Muharram is the first month in the Islamic calendar and the first day of Muharram is generally commemorated as the beginning of the Islamic New Year. However, unlike the typical New Year Celebrations that are observed across the world which include boisterous gaiety and fireworks display, Muslims observe Muharram or the Islamic New Year with great solemnity and reverence.

On this day, prayers and rituals including fasting are held, the hallmarks of which are discipline and restraint rather than indulgence or joy. The reason for the gravitas that surrounds the Islamic New Year can be traced back to the events in the Islamic tradition which are associated with Muharram.

A day for remembering sacrifice, freedom and victory

The rituals practiced on Muharram are linked to two significant events that are considered important milestones in Islamic culture. For Sunni Muslims, it is an auspicious day because it is associated with the epic moment when Musa or Moses led his people to freedom from Egypt. Thus it is a time to be thankful for the freedom and the blessings they have and look forward to the future with a spirit of renewal.

For Shia Muslims, it is a day of mourning, because they associate the advent of the New Year with the martyrdom of Hussein bin Ali, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad. They therefore observe the day with mournful solemnity and expressions of grief to commemorate the suffering and sacrifice of Hussein.

Since Muharram is observed according to the Islamic lunar calendar, the date for Muharram varies every year as per the Gregorian calendar. The first day of Muharram coincides with the day following the crescent new moon. Though, it is not always a Public Holiday, Muslims consecrate the occasion by participating in group prayer recitals at mosques and observing fasts not only for the occasion but for 4 to 5 days.

An occasion for expressing solidarity

People gather at the mosques for morning prayers, after they have performed their ablutions and donned clean or new clothes to welcome the Islamic New Year. The term, Muharram is derived from ‘Haram’ which means ‘forbidden’ and Muslims are exhorted to become aware of the temptations and sins that beguile them and how to remain steadfast on the path of righteousness through the recital of prayers. They also pay heed to the sacred virtues of love, compassion and kindness towards the brotherhood and gather for a ritual breaking of the fast at dawn with friends and family members.

In many cities where Shia Muslims inhabit, on Muharram and on Ashura, 10 days after Muharram, processions are held with people dressed in black as a sign of mourning gathering to enact the suffering and brutal massacre of Hussein, the Prophet’s grandson. There are many scenes of self-flagellation as the faithful devotees perform these ritual beatings on their bodies as a reminder of the martyrdom of Hussein. In some parts of the world, there are rituals which involve walking on a bed of hot coals and other forms of penance performed by Shia Muslims.

Local cultural influences also play a major role in the rituals and parades that take place in different parts of the world on Muharram. So, while in Saudi Arabia, there is a solemn and silent air as people gather at the main mosques of Mecca and Medina to participate in the ritual reciting of prayers, in other parts of the world Shia Muslims take out parades and processions to the accompaniment of rhythmic chanting of holy verses and drumbeats, dressed in black as a sign of mourning. In Indonesia, especially in the city of Pariaman, a ritual procession culminates with the immersion of the Tabuik, a local funeral bier made of bamboo and paper, in the sea as a symbol of commemorating the martyrdom of Hussein.

It is a common sight in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore to see parades and processions featuring dramatic enactments or tableaus representing the martyrdom of Hussein and also the march to freedom from Egypt led by Musa or Moses. It is an opportunity for young and old to rub shoulders and express solidarity with the community.

Ritual cleansing of sacred places and objects as well as residences and clothes are observed symbolizing renewal and hope. Free meals are also provided to the poor and the needy by mosques and religious institutions.

On Muharram, rituals may differ between how Sunni and Shia Muslims observe, however it is unanimously considered as the most holy month in the year other than Ramadan, of course. Among the most important rituals are the reciting of prayers together with the rest of the community as a mark of solidarity, taking part in processions and observing ritual fasting and breaking the fast.