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Fasting on the day of ʿĀshūrāʾ according to the books of Twelver Shia

This document was written by Mukhtar Ahmad and has been published in article form with minimal editing


Notwithstanding the small amount of rather technical controversy over the details surrounding-and the legal ruling on—fasting on and around the tenth day of the first Islamic lunar month, an overwhelming majority of the religious community of God’s Final Messenger ﷺ nevertheless observes said fasts.

The precedent proof-texts and reasonings employed by the Generality are largely well known, but what have the prominent voices from among the Twelver Shiʿi school of thought had to say on the matter? Hereunder, with God’s permission, I have presented a cursory look at just that.

However, before presenting the coming references and opinions, it is important that I establish the objective of doing so. It is commonly asserted by many (not all) of the adherents of the Twelver Shiʿi school of thought that fasting on the Day of ʿĀshūrāʾ is one or a combination of:

  • A forbidden, reprehensible practice;
  • Non-existent in the Sunnah of the Prophet ﷺ or the practice of the Imams of Ahl al-Bayt;
  • A practice of the Nawasib (anti-ʿAlids);
  • Forged by the Umayyads in order to distract  the Muslims from the tragedy of Karbalāʾ;
  • Et cetera.

I hope to clarify these accusations as being false notions by presenting what follows.

Shaykh al-Ṭūsī recorded in Tahdhīb al-aḥkām (4/29) Al-Istibṣār (2/134), as did Shaykh al-Ḥurr al-ʿĀmilī in Wasāʾil al-shīʿa (7/377) and others, the narration on the authority of Abu al-Ḥasan (as), who said:

The Messenger of Allah ﷺ fasted on the day of ʿĀshūrāʾ

Also recorded in Tahdhīb al-aḥkām (4/300), Al-Istibṣār (2/134), al-Ḥadāʾiq al-Nāḍira by Shaykh Yusūf al-Baḥrānī (13/371), and others, is the narration from Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq (as) from his father, Muḥammad al-Bāqir (as), who said:

Fasting the day of ʿĀshūrāʾ expiates the sins of a year.

Another narration, which can be found in Wasāʾil al-shīʿa (7/347) and al-Ḥadāʾiq al-Nāḍira (13/377), is attributed to Imām al-Ṣādiq (as), who said:

Whoever is able to fast in Muḥarram should do so, for his fast will protect him from every sin.

A narration, recorded by al-Ṭabarsī: in Mustadrak al-Wasāʾil (1/594), is attributed to Imām ʿAli (as), who said:

Fast on  the day of ʿĀshūrāʾ, both the ninth and the tenth, for it is an expiation of the previous year’s sins. If any of you eats without knowing it [i.e., by mistake], he should continue his fast.

One of most influential Twelver scholars and predecessor to Ayatullah ʿAlī al-Sīstānī – the spiritual leader of much of the Shi’ah world in the late 20th century -­ Ayatullah Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei, stated:

As for the narrations that command and encourage the fast on this day [ʿĀshūrāʾ], they are plenty-such as the authentic narration of al-Qaddaḥ. from Abu ʿAbdillah [Jaʿfar al-Sadiq], from his father, Abu Jaʿfar, who said, “fasting on the day of ʿĀshūrāʾ is an expiation of the year’s sins,” as well as the reliable transmission of Masʿadah b. Sadaqah from Abu ʿAbdillah, who said that Imam ʿAli said, “fast on ʿĀshūrāʾ, the ninth and tenth, for indeed it expiates the sins of the year.”

al-Mustanad fi Sharḥ al-‘Urwah al-Wuthqā, vol. 12, “Chapter on Fasting”

Sayed al-Khoei went on to say that the narrations that affirm the fast on ʿĀshūrāʾ are numerous, and that the prohibitive narrations are all weak in their chains of transmission. He says that the karahah (the state of being makruh/disliked) of fasting on that day is not established, let alone is its prohibition, which was the view of al-Baḥrānī in al-Ḥadāʾiq.

Sayed al-Khoei further said, “rather, it is permissible and recommended, especially [if done] mournfully according to what you know [i.e. for Karbalāʾ] with nothing else added to it.”[1]  He also added:

Whatever the case may be, the narrations that prohibit [fasting on ʿĀshūrāʾ] are not authentic by their chains whatsoever, but rather they are all weak, and we do not have any authentic narration upon which we can rely on to show [theological] opponents that the fasting was done upon taqiyyah, as the author of al-Ḥadāʾiq tried to produce.

al-Mustanad fi Sharḥ al-‘Urwah al-Wuthqā, vol. 12, “Chapter on Fasting”

In his al-Muqniʿah (1/366), Shaykh al-Mufīd stated:

As for the one who is capable of doing so, they should fast on Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays, and the three “white days,” i.e., the 13th, 14th, and 15th of each month-and indeed, they have been dubbed as “white” because of the brightness of the moon from sunset until sunrise over that three-day period. One should also fast the six days of Shawwal after ʿld al-Fitr, as well as on the day of ʿArafah – whomsoever is not physically harmed by doing so. And the day of ʿĀshūrāʾ should be fasted on out of sorrow for the tragedy that befell the Family of Muḥammad, upon them be peace.

Listing the appropriate days upon which one should fast in his al-Mabsut fi Fiqh al-Imamiyyah (1/282), Shaykh al-Ṭūsī also included “the fast of the Day of ʿĀshūrāʾ, to be observed out of calamity and grief.”

