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Etiquette of the Month of Muharram

The month of Muharram is universally known in the Shia world as a time to mourn the tragedy of Karbala and the calamities that befell Imam Hussain and his followers (peace be upon them all). Alongside the importance of mourning, the Ahlul Bayt and our scholars have taught us the proper etiquette and behavior that we must observe during this period. It is therefore unfortunate to note many of our brothers and sisters (young and old) faltering when it comes to many of these basic recommendations. A few observations follow.

The month of Muharram is universally known in the Shia world as a time to mourn the tragedy of Karbala and the calamities that befell Imam Hussain and his followers (peace be upon them all). Alongside the importance of mourning, the Ahlul Bayt and our scholars have taught us the proper etiquette and behavior that we must observe during this period. It is therefore unfortunate to note many of our brothers and sisters (young and old) faltering when it comes to many of these basic recommendations. A few observations follow:

How to Mourn

According to narrations, it is highly recommended that if we are unable to cry while the tragedy narration is being recited, then we should at least lower our heads and pretend to cry. Brothers, we understand it’s a bit weird crying in front of your gym friends, but the least you can do is not nudge each other to point out another man who is crying, and even go as far as secretly video-recording it on your mobile phones and then uploading it on YouTube.

Applying Makeup and Grooming

Looking beautiful is always an added bonus, but why exactly some females find it necessary to paint their faces with makeup and have their hair styled during Majalis is beyond our understanding. Plus, those electric blue contact lenses in the dark only freak out people if anything. And for the brothers, take it easy with the hair gel for a few days!  (We’re there to mourn, not style.)

Group Discussions during the Majlis

It’s very touching to see people who are so spiritually uplifted and motivated by the speaker’s words that they decide to hold mini-group discussions during the speech! Though I must warn you, if you ever take it upon yourself to join in to see what all the fuss is about, the content of these discussions may just traumatize you for life. Why exactly females need to carry out marriage related investigations and men need to ask about other people’s businesses right in front of the speaker is beyond our comprehension. Even if some of you are sitting in the ladies’ area or think you are invisible to the speaker, please note that some of us are actually here to learn!

Entertainment during Masaib

We may understand when a 4-year-old is given a pen and paper to keep him from running amuck during the speech, but what confuses us is when we see the mature people doing this. For those of us who suffer from a small attention span and cannot refrain from texting random people and playing games on our cell phones, please at least put a stop to it while the tragedy is being recited. You see, most of us do not possess the ability to multitask and listen to the Maqtal while blocking out the music from your Nintendo DS at the same time.

Equal Opportunity for Young and Old

Wanting to be the center of attention is only natural instinct of human beings. And we particularly love doing this in Muharram! We want to be the first ones reciting the du’as, marsiyas, nouhas, and ziyarats. This is shockingly and sadly one of the most sensitive issues in every community, and therefore we shall give our expert opinion on this matter: equal opportunity! For God’s sake, let’s give the younger generation a chance! In addition to the fact that today’s learners will be tomorrow’s scholars, we have no doubt that some of the young ones can do a better job of reciting latmiyyahs too!

All-Nighter: Aamal and Azadari or Sleepover?

It’s a great feeling when we spend the night at the center to do Azadari and perform the Aamal of Ashura. For most of us, bringing along a pillow or two will help us concentrate when our backs start to hurt. Surprisingly, we see backpacks filled with junk food, children playing with torches under blankets, and the speech drowning in the sound of teenage girls giggling. Insha’Allah this year we won’t confuse the night long of Aamal with a Muslim girls’ slumber party gone wrong.

Fidgeting during Ziyarat

After an hour or so of continuously sitting on the floor listening to the speech, our bodies do get extremely restless! For most of us, it’s a relief to stand up and be able to stretch. Personally we are unable to do a 360-degree spin, jump from one leg to another, fidget, and ask our neighbor what’s for food all while offering our salutations to Imam Hussain at the same time, but masha’Allah our community has talent! For crying out loud, brothers and sisters, it’s only two minutes – please just stand still!

Taking Tabarruk

One of the side advantages of Muharram programs is that we don’t have to cook every day. But one of the major inconveniences for the people sponsoring the food is the incapability of people to read and fully comprehend the sign that says: “Please take ONE piece of tabarruk only.” Either everyone forgets how to count in Muharram, or we like indulging in haram by taking what actually belongs to others.  If you would like more than one, please kindly inform the organizers a day in advance so that they can order extra for you.

Etiquette of the Day of Ashura

Narrations of the Infallibles are clear that Ashura is a day to openly express our grief. That means no shower, no clean clothes, no grooming, and no saying Salam. Sadly, many youth and adults take the all-day-at-the-center program to spend telling jokes, gossiping, and discussing politics. This Ashura, imagine how you would feel if your family members were being slaughtered in front of your very eyes. Then behave accordingly.

