Muharram has significance for all Muslims, irrespective of the sectarian divisions that are said to be a major issue in the Islamic belief.
During the time of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) Muslims used to fast for two days to commemorate Musa (AS) and his people’s deliverance from the clutches of the Pharaoh. The battle of Karbala added a new dimension to this observance.
For the Shiʿite community in different regions of the world, many cultural aspects of mourning have been integrated into the customs of the day of Ashura.
As the family of Hussain (R) is mourned as one’s own, men and women follow the outwardly expressions of grief as well.
For the whole month and the first 10 days of the month of Safar, families avoid loud colours in their clothes, and prefer simple meals, shunning luxurious items in favour of simpler things. Many sects of the Shiʿites wear nothing but black for Muharram.
Women of many households also take off their jewellery, and observe austerity in clothes as well as make up.
Cooking at home is also minimised in some sects, where devotees take all their meals at the local imambara or shrine. Homes are cleaned and often incense sticks burned, to create the atmosphere of religious piety and solemnity.
Loud music or any type of casual activities are also avoided, and daily gatherings of female members of the households are organised to remember, mourn, as well as learn about the female members of the Prophet’s (PBUH) family, and that of Hussain (R).
There is also a culture of serving fresh drinks of various kinds to visitors and pilgrims at shrines and mosques, in remembrance of the deep and painful thirst that Hussain (R) and his family suffered on the last days at Karbala almost 1400 years ago. These can include various local sherbets like with saffron and milk or yoghurt, and even fruit juices.
On the day of Ashura and often the one before, devout Shiʿite’s shun food, observing a ‘faaqa’ (which varies from fasting as we know it), to feel the hunger and thirst, as well as the mental anguish, suffered by the family of the Prophet’s (PBUH) grandson.
In some regions of the subcontinent, on particular nights, massive amounts of hodgepodge (khichri) are made and distributed among one and all, to promote sharing of grief. This food is called Niaz.
In some countries like Egypt and Turkey, Muslims traditionally eat a wheat pudding with nuts, raisins and rose water. And of course, most Muslims across the world now avoid any festivities or occasions, like weddings and inaugurals, for the entire month of Muharram.