The Islamic calendar consists of twelve months, the first of which is the month of Muharram. The name “Muharram” is derived from the word “haram,” which means forbidden or impermissible, as it is considered unlawful to engage in any war or fighting during this month. This was the case even before the advent of Islam for the people of Makkah and surrounding tribes. Muharram can also be defined as “sacred,” and it is a blessed month which has been mentioned by God Almighty, Allah, in the Qur’an as one of the four sacred months of the Islamic lunar calendar. Allah says:
“Verily, the number of months with Allah is twelve months (in a year), so was it ordained by Allah on the Day when He created the heavens and the earth; of them four are Sacred, (i.e. the 1st, the 7th, the 11th and the 12th months of the Islamic calendar). That is the right religion, so wrong not yourselves therein.” (9:36)
In this verse, Allah mentions the four most sacred months of the year, the 1st, which is Muharram, Rajab, the 7th, and Dhul Qadah and Dhul Hijjah, which are the 11th and 12th, respectively. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, confirmed this in a hadith narrated by Abu Bakrah, in which he said, “… The year is twelve months, of which four are sacred: three consecutive months, Dhul Qadah, Dhul Hijjah and Muharram, and Rajab of Mudar which comes between Jumada and Shabaan.” (Bukhari)
Not only is Muharram sacred, but also referred to as the month of Allah, as mentioned by the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, when he said, “The best fast after Ramadan is in the month of Allah, Muharram.” (Muslim) From this hadith, it is understood that the month of Muharram has a unique status with Allah, given the honor of being associated with His glorious name. Another lesson that can be extracted from this saying of the Prophet is that fasting during the month of Muharram is recommended. This fast is even compared to that of Ramadan, one of the pillars of Islam, to emphasize its importance.
There is one particular day during the month of Muharram in which it is highly encouraged to fast, and that is the day of Ashura. The day of Ashura coincides with the 10th of Muharram. Several authentic reports in the books of ahadith note that fasting on the day of Ashura was a popular practice even before Islam was established. Ibn Abbas, may Allah be pleased with him, narrated that the Prophet, peace be upon him, came to Madinah and saw the Jews fasting on the day of Ashura. He asked, “What is this day you are fasting?” They responded, “This is a good day; this is the day when Allah saved the Children of Israel from their enemy and Musa (Moses) fasted on this day.” The Prophet said, “We are closer to Musa than you.” So he fasted on this day and told the people to fast. (Bukhari and Muslim)
In fact, before the fast of Ramadan was made obligatory for the Muslims, the Prophet, peace be upon him, ordered his followers to fast on the day of Ashura. Aisha, may Allah be pleased with her, said that fasting on the day of Ashura became voluntary only after fasting the month of Ramadan was made compulsory. (Muslim) Ibn Abbas, may Allah be pleased with him, also reported that the Prophet, peace be upon him, said, “Fast the Day of Ashura and be different from the Jews by fasting a day before it or a day after it.” (Ahmad) This is the reason why Muslims often fast the 9th and 10th of Muharram or the 10th and 11th of Muharram.
There are immense rewards associated with fasting in general. Allah says in a hadith qudsi: “Every action of the son of Adam is his, except for fasting. It is Mine, and it is I who reward it.” (Bukhari and Muslim) Of course, it is Allah who will assess a believer’s worship and ultimately reward or punish mankind for his deeds. However, fasting is an action which is private, unlike prayer, charity, and even the pilgrimage. No one can “see” another person fasting; and thus, only Allah knows whether or not that individual is upholding his fast. Given that the month of Muharram is the month of Allah, it can be presumed that the reward will be great, in accordance with the status of this sacred month.
The Prophet, peace be upon him, did expound on some of the recompense for fasting the day of Ashura. He is recorded as saying, “I seek from Allah that fasting on the day of Arafa may atone for the sins of the preceding and the coming years, and I seek from Allah that fasting on the day of Ashura may atone for the sins of the preceding year.” (Muslim) In another hadith in Sahih Muslim, when he was asked about the reward for fasting the day of Ashura, he clearly stated that it was an expiation for the sins of the previous year. Many other narrations speak about the virtues of the day of Ashura and the month of Muharram in general.
No doubt the month of Muharram is blessed and the believers should take advantage of this time to increase in their ibaadah, by virtue of fasting, remembering Allah much, praying, and giving in charity. The Prophet said, “The best fasting after Ramadan is the month of Allah, Muharram, and the best prayer after the obligatory prayer is prayer at night.” (Muslim) At the very least, one should strive to fast on the day of Ashura, which was a practice of the Prophet, peace be upon him, and his companions. While the Muslim community does not hold a celebration for the coming of the “New Year,” Muslims are encouraged to embrace the first month of the Islamic calendar by performing good deeds and as a result, set the stage for a fruitful year, insha’Allah.