Is it permissible to fast on the day of ʿĀshūrāʾ?
In Islam fasting for the sake of gaining proximity to God is a recommended (mustaḥab) act. However, parts of the Shīʿī community perceive fasting on the Day of ʿĀshūrāʾ as being impermissible (ḥarām). This is because some Shīʿī’s believe that Muslims only fast on the Day of ʿĀshūrāʾ to rejoice and celebrate the martyrdom of Imam Ḥusayn and the apparent victory of his enemies. This has led to sectarian strife between some Shīʿī’s and mainstream Sunni’s who advocate that it is highly recommended to fast on the Day of ʿĀshūrāʾ.1 The sectarian strife amongst Muslims has a wider impact, for instance it causes division amongst intra-Muslim family structures (Sunnī-Shīʿī family units), wherein some members of the family believe it is impermissible to fast on the Day of ʿĀshūrāʾ and other family members believe that it is highly recommended. Furthermore, Shīʿī’s who choose to fast on the Day of ʿĀshūrāʾ are also marginalised and vilified by fellow Shīʿī’s who uphold its impermissibility. Therefore, the question that arises is: is it permissible for Muslims to fast on the Day of ʿĀshūrāʾ with the intention of gaining proximity to God and not with the intention of rejoicing and celebrating the death of Imam Ḥusayn and the apparent victory of his enemies?
Fasting with the intention of gaining proximity to God on any day of the year is permissible (except for the two Days of ʿĪd [al-Fiṭr and al-Aḍḥā]), if not, recommended in Islam. It is only permissible to fast on the Day of ʿĀshūrāʾ2 if it is performed with the intention of gaining proximity to God and not with the intention of rejoicing and celebrating the martyrdom of Imam Ḥusayn and the apparent victory of his enemies.
1. The Quran in 2:183-87 explicates that able Muslims must fast in the holy month of Ramadan. Although the Quran does not mention the permissibility or impermissibility of fasting on other days, there are many reported traditions of the Prophet and the Imams which emphasise the importance of fasting on days outside the holy month of Ramadan and emphasise on the general beneficial nature of fasting.
Mūsā b. Bakr reports from Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq who said: “For everything (act) there is a purifier and the purification for the body is fasting.3
In another place:
Ismāʿīl b. Bashār reports that Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq said: “If a person fasts voluntarily on a day (i.e., not a mandatory fast) for the sake of God then God will enter such a person into heaven.4
It is reported by Imam al-Ṣādiq that the Prophet said (in a lengthy tradition) that fasting is a protection from hellfire.”5
2. There are numerous reports from the Prophet and the Imams which highlight the impermissibility of fasting on the joyous Days of ʿĪd.
Anas b. Muḥammad narrates from his father from Imam al-Ṣādiq from Imam al-Bāqir who said: “In the Prophet’s will to ʿAlī the Prophet said, oh ʿAlī fasting on the day of ʿĪd al-Fiṭr is impermissible (ḥarām) and fasting on the day of ʿĪd al-Aḍḥā is impermissible (ḥarām).”6
3. With regards to fasting on the Day of ʿĀshūrāʾ, we find a host of reports that can be categorised into two groups. The first group of reports generally indicate on the permissibility and the recommendation of fasting on the Day of ʿĀshūrāʾ.
