Muharram is the first month of the Islamic calendar. On the first day of Muharram, the Islamic New Year is observed by Muslims. The Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar, and is 11 to 12 days shorter than the solar year. Hence it is a little different from the Gregorian calender that is used in the western nations. When compared with the Gregorian calendar, which is a solar calendar, the lunar month of Muharram shifts from year to year.
The month of Muharram is of great religious significance to Islamic people the world over. It is held to be the most sacred of all the months, excluding Ramadan. The word "Muharram" is often considered synonymous with "Ashura", the tenth day of the Muharram month.
"Ashura" is a highly important day for both sects of Islam - the Shias and the Sunnis. The Shia muslims believe that Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, became a martyr at the Battle of Karbala on the tenth day of Muharram in 61 AH(680 AD).
The pre-Islamic period in the Arabian peninsula was the era of warring tribes. In the absence of a strong leadership, there were conflicts and battles on minor issues. But fighting was prohibited in four months of the year. These months, of which Muharram was one, were considered sacred. Muharram is so called because it was unlawful to fight during this month; the word is derived from the word ‘haram’ meaning forbidden. This period of inactivity was a necessity in heavily decorated replicas of the tomb of the Imam and his family are made for Muharram the era of warring tribes. The tradition was maintained even after the advent of Islam, though provisions to accommodate and accept war in special situations, like a threat to the sovereignty of an empire, were introduced. The gory battle of Karbala was fought against this law and tradition of Islam. The inhabitants on the banks of rivers Euphrates and Tigris were traditional rivals. Their animosity was contained to some extent by Muhammad. But when his son-in-law Hazrat Ali was the Caliph(Muslim civil and religious leader considered to be Allah's representative on earth), the old enmity re-surfaced. Hazrat Ali had two descendants, Hazrat Imam Hussain and Hazrat Imam Hassan. Hussain was the ruler of the part of the empire known today as Iran. The other part in modern Iraq was ruled by the Umayyads. Hussain was called upon by the Shiahs of Kufa, a small town in the Umayyad kingdom, to accept their allegiance and claim his place as the leader of the Islamic community. This was against the wishes of the ruler of Kufa, Yazid, who instructed his governor, Ibn-e-Ziad to take appropriate action. Meanwhile, in response to the call of the Shiahs, Hussain accompanied by his family members, headed for Kufa. When they reached Karbala, en route to Kufa, the forces of the governor surrounded them and their 70 men. Hussain, his family and his troops were tortured and killed, and Hussain's head was severed and presented to the king. They received no help from the Shiahs of Kufa.
As this tragic incident happened on the tenth day of Muharram, Shia Muslims consider this a day of sorrow. They commemorate the martyrdom of Hussain as a religious occassion called "Muharram" (named after the month of its observance). The occassion starts on the 1st day of Muharram and lasts for 10 days until 10th of Muharram. As Muharram approaches, they put on black clothes, as black is regarded as a color of mourning. During the entire 10 day period, they keep themselves away from music and all joyous events (e.g. weddings) that can distract them in anyway from the sorrowful remembrance of that day. During each of the first nine days of Muharram, "Majalis" (assemblies) are held where Shia orators vividly depict the incident of the martyrdom of Hazrat Imam Hussain and his party. Mainstream Shia Muslims fast until the evening. On "Ashura", devoted Muslims assemble and go out in large processions. They parade the streets holding banners and carrying models of the mausoleum of Hazrat Imam Hussain and his people, who fell at Karbala. Some Shia sects observe "Ashura" by beating themselves with chains in public, cutting themselves with knives and sharp objects and holding mournful public processions. This is an expression of their grief on the death of their favourite leader Hussain, considered to be the representative of Allah. (But no Shiite scholar affirms any extreme behavior that harms the body and Shia leaders consider such acts as "Haram", or forbidden.) It is a sad occasion and everyone in the procession chants "Ya Hussain", wailing loudly. Generally a white horse is beautifully decorated and included in the procession. It serves to bring back the memory of the empty mount of Hazrat Imam Husain after his martyrdom. Drinking posts are also set up temporarily by the Shia community where water and juices are served to all, free of charge.
While Shia Muslims consider "Muharram" to be a sorrowful occassion, Sunni Muslims observe it as a festival and look at "Ashura" as a happy day though the religious aspect remain intact. Pious Sunnis keep a fast("roja") on "Ashura" as per the "Hadith"(a tradition based on reports of the sayings and activities of Muhammad and his companions) of Prophet Muhammad. According to the "Hadith", the Prophet saw the Jews fasting on the 10th of Muharram to commemorate their liberation from Egyptian slavery and the extermination of the army of the Pharoah in the waters of the Red Sea. Prophet Mohammed liked the custom for he believed that it was Allah who saved the Israelites from their enemy in Egypt. He started to fast on the same day as the Jews but he planned to fast on the 9th and 10th from the following year. But death came in between him and his pious wish. Usually, Sunni Muslims are recommended to fast either on the 9th and 10th of Muharram or on the 10th and 11th of Muharram.