General Donations

It’s always lovely attending every program in the holy months of Muharam and Safar. With the unlimited supply of tea, coffee, cookies, and snacks, it’s as though the $10,000 Muharram and the $5,000 Arbaeen visiting speakers have joined alliances and opened up a secret cafe! Now combine all this with the utility bills paid to run the Islamic center and take into consideration that we are catering for three times the all-year-around crowd. Wow, that’s a lot of money! We have no doubt that Allah is the ultimate provider of sustenance, but there’s always an intermediate via whom the finances are received, and that means you! Come on, we can all spare one week’s fast-food budget to help run our second home!

Parking and Smoking during Majlis

We salute those brothers who sacrifice their time and effort to bring law and order to the overcrowded parking lot. In all honestly, if it were not for them, us ethnic people would surely be driving into each other. Dear brother, besides setting a bad example for the younger kids, unless you’re on security duty for the whole of Muharram and Safar, please have the courtesy to bless us with your auspicious presence (at least during the Masaib) inside the Islamic center rather than outside. We really do miss you. And for those people who find it absolutely impossible to control their nicotine cravings during lectures, please take into consideration the well-being of our community, our children, and our image, and refrain from 1) smoking in front of children, and 2) smoking right next to the “Shia Ithna Ashari Islamic Center of [insert city]” sign.

About Zara Syed

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  • Hakim


    Thank you so much for posting this – it is excellent, well written, and reminds us how to properly mourn and the behaviors that ought to be observed. Jazakallah Khair!!

  • Shaukat

    maybe iA there could be an article about whether or not our Ulema have said it is permissible to laugh, buy things, and do anything that is generally considered to be outwardly happy during the 2month8day observance of Muharram?

    • ShiaWoman

      personally, i think that rather than asking the Ulema whether it’s allowed, we should ask ourselves whether it’s appropriate…? Just a thought… 🙂

  • Irfan

    Fantastic article. Keep them coming.

  • Fatima786

    Saying it directly and nicely has helped to better the situation a little; let’s see if the sarcasm can do better 🙂

  • Fatima786


    Great piece!

  • Mujahid

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Perhaps it would be beneficial to educate the public on what exactly the ulama say is the proper etiquette of the month of Muharram.

  • jawad

    ask .
    i am sure after reading this precious article i would definitely find the drawbacks and change my

    habits/preferences/ attitudes INSHA ALLAH which otherwise i would not have noticed.

    Thanks for showing the mirror and i am humbled and this shows we need more of these types of alerts

  • Insighted

    Thanks for the well needed words of caution and advise. I would also add for myself and others, during those all night amaal/azadari sessions we should be mindful that we do not make our fajr salat qadhaa!!! After all what did Imam Hussein (AS) really give his life for?

  • Syed

    On Death of your Dear one .parents,son,daughter ,how many of you tjink
    about Etiquette . Any way some points are good and some are not natural.for teaching sarcasm is not right ways.

  • Umma

    Please provide exact source for your command that there be “no shower, no clean clothes, no grooming, and no saying Salam” on Ashura. I find these rules to be cultural and not a fair criticism, but if you can cite a source, I’d be interested. Thanks.

    • najafi110

      Mafatih al-Jinan

      • Umma

        I could not find any reference to not bathing or no clean clothes, or no saying salaam on Ashura in the Mafatih al-Jinan, even in dua-Nudba, supplication of lamentation. However, I found good info in this article ” ‘Ashura – Misrepresentations and Distortions” by Ayatullah Murtada Mutahhari, which is informative on a scholarly level. Read it here: http://www.al-islam.org/al-tawhid/ashura/

  • Erratic

    This is one piece of good information regarding the etiquettes of Moharram-ul-Haraam. thank you.

  • ShiaWoman

    @ Syed: It’s true that on the death of a loved one, one does not usually think of etiquette. However, this is an ANNUAL occurrence. The etiquettes mentioned are given to us by BIBI ZAINAB (SA) HERSELF, so i really don’t think we are in any position to argue. We have ALL YEAR to prepare for this time, so it is appropriate to observe ETIQUETTE.

  • Faiha

    This is true of every majlis ! This is so embarrassing !

  • Usama

    Seriously, pretend to cry? What sort of advice is that? Ahlulbayt want us to pretend to cry – don’t give advice like that, please.

    No Shower or Salam??? Salam is for Allah – where on earth do these concocted behaviors come from??

    Disappointing article – i usually look forward to islamicinsight articles as they are logical and practical..

    • Dot

      If you want a “logical” reason, there is one — if you want to change a person’s way of thinking, focus on changing their actions. Actions and thoughts are linked in both directions. Even psychologists say this, check it out for yourself.

      By trying to cry for Ahlul-Bait, we inculcate a strong sense of sympathy for them and their cause. Trying to create such a strong connection with them through our actions helps bring us closer to them in our hearts. Imagine the sort of grief you would feel if your closest loved ones die. We should aim for even stronger emotion for the Prophet and his family (peace be upon them).