Abū Hamām reports from Imam Abul Ḥasan [Imam Mūsā al-Kāẓim] that the Prophet used to fast on the Day of ʿĀshūrāʾ.7
Masʿada bin Sadaqa who reports from Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq, from Imam al-Bāqir that Imam ʿAlī said, “Fast on ʿĀshūrāʾ, the 9th and 10th, indeed this expiates one years’ worth of sins.”8
ʿAbd Allāh bin Maymūn al-Qaddaḥ reports from Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq from Imam al-Bāqir who said: “Fasting on the Day of ʿĀshūrāʾ expiates one year of sins.”9
Abān bin ʿUthmān al-Aḥmar reports from Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq who said that the ship of Prophet Nūḥ settled/got stuck on the mountain of Jūdī on the Day of ʿĀshūrāʾ, and Prophet Nūḥ commanded whoever was with him among the jinn’s and humans to fast on this day. The Imam said “do you know what (else) happened on this day (i.e., Day of ʿĀshūrāʾ)? This is the day on which God accepted the repentance of Prophet Ādam and Hawāʾ; and on this day God split the sea for the people of Isrāʾīl when Prophet Mūsā came; and on this day Prophet Mūsā overcame Firʿaun (Pharoah); and on this day Prophet Ibrahīm was born; and on this day God accepted the repentance of the people/nation of Prophet Yūnus; and on this day Prophet ʿĪsā was born; and on this day the Qāʾim will rise.”10
In contrast, the second group of reports indicate on the impermissibility of fasting on the Day of ʿĀshūrāʾ. For instance:
Muḥammad bin Sinān reports from Imām Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq he said I asked the Imam about fasting on the ninth and tenth of Muharram? The Imam replied: “The ninth was the day Imam Ḥusayn and his companions were besieged in Karbala, a group of the army of Shām gathered against (i.e., surrounded and trapped him) and pressured the Imām. Ibn Marjānah and ʿUmar b. Saʿd became delighted with their large numbers. They weakened Imam Ḥusayn and his companions to make sure no one comes to their aide. […] on the Day of ʿĀshūrāʾ Imam Ḥusayn was killed with his companions and his companions were martyred around him. Is there any fast on this day?! Never! By the Lord of the Kabah this is not a day of fasting, it is not but a day of sadness and tribulations/calamities entered upon the sky and the earth and all the believers, it is a day of happiness for ibn Marjānah and the people of Ziyād, and the people of Shām […] all parts of the earth cried for Imam Ḥusayn except for (the people of) Shām. So, anyone who fasts or takes this day as a blessing shall be raised with the people (nation/followers) of Ziyād and his heart shall be deformed/ugly, [and] the anger of God is upon him. […] God will put hypocrisy in such a person heart until he meets God. Blessings will be removed from such a person, his family, and children, and he will share with Shaiṭān in every matter.”11
Jaʿfar b. ʿĪsā reports from his brother who said I asked Imam al-Riḍā about fasting on the Day of ʿĀshūrāʾ, what do the people say about it? The Imam said
“You are asking me about the fasting of ibn Marjānah?! This is the day where those who were born out of wedlock killed Imam Ḥusayn, it is a day which the family of the Prophet deemed as ominous, they are ominous (i.e., bereaved/aggrieved) about this day. Monday is also an ominous day. God took the life of The Prophet on this day, nothing bad was afflicted upon the family of Prophet Muhammad except that it was on a Monday. We found it ominous where our enemies found it a happy day of blessings. On the Day of ʿĀshūrāʾ Imam Ḥusayn was killed, (therefore) it was taken as a day of blessing for Ibn Marjānah (and not for the family of the Prophet). So, whoever fasts on the two days (ʿĀshūrāʾ and Monday) or takes these two days as blessings, will meet God with a deformed/ugly heart and will be resurrected with those who postulated fasting of these two days and taking blessing of that.12
Muḥammad b. ʿUmayr reports from Zayd who said: I heard ʿUbayd b. Zurara who asked Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq about fasting on ʿĀshūrāʾ? The Imam replied,
“Whoever fasts on that that day his share of the reward is the same share as Ibn Marjānah and the people of Ziyād” He asked the Imam what was their share? The Imam said “Fire, may God save us from hellfire and any act that takes us close to hell.”13
Ibn Ḥārith al-ʿAṭār reports that I asked Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq about fasting on ʿĀshūrāʾ. He replied:
“That fast has been waived (matrūk) by the fast of Ramadhan and anything that has been waived/abandoned (matrūk) is an innovation […] it is a fast which is not mentioned in the Quran, neither is it the Sunna of the Prophet except it is the Sunna of the supporters of Ziyād who murdered Imam Ḥusayn.”14
