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date: 05 December 2023

‘Ashura and Azadarilocked

‘Ashura and Azadarilocked

  • Vernon James SchubelVernon James SchubelDepartment of Religious Studies, Kenyon College


‘Ashura, the tenth day of the lunar month of Muharram, is among the most significant days in the Muslim devotional calendar, especially for Shi‘i Muslims. On this date, in 680 ce, the Prophet Muhammad’s sole surviving grandson, Imam Husayn, along with numerous members of family and close companions, was killed at Karbala by a military force loyal to the Caliph Yazid ibn Mu‘awiyah. The martyrdom of Imam Husayn is commemorated annually, especially by Twelver Shi‘i Muslims, and has inspired the creation of diverse performative rituals and ceremonies (collectively known as azadari) that allow both for the discursive transmission of religious and ethical teachings and for affective displays of love, grief, and devotion that in many ways define the essence of the piety of Shi‘i Islam.

Immigrant Shi‘i Muslims have carried these practices with them to North America from their countries of origins and adapted them to the new realities of life as minority communities within the United States and Canada. Like other North American Muslims, the Shi‘a exist as part of larger ethnic minority communities, largely from South Asia and the Arab world, surrounded by a majority population of primarily of European descent. They also exist as minority within a Muslim community that is mostly Sunni in terms of its religious identity. While North American Shi‘i Muslims share many ritual practices in common with their Sunni coreligionists, such as the daily prayers (salah), which are performed in Arabic and connect them with the larger ummah, they also maintain their own distinctive ritual practices of mourning for Imam Husayn, which are generally performed in vernacular languages and are specific to particular ethnic, geographic, or linguistic communities. These practices emphasize not only the distinctive qualities of Shi’i piety but also the vibrant ethnic and linguistic diversity of the immigrant Islamic community. While these rituals and narrative commemorating Karbala and Ashura set Shi’ism apart as a unique body of religious thought and practice, their emphasis on universal human values such as courage, self-sacrifice, loyalty, and compassion and a call for social justice provide them with an opportunity to reach out and find common ground with the larger American community.


  • Islamic Studies

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