      Regarding the rest of your objections, before you start rejecting things, you should read a little more. Mafatih al Jinaan mentions many of these etiquettes and there are many more. They all have the very logical goal of bringing us closer to Ahlul-Bait. But at some point we should concede that our logic is not enough. If the Prophet and his family (peace be upon them) give us instructions it should be enough for us to say “we hear and we obey.”

      • Usama

        As good as Mafatih is – its not all ‘sahih’…

        Again, you’re belittling the event of ashura by ridiculing it to crocodile tears – Imam Husain (as) doesn’t want fake tears! He doesn’t even want our genuine tears – he wants change in us.. change in our actions and behavior.. certainly not fake sobbing.

        Use your intellect – Does Imam Husain want you to forget about hygiene or the basic act of wishing peace to someone?? I haven’t come across it, but have heard certain cultures practice it – particularly the sub continent

        • Azar Ali Zain

          Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
          Watch your words, for they become actions.
          Watch your actions, for they become habits.
          Watch your habits, for they become character.
          Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.

          As for hygiene, the author does not say to walk in with a nasty attire while you are purely stinking, but if it is going to be a hygiene problem (read:smell) then you must take bath – that’s obvious, but don’t wear properly ironed cloth. As for wishing peace, it feels a bit hypocritical to say Salam while mourning as if someone in my own family has died. I mean, if my family members are slaughtered, I don’t think I would be able to utter wishes to anyone, I would only mourn, and share my grief with the other family members (read: muslim brothers/sister).

          • Azar Ali Zain

            Watch your actions, for they become habits.
            Watch your habits, for they become character.
            Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.

            Above are the lines I mean as a reply to your crocodile tears/fake mourning stance. Hope that helps to explain.

  • jerrmein

    Mashallah well written article. Just one comment about prohibiting the “Salam” on the day of Ashura. Let’s be reminded that when we recite Ziyarat Ashura on the day of Ashura, what do we say? ASALAAMU ALAYKA YA ABA ABDILLAH….ETC. We are sending our Salams to Imam Husain and the martyrs, etc And Imam Husain (AS) is also returning our Salams on the day of Ashura. So what exactly is wrong or inappropriate with saying Salam to our fellow brother/sister in faith? Saying ‘Salam’ itself does not signify happiness but is a polite gesture whenever we meet our brothers in faith, and I doubt that Imam Husain (AS) would be angry to hear a brother greet his fellow brother on this day. Especially if that somber ‘Salam’ is followed by the sharing of condolences on the Masa’eb. Let’s try to understand what our actions signify and what our Imams would judge our actions before we take extreme actions which do not help the cause of Imam Husain, but my convey a wrong message to those who are introduced to the path of AhlulBayt and the practices of Azadari.

  • Dot

    Salaams everyone,

    I decided that we really needed a scholar to shed some light on this situation. It is really not right for me or anyone else without knowledge to just give our opinions or just say what we think “makes sense” or is “logical”. Many things that might seem logical or not logical go against Islam and the Islamic spirit. We also all bring our own experiences that sometimes color our understanding. With this in mind, and to help everyone including myself, I contacted a prominent Indian scholar based in North America and asked him some questions:

    1. The scholar said that the issue of not saying salaam on Ashura is a cultural issue from India and Pakistan, and that the Arab and Iranian communities. The condolence that is offered in Mafatih is to be offered in addition to the salaam, not to replace it. However, he said that it is important in that in a cultural situation such as that found in Pakistani or Indian communities where saying salaam is associated with happiness it should not be said. This is because on a cultural level saying salaam violates the sanctity of the sad day. This scholar told me the issue is really not a big deal because greeting someone with salaam [which is not a salaam in response to some else’s salaam] is not wajib anyway. He also said that people really should not be fighting about this issue, it is not worth the time and effort that some people make this out to be.

    2. Regarding not showering on ‘Ashura, I asked the scholar if that is also in Mafatih. He said “there is nothing like that” that he has seen. However, the scholar did say that smearing the face with dirt on Ashura definitely is in the hadiths.

    • Dot

      * and that the Arab and Iranian communities do not practice it.

  • Dot

    3. Regarding the “fake crying”, I have not had a chance to ask about it since the scholar had to leave, but if I get a chance I will ask and post the answer. I have seen many traditions (hadiths) regarding the reward of trying to cry, but I would rather have someone qualified tell me about the issue than rely on my own understanding.

    With salaams and duas for everyone success.

    • Dot

      Got in touch with the scholar again. He said that even if there was only one good tradition indicating that we should try to cry it should be enough. However, there are many, many, MANY traditions that say we should try to cry, he said. He quoted one (I’m paraphrasing now) that says the reward is great for the person who cries for Imam Hussain, for the person who makes another person cries, and for one who even “makes his face like he is crying”. The scholar then went on to tell me that a person who does not accept these hadiths even with all these proofs, is “not worth talking to, because there is superabundant proof”.

      That is more than enough proof for me. Tons of traditions (hadiths) + scholarly support = crying for Imam Hussain is good, even if the tears are not real.