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Religion Library: Shia Islam

Sacred Time

Written by: Anna Akasoy

Rituals associated with Muharram are also held at other times of the year. In Iran, private people sometimes organize lamentation sessions (Persian: rawza-khani), during which the events of Karbala are commemorated. As Mahmud Ayoub has pointed out in his study Redemptive Suffering in Islam, Ashura is the only time reserved in the Islamic calendar for rest. According to some scholars, the Shiite tradition may have been inspired here by the Jewish practice of a day of grief, fasting, and disregard for worldly affairs.

There are a number of other celebrations specific to Shiism. Moojan Momen in his Introduction to Shi'i Islam lists a total of thirty-four religious commemorations in addition to Muharram and Ramadan. Most of them are connected with the birth and death dates of Imams and other important figures (Fatima and Zaynab), and a small number is dedicated to other memorable events in early Islamic history—for example the Occultation of the Twelfth Imam. During the three days that passed between Ali's stabbing and his death (19 and 21 Ramadan), Shiites hold night vigils. In post-revolutionary Iran, the birthday of Fatima is also Mother's Day and that of Zaynab is dedicated to nurses.

Another festival celebrated by Shiites is Ghadir Khumm on 18 Dhu al-Hijja. According to both the Sunni and the Shiite traditions, Muhammad stated here during his farewell pilgrimage in 632 that "whoever followed me, will follow Ali." While Sunnis interpret this as a support of Ali who had made himself unpopular with his severe attitude, Shiites claim that Muhammad appointed Ali with these words as his successor.

In terms of time as well as in terms of space the events of early Islamic history have a metahistorical character. They are crucial for salvation history and are treated almost as part of the revelation. An imaginary recreation of the events at Karbala can lead to a better understanding of the truth and to better ethical behavior. Since contemplation of the martyrdoms is independent of a fixed religious calendar, an everyday moment can be transformed into sacred time when it is linked to these events.

Study Questions:
1.     What practices do Shiites share with Sunnis?
2.     What is Ashura and how does it share Shiite spirituality?
3.     What are some of the Muharram rituals?


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