Muharram, the first month of the Islamic year, is the focus of annual lamentation rituals performed especially by Shi’a Muslims in honor of Hussain b. Ali, the prophet Muhammad's grandson, who was martyred on 10th of Muharram, known as Ashura, in the battle of Karbala. Both in pre-Islamic and Islamic cultures, Muharram is considered a sacred month. It is named Muharram (forbidden) because warfare is forbidden in this month.
Origins in Pre-Islamic Calendar[edit | edit source]
The name, Muharram, is originally not a proper name but an adjective qualifying Safar. In the pre-Islamic period, the first two months of the old Meccan year were Safar [q.v.] I and II, which is reflected in the dual a potiori of al-Safaran for al-Muharram and Safar; in the old Arab year, the first half year consisted of “Three months of two months each” (Wellhausen), as the two Safars were followed by two Rabiʿs and two Jumadas.  The pre-Islamic Arabs held the lunar month of Muharram to be sacred during which warfare is forbidden.
Month of Mourning[edit | edit source]
All Muslims consider Muharram to be a sacred period, but it is the Shiʿa who have attached special significance to this month. For the Shiʿa, Muharram is a time to commemorate the martyrdom of the third Imam, Hussain ibn ʿAli, who was killed on the tenth day of the month (Ashura), at the battle of Karbala, Iraq, in 680 CE. The ritualized remembrance of Imam Hussain, his family, and his loyal supporters, who sacrificed their lives for the cause of Islam, extends far beyond Muharram to the months of Safar and al-Rabiʿ al-Awwal. These days of mourning (ayyam-e ʿaza) are a time for the Shiʿa to collectively remember and mourn Imam Hussain’s sacrifice and martyrdom, as well as to publicly affirm their loyalty to the family of the Prophet Muhammad (Ahl-e Bayt) and Islam. Over time, Muharram has come to refer to the collectivity of rituals performed to invoke Imam Hussain’s suffering and sacrifice, as well as to maintain the immediacy of Karbala in the Shiʿi collective conscience.  Muharram is also important in the Sunni tradition, and the ninth and tenth days are days of fasting commemorating when Noah left the ark and when Moses was saved in Egypt. In many parts of the Islamic world, including South Asia and South Africa, Sunnis also participate in Muharram mourning rituals for Imam Hussain and his family, which is considered a way of paying respects to the Prophet Muhammad. Likewise, Muharram has been an occasion for Sunni-Shiʿi violence in places such as Pakistan and Iraq, and for Hindu-Muslim violence in India. 
Mourning Rituals in Muharram[edit | edit source]
During Muharram, the Shiʿa attend mourning assemblies (majles), where they listen to discourses (rawza- khwani) extolling the idealized qualities (faza’el) and tragic suffering (masa’eb) of Imam Hussain and his family. Memorializing poems of lament are recited (marthiya, salam, and suz), and each majles concludes with the participants beating their chests (Arabic latam; Persian/Urdu matam) in time to rhythmic poems of mourning (nawha). In Iran and South Asia, replicas of Imam Hussain’s tomb (naql, taʿzia) are constructed and carried through the streets in processions (jolus). On 9 and 10 Muharram, men solemnly march through the streets performing various acts of bloodletting self-flagellation, including striking the head with a sharp knife (tatbir, qameh zani) or striking oneself on the back with chains or blades (shamshir zani, zanjir zani). Since the early 20th century, Shiʿi ulama have debated the permissibility of performing “bloody matam.” In 1994 Ayatollah ʿAli Khamenei issued a fatwa (legal opinion) prohibiting the performance of matam in which weapons are used to shed blood. Likewise, the leader of the Lebanese organization Hezbollah, Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, has upheld Khamenei’s fatwa, urging Shiʿa to donate blood on Ashura. These legal opinions reflect the desire to deflect criticism away from Shiʿi Muharram rituals, which are often portrayed as excessively violent. Imam Hussain’s martyrdom is dramatically reenacted in Iran, India, Pakistan, Turkey and the Caucasus, Iraq, and Lebanon in the ta’ziya, where village men and professional actors assume the roles of the heroes and villains of Karbala.