Muharram 2021: what is Ashura, fasting, date, Islamic calendar explained - and how is it celebrated in the UK?

Ashura falls on the 10th day of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar

The next holiday in the Islamic calendar is upon us, with Muslims the world over observing Ashura.

But what exactly is Ashura? And what is the meaning behind it?

Here is everything you need to know.

What is Muharram?

Muharram is the first month of the Islamic calendar.

It begins with Al-Hijra - or the Islamic New Year - a low-key event in the Muslim world which is celebrated less than the two major festivals of Eid-ul-Fitr and Eid-ul-Adha.

Al-Hijra marks the Hijra (or Hegira) in 622 CE, when the Prophet Muhammad moved from Mecca to Medina and set up the first Islamic state.

Muharram is held to be the most sacred of all the months except for Ramadan. Some Muslims fast during the month.

When is Muharram?

Since the Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar, Muharram moves from year to year when compared with the Gregorian calendar.

According to, Muharram for the year 2021 began on the evening of Monday 9 August, and will end at sundown on Tuesday 7 September.

Islamic holidays always begin at sundown, and end at sundown the following day/days ending the holiday or festival.

What is Ashura?

The Day of Ashura falls on the tenth day of Muharram, but the reasons for its celebration differ somewhat according to varying branches of Islam.

In Shi’a Islam, it forms part of the Mourning of Muharram, a period of remembrance for the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad.

He is said to have died at the Battle of Karbala in the year 680 AD, a battle which is also commemorated by Shia Muslims through the Day of Ashura.

While some Sunni Muslims follow the same beliefs, others believe the day marks the anniversary of Moses and his people’s victory over the Egyptian Pharaoh.

Thus, Sunni Muslims celebrate the victory - as told by the famous story of the parting of the Red Sea - with more reverence than Shiites.

According to tradition, Muhammad asked Muslims to fast on this day, and also a day extra either before or after.

In Shi’a regions of Muslim countries such as Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Pakistan, the Commemoration of Husayn ibn Ali has become a national holiday. Even in mostly Hindu countries like India, Ashura is a public holiday.

How is it celebrated?

How Ashura is celebrated also depends on which branch of Islam one is a follower of.

For instance, it is a major holy day and occasion for pilgrimage in Shi’a Islam, and imams strongly insist that it should not be celebrated as a day of joy and festivity, but instead must be a day of rest and sorrow.

But although Sunni Muslim tradition says Muhammad fasted on this day and asked others to do so, marking the holiday in such a way is recommended, but not obligatory.

That’s because the fast was superseded when fasting during the month of Ramadan became obligatory and the fast of Ashura was made non-compulsory.

For those who do choose to fast, many cook something sweet to share with their family and circle of friends to eat when breaking the fast.

When is Ashura?

In 2021, Ashura began at sundown on 18 August, and will come to an end at sundown on 19 August.

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