Last week, Muslims celebrated the Islamic New Year in the month of Muharram. This will be followed by the observation of Ashura which falls on the 10th day of Muharram (19 August 2021). A month later, the Jews will be observing Yom Kippur also known as “A Day of Atonement “ on the 10th day of Tishrei based on the Jewish lunar calendar.
Generally, it is known that Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. observed Ashura after his encounter with the People of the Book in Madinah. Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. asked them the reason they were fasting on that day and they replied:
هذا يَوْمٌ عَظِيمٌ، وهو يَوْمٌ نَجَّى اللَّهُ فيه مُوسَى، وأَغْرَقَ آلَ فِرْعَوْنَ، فَصَامَ مُوسَى شُكْرًا لِلَّهِ
"This is a blessed day. On this day, Allah saved (Prophet) Musa and drowned the people of Firaun (the pharaoh), and so Prophet Musa a.s fasted on this day to give thanks to Allah.."
To emulate Prophet Musa’s gratitude, Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. encouraged Muslims to fast for two days, either the 9th and 10th or the 10th and 11th day of Muharram. While most discussions on Ashura revolve around the virtues of fasting, there is less discussion about the extent to which this shared Judeo-Islamic tradition is similar and different.
Here are four similarities between observing Yom Kippur and Ashura.
In one of the hadiths (Prophetic Tradition), Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. mentioned that Muharram is one of the sacred months.
الزَّمَانُ قَدِ اسْتَدَارَ كَهَيْئَتِهِ يَوْمَ خَلَقَ السَّمَوَاتِ وَالأَرْضَ، السَّنَةُ اثْنَا عَشَرَ شَهْرًا، مِنْهَا أَرْبَعَةٌ حُرُمٌ، ثَلاَثَةٌ مُتَوَالِيَاتٌ ذُو الْقَعْدَةِ وَذُو الْحِجَّةِ وَالْمُحَرَّمُ، وَرَجَبُ مُضَرَ الَّذِي بَيْنَ جُمَادَى وَشَعْبَانَ
"The division of time has turned to its original form which was current when Allah created the Heavens and the Earths. The year is of twelve months, out of which four months are sacred: Three are in subsequent Zulkaedah, Zulhijjah and Muharram, and (the fourth is) Rajab of (the tribe of) Mudar which comes between Jumadith-Thaniyah and Sha’ban."
Hence, Ashura is one of the holiest days in the sacred month and Muslims observe it through expressing gratitude, fasting, performing prayers, and maximising good deeds.
Similarly, Yom Kippur is considered the holiest day of the year to be commemorated by the Jews. This is observed through a day-long-fast, intensive prayer and performing services in the synagogue. To observe the Day of Atonement, they refrain from executing any activities, these include wearing leather, applying makeup, washing or bathing, engaging in conjugal relations and many other routines except religious duties that focus on a relationship with the Divine.
For Muslims, Ashura is the time to continuously seek repentance and supplicate for our past sins to be forgiven. The Prophet s.a.w. said,
صِيامُ يومِ عاشُوراءَ، إِنِّي أحْتَسِبُ على اللهِ أنْ يُكَفِّرَ السنَةَ التِي قَبْلَهُ
“Fasting on the Day of Ashura, I hope will expiate the sins of the previous year.”
It is a day to repair oneself and return to the pure state of being a good human. Likewise, Jews embody the spirit of atonement through renewing their relationship with God, enhancing spiritual connection by reading the Torah, increasing prayers and seeking forgiveness.
Both Ashura and Yom Kippur are built on the need for introspection, returning gratitude to God and reflecting on one's attitude towards the Creator and His creations.
According to the Jewish tradition, just months after the people of Israel left Egypt in the year 2448 from creation (1313 BCE), they sinned by worshipping a golden calf. Prophet Musa a.s ascended Mount Sinai and prayed to God to forgive them. Hence, Yom Kippur was observed out of this event and therefore it is observed with a solemn manner.
For Muslims, generally, Muharram is a mix of gratitude and grief. Ashura is also a day of mourning the martyrdom of Saiyyidina Hussein r.a, the son of the fourth caliph Saiyyidina Ali r.a. and the grandson of Prophet Muhammad s.a.w, who was killed in the battle of Karbala.
The Shiah tradition spends extensive time observing the tragedy. This includes storytelling, poetry recitation and provides a space for self-reflection.
If Ashura is observed outside of the commemoration of Yom Kippur, then why is it not observed on the same day and month in the Gregorian calendar?
This is because, unlike the Jewish calendar which continues to perform mathematical intercalation to remain in alignment with the solar calendar, the Islamic calendar sticks to its twelve lunar months. This calculation means that the Islamic calendar moves ahead of the solar calendar by about eleven days every year.
Nonetheless, the Muslim fast of Ashura will coincide with the Jewish fast of Tisha b’Av (Av 9th) next year in 2022. Both events carry the element of introspection and mourning.
Perhaps this can be a good opportunity for a dialogue between the two faith communities using the events above. Questions such as what does the idea of gratitude, empathy and suffering mean to us and them and how can sharing these stories help to create a better understanding, dispel misconception and confront disagreement respectfully between the two faith communities.
Before publication, this article was shared with interfaith friends of Harmony Centre.