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February 19 Ashura On this day of fasting, Shi'a Muslims remember the martyrdom of Husain ibn Ali, grandson of the Prophet, in 680 at Kerbala in Iraq

Outline script for assembly leaders

"Yazid was an evil ruler" - that was the opinion of many people and it was certainly what the people thought in a town called Kufa, in what is now Iraq. This was in the years immediately after the death of the Prophet of Islam when there were arguments about who should be his successor.

The people of Kufa invited Husain, the Prophet's grandson, to be their new ruler. Husain set off with 70 followers and his family but, just before he reached Kufa, Yazid sent 4,000 soldiers and surrounded Husain and his followers in the desert. This was at a place called Kerbala on the banks of the River Euphrates, south of what is now Baghdad.

Yazid's soldiers starved their prisoners of food and water for 10 days before killing the men, women and children in a fierce battle. Husain's baby son, it is said, was murdered in his arms and, when Husain fell, his head was chopped off, mounted on a spear and taken to Yazid, who lived in Damascus.

Since then, those who believe the martyr Husain was the rightful leader of the Muslims have become known as Shi'as (or Shi'ites). Every year, in the Islamic month of Muharran, they make a pilgrimage to Kerbala.

During the time Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq (from 1979 to 2003), he stopped the Shi'as who live mainly in the south of the country (and also in Iran) from visiting Kerbala. For them, Saddam was as evil as Yazid.

The main event of the pilgrimage is a procession in memory of the martyrs, while wrestlers, horsemen and actors re-enact the Battle of Kerbala. In England, Shi'as gather at Marble Arch in London to mark Ashura.

Most Muslims, known as Sunni Muslims, do not observe Ashura in this way, and some even believe it to be "haram" or "forbidden".


Ashura is also said to commemorate the safe grounding of Noah's Ark (see Genesis, chapter 8) and the day Moses was saved from the Egyptians. (Noah is known to Muslims as Nuh, Moses as Musa.)

Another longer re-telling of the Battle of Kerbala is at www.playandlearn.orgmuharram

There is a vivid account of last year's Ashura in Iraq at www.electroniciraq.netnews1381.shtml

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