural contexts.

It is important to note that while the ways in which Muharram is observed may differ across various cultures and nations, the central theme remains the same: the remembrance of Imam Husain's stand against injustice and oppression, and the reaffirmation of the values for which he gave his life.

Who Is Husain?

Imam Husain, whose full name is Husain ibn Ali, is a central figure in Shia Islam and is revered as the third Imam, or spiritual and community leader. Born in 626 AD, he was the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, through the Prophet's daughter Fatima and her husband Ali, who is revered as the first Imam in Shia Islam.

The events leading to his martyrdom began with the ascension of Yazid to the Caliphate, the leadership of the Muslim community. Yazid, known for his authoritarian rule and disregard for Islamic values, demanded allegiance from Imam Husain. In refusing to pledge allegiance, Imam Husain was not merely opposing a ruler, but taking a stand against injustice, corruption, and deviation from the path of true Islam.

In 680 AD, on the day of Ashura, Imam Husain, his family, and his companions were brutally killed on the plains of Karbala (in modern-day Iraq) by Yazid's forces. Despite being vastly outnumbered and aware of the fatal consequences, Imam Husain chose to face the tyrannical forces, valuing principles and righteousness above his own life.

Muharram Observances in Karbala

Karbala, a city in modern-day Iraq, is the very place where the Battle of Karbala occurred. It is the site of the shrines of Imam Husain and his brother, Abbas, making it a central destination for Shia Muslims during Muharram.

Pilgrims perform prayers near the shrine of Imam Husain in Karbala, Iraq (2023)

Today, millions of pilgrims from all over the world journey to Karbala during Muharram. This pilgrimage, known as the "Arbaeen Pilgrimage," which occurs 40 days after Ashura, is one of the largest peaceful gatherings in the world. Pilgrims walk from Najaf to Karbala, a distance of approximately 50 miles (80 kilometers), in a show of devotion, unity, and solidarity.

In Karbala, the narrative of Imam Husain's martyrdom is recited and re-enacted, but the emphasis is not on the physical battle but the moral and ethical stance taken by Imam Hussein. This period of remembrance in Karbala serves as a stark reminder of the universal struggle against oppression and injustice, themes that resonate strongly with the observances of Muharram.


The observance of Muharram is a profound time of remembrance and mourning for Shia Muslims, an annual reaffirmation of their commitment to the values upheld by Imam Husain - justice, truth, and resistance against oppression. Understanding these practices provides a window into the deeply held beliefs and customs of Shia Muslims around the world.

For those who wish to learn more or engage in respectful dialogue about these traditions, the Shia Muslim Foundation welcomes your curiosity and is here to provide further information and foster interfaith understanding.


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