Allah’s sacred month of Muharram is a blessed and important month. It is the first month of the Hijri year (Islamic calendar which started with the Prophet’s migration from Makkah to Madinah) and is one of the four sacred months concerning which 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 Heaven and the Earth; of them four are Sacred – that is the right religion, so wrong not yourselves therein….
(At-Tawbah 9: 36)
Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) reported that the Prophet said: “The year is twelve months of which four are sacred, the three consecutive months of Dhul-Qi`dah, Dhul-Hijjah and Muharram, and Rajab which comes between Jumada al-Thani and Sha`ban.” (Al-Bukhari)
Muharram is so called because it is a sacred (Muharram) month and to confirm its sanctity.
Allah’s words: so wrong not yourselves therein…. mean: do not wrong yourselves in these sacred months, because sin in these months is worse than in other months.
Ibn `Abbas said that the phrase “so wrong not yourselves therein….” referred to all the months, then these four were singled out and made sacred, so that sin in these months is more serious and good deeds bring a greater reward.
Qatadah (may Allah be pleased with him) said concerning the same phrase that wrongdoing during the sacred months is more serious and more sinful than wrongdoing at any other time. Wrongdoing at any time is a serious matter, but God gives more weight to whichever of His commands He wills.
God has chosen certain ones of His creation. He has chosen from among the angels Messengers and from among mankind Messengers. He chose from within speech the remembrance of Him. He chose from upon the earth the mosques, from among the months Ramadan and the sacred months, from among the days Friday and from among the nights Laylat Al-Qadr, so venerate that which Allah has told us to venerate. People of understanding and wisdom venerate the things that Allah has told us to venerate. (Tafsir Ibn Kathir)
The Virtue of Observing More Voluntary Fasts During Muharram
The phrase “Allah’s month”, connecting the name of the month to the name of Allah in a genitive grammatical structure signifies the importance of the month. Al-Qari (may Allah have mercy on him) said: “The apparent meaning is all of the month of Muharram.” But it was proven that the Prophet never fasted any whole month apart from Ramadan, so this hadith (Prophetic narration) is probably meant to encourage increasing one’s fasting during Muharram, without meaning that one should fast the entire month.
It was reported that the Prophet (peace be upon him) used to fast more in Sha`ban. It is likely that the virtue of Muharram was not revealed to him until the end of his life, before he was able to fast during this month.
Allah Chooses Whatever Times and Places He Wills
Al-`Izz ibn `Abd As-Salam said: “Times and places may be given preferred status in two ways, either temporal or religious/spiritual. With regard to the latter, this is because Allah bestows His generosity on His slaves at those times or in those places by giving a greater reward for deeds done, such as giving a greater reward for fasting in Ramadan than for fasting at all other times, and also on the day of `Ashura’ (the 10th of Muharram), the virtue of which is due to Allah’s generosity and kindness towards His slaves on that day…”
`Ashura’ in History
Ibn `Abbas said: “The Prophet came to Madinah and found the Jews fasting on the day of `Ashura’. He said: ‘What is this?’ They (Jews) said: ‘This is a righteous day; it is the day when Allah saved the Children of Israel from their enemies, so Musa (Moses) fasted on this day.’ He said: ‘We have more right to Musa than you,’ so he fasted on that day and commanded (the Muslims) to fast on that day.” (Al-Bukhari)
The practice of fasting on `Ashura’ was known even in the days of Jahiliyyah (pre-Islamic period), before the Prophet’s mission. It was reported that `Aishah said: “The people of Jahiliyyah used to fast on that day…”
Al-Qurtubi (may Allah have mercy on him) said: “Perhaps Quraish used to fast on that day on the basis of some past law, such as that of Ibrahim (Abraham).”
It was also reported that the Prophet used to fast on `Ashura’ in Makkah, before he migrated to Madinah. When he migrated to Madinah, he found the Jews celebrating this day, so he asked them why, and they replied as described in the Hadith quoted above. He commanded the Muslims to be different from the Jews, who took it as a festival.
Apparently the motive for commanding the Muslims to fast on this day was the desire to be different from the Jews, so that the Muslims would fast when the Jews did not, because people do not fast on a day of celebration.
Fasting on the day of `Ashura’ was a gradual step in the process of introducing fasting as a prescribed obligation in Islam. Fasting appeared in three forms. When the Messenger of Allah came to Madinah, he told the Muslims to fast on three days of every month and on the day of `Ashura’, then Allah made fasting obligatory in the verse: O you who have believed, decreed upon you is fasting … (Al-Baqarah 2:183)
The obligation was transferred from the fast of `Ashura’ to the fast of Ramadan, and this is one of the proofs in the field of Usool Al-Fiqh (Judicial fundamentals) that it is possible to abrogate a lighter duty in favor of a heavier duty.
The Virtues of Fasting `Ashura’
Ibn `Abbas said: “I never saw the Messenger of Allah so keen to fast any day and give it priority over any other than this day, the day of `Ashura’, and this month, meaning Ramadan.” (Al-Bukhari)
The meaning of his being keen was that he intended to fast on that day in the hope of earning the reward for doing so.
The Prophet said: “For fasting the day of `Ashura’, I hope that Allaah will accept it as expiation for the year that went before.” (Muslim)