Muharram is the first month of the Islamic calendar. Instead of joyous celebration, Muslims mark the beginning of the new year by taking up the black attire of sorrow and participate in mourning gatherings in which the sacrifices of Husayn and his companions are commemorated.
Husayn, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was brutally massacred in Karbala alongside his family and friends in the year 680 CE/61 AH. Their martyrdom is a sad day for all Muslims, especially the Shi’a, who hold mourning ceremonies to recall the righteous virtues for which the valiant martyrs stood and the grave calamities that they thus had to bear.
Husayn, the third of the twelve Imams (Divinely appointed leaders) according to the Shi’a faith, refused to swear allegiance to Yazid. Yazid was not only an open sinner and transgressor of the teachings of Islam, but he was also a most cruel tyrant who oppressed those over whom his rule prevailed.
Husayn’s followers were greatly outnumbered and dying of thirst on the day of their martyrdom, also known as the day of Ashura. The small band of about 72 thirsty companions were confronted by an army in excess of 30,000, yet they faced them with resolute strength and unwavering conviction. Each one of the seventy-two exhorted their killers towards righteousness before and during battle, in the midst of flying spears and arrows.
The commemoration of this brutal massacre begins on the first day of Muharram and continues for 40 days. During the first 10 days of Muharram, millions of Muslims remember the massacre at Karbala and strive to strengthen their individual characters by paying heed to lessons learnt from Husayn in Karbala.
Today the shrines of Husayn and Abbas, Husayn’s brother, in Karbala about 100km south of Baghdad, are flocked by millions of devotees who pay homage to them and renew, through their message, their eternal struggle against humiliation and oppression.