4. In addition to the contrasting groups of reports, it is found that Shīʿī jurists have issued contrasting edicts (fatāwā) representing both the permissibility and the impermissibility of fasting on the Day of ʿĀshūrāʾ. For instance, Sayyid Abū al-Qāsim al-Khūʾī (d. 1992) reports that scholars such as al-Sayyid Ḥamza b. ʿAlī b. Zuhra (ibn Zuhra – Sāḥib al-Ghunya) (d. 585) claims that there is a consensus (ʿijmā) amongst Shīʿī jurists on the permissibility and the recommendation of fasting on the Day of ʿĀshūrāʾ.15 Additionally, Muḥammad Ḥasan al-Najafī (Sāḥib al-Jawāhir) (d. 1850) believes that fasting on the Day of ʿĀshūrāʾ is recommended (mustaḥab) without any dispute. Whereas, for instance, al-Shaykh Yūsuf al-Baḥrānī (Sahib al-Ḥadāʾiq) (d. 1772) refutes this idea and dismisses the claim of consensus and claims that it is absolutely impermissible to fast on the day of ʿĀshūrāʾ.16 Most modern Shīʿī jurists reconcile between the contrasting scholarly opinions of past Shīʿī jurists by claiming that fasting on the Day of ʿĀshūrāʾ is a “disliked (makrūh) recommended act” for which a believer attains less reward.17
5. To reconcile between the contrasting groups of reports and the contrasting juristic edicts issued through them, it is important to comprehend the specific socio-political context in which the reports originated. During the era of the Umayyad dynasty, it was a common custom amongst Muslims to fast on joyous occasions as a sign of gratitude to God. Considering this custom, some enemies of Imam Ḥusayn fasted on the Day of ʿĀshūrāʾ in celebration to express gratitude to God for the martyrdom of Imam Ḥusayn and their apparent victory over him. Accordingly, to reconcile the contrasting groups of reports of the Imams, it can be said that the Imams only prohibited fasting on the Day of ʿĀshūrāʾ if it was performed with the intention of celebrating the martyrdom of Imam Ḥusayn. Whereas the Imams recommended fasting on the Day of ʿĀshūrāʾ if it was performed with the intention of gaining proximity to God.
It is important to note that in the present-day context, many Muslims do not fast on the Day of ʿĀshūrāʾ with the intention of rejoicing and expressing gratitude to God for the apparent victory of the enemies of Imam Ḥusayn and his martyrdom. Indeed, if they were to fast with such an intention, then according to the reports of the Imams their fasting would be impermissible.
6. In addition to the abovementioned contextual reconciliation, two further resolutions can be offered to reconcile between the contrasting groups of reports:
- According to the juristic maxim of the primacy of permissibility (aṣalat al-ibāha) all actions are deemed permissible by the Sharia until they are proven, or it is known with certainty, to be impermissible. Since there are contrasting reports regarding fasting on the Day of ʿĀshūrāʾ, according to the primacy of permissibility fasting on the Day of ʿĀshūrāʾ is permissible, as there is insufficient evidence to ascertain otherwise.
- The Prophet has stated: “Actions are but intentions, and each person has what he intended.”18 In line with this Prophetic tradition, actions performed by Muslims are dependent on their intention. For example, if a permissible with malicious intent, then that act would be considered as unethical and malevolent. Whereas, if such an act is performed with a noble intent, then that act would be considered as ethical and virtuous.
It appears that when the Imams recommended fasting on the Day of ʿĀshūrāʾ their recommendation was on the basis of one having a noble intention. Whereas, when the Imams prohibited fasting on the Day of ʿĀshūrāʾ, their prohibition was on the basis of one having a malicious intention. Therefore, if a person fasts on the Day of ʿĀshūrāʾ to attain proximity to God and remembers the sacrifice and tribulations of Imam Ḥusayn, then their act of fasting would be deemed as permissible and rewardable. Whereas, if a person fasts on the Day of ʿĀshūrāʾ with the intention of celebrating the martyrdom of Imam Ḥusayn, then their act of fasting would be deemed as impermissible, for which they may incur sin.
1. As some amongst the Ahl al-Sunna see the Day of ʿĀshūrāʾ as a blessed day and expect to gain the pleasure of Allah and divine rewards from Him for fasting on this day – which is not related to rejoicing the martyrdom of Imam Ḥusayn.
2. While Day of ʿĀshūrāʾ according to the most majority of Muslim scholars is the tenth day of the month of Muharram, however, according to a small minority of scholars it is the ninth day of Muharram.
