Fasting Ashura: yes or no, and if yes how many days?

Ashura is the 10th of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar.
Fasting One Day
It is recommended, in the Sunni and Zaydi Shi`i schools, to fast the day. There are numerous sahih hadiths about its fasting, some of them mentioning that it was an obligatory fast in the days before fasting Ramadan became obligatory.
وَسُئِلَ عَنْ صِيَامِ يَوْمِ عَاشُورَاءَ. قَالَ: ” يُكَفِّرُ اَلسَّنَةَ اَلْمَاضِيَةَ (رواه مسلم)
وقال أحمد بن عيسى بن زيد بن علي (عليهم السلام) في أماليه: صوم الأيام البيض، ورجب وشعبان، والإثنين والخميس حسن جميل، وجاء فيه فضل كثير، وكذلك يوم عاشوراء
Fasting Two Days
According to one sahih hadith, the Prophet Muhammad later expressed his wish to also fast on the 9th of Muharram (the day before Ashura), but he died before that could happen.
قال (ص): لئن بقيت إلى قابل لأصومن التاسع (رواه مسلم)
وعن أبي عبد الله عليه السلام عن أبيه، أن عليا عليه السلام قال: صوموا العاشوراء التاسع والعاشر، فإنه يكفر ذنوب سنة (وسائل الشيعة)
Hence, Sunni fuqaha’ in general recommend fasting both the 9th and 10th of Muharram. This view can be found among Twelver Shi`ah as well, as I return to later.
Fasting Three Days?
A hadith of disputed reliability says that the Prophet recommended, along with the fast of Ashura, fasting either the day before or the day after.
عَنْ ابْنِ عَبَّاسٍ رضي الله عنه قَالَ : قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ : (صُومُوا يَوْمَ عَاشُورَاءَ ، وَخَالِفُوا فِيهِ الْيَهُودَ ، صُومُوا قَبْلَهُ يَوْمًا أَوْ بَعْدَهُ يَوْمًا) (رواه أحمد)
One version (with a weak isnad) indicates all three days.
Hence, some Sunni fuqaha’ recommended fasting the 9th, 10th and 11th. This is because even if the hadith about this should turn out to be false, it would still be recommended to fast the 11th of Muharram based on the sahih hadith that recommends optional fasting in this month.
أفضلُ الصيامِ بعدَ رمضانَ شهرُ اللهِ المحرَّمُ (رواه مسلم)
There are risks in taking a weakly-substantiated position and making it normative across the board. A more precautionary position would therefore be that if one wishes to fast the 11th, it would be prudent to intend it as a general fast of Muharram rather for Ashura specifically.
Some fuqaha recommended fasting all three days (9th, 10th, 11th) specifically in cases when the dates are uncertain (i.e. you are not sure which day exactly is the 10th) in order to be safe. This was the view of Ibn Sirin and Tawus (both scholars of the Tabi`in) and was adopted by Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal.’
Fasting Zero Days, or Part of a Day
The dominant view among Twelver Shi`ah is that it is not recommended to fast Ashura. One narration in the Twelver hadith books suggests that it is a fast that was abandoned after Ramadan became obligatory. Other narrations (in Twelver Shi`i books) condemn its continued fasting as a practice initiated by the killers of the Prophet’s grandson al-Husayn, their purpose being to give thanks for his death.
Nevertheless, the Twelver scholar al-Hurr al-`Amili indicated that it is recommended to fast the 9th and 10th with grief (in contrast to the murderers of Husayn, who fasted it out of joy).
وعقد في وسائل الشيعة بابا: استحباب صوم يوم التاسع والعاشر من المحرم حزنا، وقراءة الاخلاص يوم العاشر ألف مرة والافطار بعد العصر بساعة . وبعده: باب عدم جواز صوم التاسع والعاشر من المحرم على وجه التبرك بهما.
According to one narration he cites, Imam Ja`far al-Sadiq recommended abstaining from food and drink the major part of the day of the 10th, until after `Asr but before Maghrib.’
Final Words
The killing of the Prophet’s grandson was a tragedy, and is a source of grief for Sunnis and Shi`ah. If you fast Ashura, it should definitely not be with the intention of celebrating Imam Husayn’s murder. I hope we can at least start understanding each other better, and realize what we have in common, even if we don’t end up agreeing on everything. And I am pretty sure the Sunnis and Zaydis who fast Ashura are not doing it to celebrate the killing of al-Husayn.

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