In al-Sara’ir al-Hawi li-Tahrir al-Fatawi (1/419), Shaykh lbn Idris al-Hilli mentions, when listing appropriate days for Muslims to fast, “the fast of the Day of ʿĀshūrāʾ, to be observed out of grief for the calamities of the Family of the Prophet, upon them be peace.”

Shaykh al-Muhaqqiq al-Hilli also mentions, when listing days upon which to observe a fast, that “the fast of ʿĀshūrāʾ is to be observed out of sorrow” (Shrāʾiʿ al­-lslām, 1/154).

Furthermore, in al-Mu’tabar fi Sharh al-Mukhtasar (2/709), al-Muhaqqiq al-Hilli explains that:

The fast of ʿĀshūrāʾ being observed out of grief, and not for seeking rewards/blessings, is firstly proven by what Harun b. Mas’adah b. Sadaqah narrated on the  authority of  Abu ‘Abdillah (as) from his father, i.e., that ‘Ali (as) said, “the fast of the ninth and tenth [of Muḥarram] expiates the sins of the previous year.” [Something similar is narrated] from ‘Abdullah b. Maymun al-Qaddah, from Ja’far, from his father (as)

Moreover, al-ʿAllamah al-Hilli included in his Tadhkirah al-Fuqaha'(6/192):

Issue 129 – It is recommended to fast on the Day of ʿĀshūrāʾ out of grief, not out of seeking reward, because it is the day on which one of Masters of the Youth of the People of Paradise, al­-Husayn b. ʿAli (as), was martyred, his harem was violated, and the greatest of calamities befell the Ahl al-Bayt, upon them be peace. Therefore, grieving should be done by not eating and retreating [i.e., refraining from social gathering].

One may agree or disagree with Sayed al-Khoei; however, the precedent in the scholarship stands. He himself weakens the narrations that prohibit fasting on ʿĀshūrāʾ and that condemn those who do fast it. The point here is, with the precedent set for ikhtilaf (a difference of opinion; in this case, on the act itself rather than its origin), then why definitively condemn it and exhibit characteristics of fanaticism on a condemnatory opinion based on inauthentic reports?

Why is this relevant?

I personally do not believe that the fast of ʿĀshūrāʾ was done by the Prophet ﷺ due to emulation of, learning from, honoring, etc. Bani Isra’il, the Yahud of Madinah, the Exodus, Prophet Musa (as), etc., nor do I think it was a practice from the Age of Ignorance that the Prophet ﷺ continued. However, I cannot simply deny the plethora of narrations that have been transmitted establishing its precedent (simply as an act of worship, not necessarily those about its cause/reason/origin). In addition to these is the authentic narration from Ibn al-ʿAbbas that tells us that the fast of ʿĀshūrāʾ was observed only once by the Prophet ﷺ, and that was in the final year of his life. When combined with another authentic narration-that the Prophet ﷺ was also informed, in that same year, about the future martyrdom of his grandson, Imam al-Husayn (as) – a valid opinion about this particular fast is that the Prophet’s ﷺ observance of it in that final Muḥarram was done out of empathy for the pain and thirst of his dear Husayn (as).

Therefore, those who assert that the simple act of fasting on this day is prohibited, a reprehensible innovation of the Nawasib, rivals the practice of Ahl al-Bayt, or mocks Imam al-Husayn (as) and Karbalāʾ, are asserting such without knowledge or the academic nuance and transparency/honesty that is required in discourse on religious texts and acts of worship. For one, no act of worship will ever-or should ever-distract an awakened Muslim from the school and movement of the Ahl al-Bayt. If one’s objection is over the Ummah’s distraction from Imam al-Husayn’s (as) tragedy, then one should focus on raising that awareness without resorting to less-than-thorough, loose-cannon attacks on the act itself. Perhaps a criticism of what is considered its origin, if done academically, can be discussed (by specialists). Similarly, those who observe the fast should not fool themselves into marginalising the martyrdom of Imam al-Husayn (as) by intending to celebrate a “new year” or the Exodus, for the fast itself is not mutually exclusive of, and should never overshadow, the Tragedy of Karbalāʾ.

All Praise is to Allah (swt), and He Knows Best.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 al-Mustanad fi Sharḥ al-‘Urwah al-Wuthqā, vol. 12, “Chapter on Fasting”

One Comment

  1. Salam,

    “a valid opinion about this particular fast is that the Prophet’s ﷺ observance of it in that final Muḥarram was done out of empathy for the pain and thirst of his dear Husayn (as).”

    That’s mere speculation. As a matter of fact, you will find most Sufi authorities speaking of ‘celebrating’ the new year. They will quote some WEAK reports by the Salaf. ironically, the ‘Wahhabi’ Athari scholars have refuted both, the Imamites (for their Ashura rituals) and the Sufis (for their Nasibi-esque celebrations of Ashura).

    It is not a celebration, it is a form of thanksgiving and Islam was perfected before the martyrdom of the likes of Umar, Ali, and al-Husayn (may Allah be pleased with them all).

    So nobody except some Ghulat, fool themselves into marginalising the martyrdom of Imam al-Husayn (as) by intending to celebrate a “new year”.

    There is no ‘marginalising’ as there are no rituals for al-Husayn’s (salamullahi ‘alayhi) martyrdom, let alone on an annual basis. If there were, the Prophet (peace be upon him) would have clarified it and prepared the Ummah and advise them to indulge in such rituals.

    was-salam

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Thaqalayn