3. Muḥammad b. Ḥasan al-Ḥurr al-ʿĀmilī, Wasāʾil al-Shīʿa, (Beirut: Muʾassasa Āl al-Bayt, 2008),10:39, hadith no. 13681.
4. Wasāʾil, 10:399, hadith no. 13683.
5. Wasāʾil, 10:400, hadith no. 13685. Other reports also encourage fasting such as the following: Imam al-Ṣādiq is reported to have said: “The sleep of a fasting person is worship, and his breathing is tasbīḥ (glorification of Allāh). Wasāʾil, 10:396 hadith no. 13676; Abu al-Ṣabāḥ al-Kanānī reports from Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq who said: “The fasting person enjoys two types of happiness. Happiness when breaking the fast and happiness when meeting his Lord.” Wasāʾil, 10:397, hadith no. 13678.
6. Wasāʾil, 10:514, hadith no. 13989.
7. Wasāʾil, 10:457, hadith no. 13838.
8. Wasāʾil, 4:457, hadith no. 13839. There are 7 narrations in total signifying the permissibility of fasting on Ashura.
9. Wasāʾil, 10:457, hadith no. 13840.
10. Wasāʾil, 10:458, hadith no. 13842.
11. Wasāʾil, 10:460-1, hadith no. 13847.
12. Wasāʾil, 10:461-1, hadith no. 13848.
13. Wasāʾil, 10:457, hadith no. 13849.
14. Wasāʾil, 10:461, hadith no. 13850.
15. Al-Shaykh Murtaḍā al-Burujurdī, Mustanad al-ʿurwa al-wuthqā: kitab al-ṣawm: muḥāḍarāt Sayyid Abū al-Qāsim al-Khūʾī, (Qom: Luṭfī, 1364 S.H), 2:302-3. Sahib al-Ḥadāʾiq believes that the reports of ʿAbd Allāh bin Maymūn al-Qaddaḥ and Masʿada bin Sadaqa are issued in dissimulation (taqqiya) and he maintains that the fast of ʿĀshūrāʾ has been replaced (matrūk) by the fast of Ramadan and anything (i.e., devotional act) that has been replaced in Islam is an innovation (to carry on performing it after its replacement). Yūsuf al-Baḥrānī, al-Ḥadāʾiq al-nāḍira fī aḥkām al-ʿitra al-ṭāhira (Beirut: Dār al-Aḍwāʾ, 1993), 13:375.
17. Amongst the illustrious Shīʿī scholars who claim this include al-Sayyid Muḥammad Kāẓim al-Ṭabāṭabāʾī al-Yazdī (d. 1337/1919), al-Shaykh ʿAlī al-Jawharī (d. 1340), al-Sayyid Muḥammad al-Fayrūzabādī (d. 1345), Muḥammad Ḥusayn Nāʾīnī Gharawī (d. 1936), ʿAbd al-Karīm al-Ḥāʾirī al-Yazdī (d. 1937), Ḍīyaʾ al-Dīn ʿAlī b. Muḥammad al-ʿIrāqī (d. 1942), Sayyid Abū al-Ḥasan al-Mūsawi al-Iṣfahānī (d. 1946), Shaykh Muḥammad Ḥusayn Kāshif al-Ghiṭāʾ (d. 1954), al-Sayyid Ḥusayn ʿAlī al-Ṭabāṭabāī al-Borojurdī (d. 1961), Sayyid ʿAbd al-Hādī al-Ḥusaynī al-Shirāzī (d. 1962), al-Sayyid Muḥsin al-Ṭabāṭabāʾī al-Ḥakīm (d. 1970), Muḥammad Riḍā ʿAbd al-Ḥusayn Āl Yāsīn (d. 1951), Sayyid Aḥmad Khwānsārī (d. 1985), al-Sayyid Rūhallāh Mūsawī al-Khomeinī (d. 1989), al-Sayyid Abū al-Qāsim al-Khūʾī (d. 1992), al-Sayyid Muḥammad Riḍā Gulpaygānī (d. 1993). Ibid.
18. Abū Jaʿfar Muḥammad b. al-Ḥasan al-Ṭūṣī, Tahdhīb al-aḥkām, (Beirut: Dār al-Taʿāruf li-l-Maṭbūʿāt, 1996), 4:160, hadith no. 519.