Ashura: The “Muslim Passover”
posted by
Hesham A. Hassaballa [1]

In the Name of God: the Infinitely Merciful and Compassionate Beloved Lord:

Happy New Year. The Islamic New Year, that is. And the tenth day of the first month [Muharram; corresponds to Tishri or Tishrei on the Hebrew/Jewish calendar] of the Islamic year is a very special [day]. It is called Ashura [Hebrew: עשר/eser/ten; עשירי/asi’ri/tenth], and this year [2014], it falls on Monday, November 3. For Shia Muslims, it is a day of painful commemoration of the murder of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) [an English acronym for “peace be upon him;” Arabic: ʿalayhi as-salām; Hebrew עליו השלום/alav ha-shalom/”peace be on/upon him”]. No doubt, although I am a Sunni Muslim, the murder of Hussein is also very painful for me, but I don’t commemorate it the way some Shia Muslims do. [2]

Rather, following the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), I will spend the day in fasting:

The Prophet came to Medina and saw the Jews fasting on the day of Ashura [i.e. Yom Kippur, which occurs on the 10th of Tishri/Tishrei?]. He asked them about that. They replied, “This is a good day, the day on which God rescued the Children of Israel from their enemy. So, Moses fasted this day.” The Prophet said, “We have more claim over Moses than you.” So, the Prophet fasted on that day and ordered (the Muslims) to fast (on that day). (Bukhari) [denotes a source from the hadith — the Muslim oral tradition — rather than from the Qur’an itself]
Narrated Ibn Abbas: I never saw the Prophet seeking to fast on a day more (preferable to him) than this day, the day of ‘Ashura’, or this month, i.e. the month of Ramadan [the penitential month preceding Muharram; corresponds to Elul on the Hebrew/Jewish calendar]. (Bukhari)…

Now, fasting is difficult for me in general, and fasting outside of the month of Ramadan [Muharram is the subsequent month] is even more difficult. But I plan to fast on Monday [11/3/2014] anyway, because the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) recommended it, and it commemorates a very special moment in our sacred history: the freeing of the Children of Israel from the brutal bondage in Egypt. [3]

This should come as no surprise that Muslims, millions of Muslims all over the world, are forgoing food and drink in commemoration of the Exodus out of Egypt. The story of Moses figures very prominently in the Qur’an. The Prophet Moses (pbuh) is mentioned more by name than any other Prophet, much more than the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) himself.

The Qur’an tells of two miracles – Moses’ staff turning into a serpent and his hand glowing when he places it under his arm – that God permitted as proof of Moses’ prophethood. [4] It also describes the plagues unleashed on the Egyptians for their refusal to believe in God and refusal to set the Hebrews free (7:133). It also relates the story of the golden calf and Moses’ anger with his people at their worshiping it as a god besides the Lord (20:85-97).

My favorite part of the story, the splitting of the Red Sea, is mentioned at least twice (2:50, 26:52-68). Furthermore, the Qur’an tells a story about Moses that I do not think is in the Bible: his encounter with the “Servant of God” in the desert of Sinai, who taught Moses an important lesson about the knowledge of God (18:60-82).

It is truly remarkable that the followers of one major religion, Islam, fast to commemorate the central figure of another major religion, Judaism. The fact that the followers of Islam and Judaism in the Holy Land continue to fight – while worshiping the same God and honoring the same Prophet (i.e., Moses) – ceaselessly baffles me. But the fact remains: one of the religious rituals of Muslims is fasting to commemorate the Exodus of the Children of Israel out of Egypt; a “Muslim Passover,” if you will.

This is true Islam, not the barbarism of KIL (aka, “ISIS”). This is the essence of what Islam is all about, even though Muslims around the world hold troubling (and largely un-Islamic) views about many different things. Loving God with all your heart; worshiping Him and doing good to all His creation because of that love; and, yes, fasting a day in celebration of the Exodus: that is Islam. My only hope and prayer is that more people come to see this reality.

And so, Monday [Nov. 3, 2014], I will likely not stop for a cup of coffee on my way to work: all for the sake of God and His Prophet Moses (and Muhammad). My only saving grace is…the day will be an hour shorter. It is probably the only time I will appreciate the short days of winter.


[2] for more on Ashura, see:

[3] This is what’s stated in the hadith — the Muslim oral tradition. In Judaism however, the freeing of the Israelites is commemorated by Pesach/Passover, which occurs in the Jewish calendar 7 months earlier than 10th Tishrei/Yom Kippur. According to Rashi, however, after the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses descended from Mt. Sinai with the two replacement-tablets on the 10th of Tishrei — i.e. on what would later become Yom Kippur.

[4] Moses’ staff turning into a serpent appears in Torah/Bible. His hand glowing doesn’t appear there or in any midrash I’ve found. However, Torah says that Moses put his hand into his robe and when he brought it out, it was leprous; he then put it back in his robe and when removed, it was clean/healthy. Torah says that Moses’ face glowed when he came down from Mt. Sinai after receiving the 10 Commandments. The anecdote in Qur’an seems to combine both episodes, just as it combines Yom Kippur and Pesach.
This “combining,” as a literary technique, is also found in the Gospel accounts of people putting palm branches under Jesus as he enters Jerusalem at Passover. Palm branches would have been used at Sukkot — several months prior to Passover.