Ashura 2018 and 2019
Ashura, which is essentially a shia holy day, is celebrated in Bahrain like nowhere else.
The small island nation of Bahrain lies just offshore from Qatar and Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf. It has one of the strongest economies in the region, now diversified beyond just oil to include banking, tourism, aluminum production, and more. Only about half of the 1.2 million inhabitants packed into this tiny island are citizens, the rest being foreign workers.
Most Bahrainis are Muslim, and in fact, Shia Muslims, but the rulers of the Kingdom of Bahrain are Sunni. The public processions and mourning permitted here are not allowed in other Gulf countries, therefore bringing in thousands of Shias from neighbouring Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and elsewhere to join in the events every year.
Ashura comes on the 10th day of the Islamic month of Muharram, a month during which Shias mourn. Both the 9th and 10th-day are kept as a public observance in Bahrain, but the 10th day is most important, for that is the anniversary of the death of Muhammad’s grandson, Imam Hussain, in the Battle of Karbala in A.D. 680. All month long, Shias teach about Imam Hussain’s life example in sermons at their mawatim (Shia mosques, singular is matam). Food is also given out by mawatim to people out on the streets, as well as to the poor, and the Bahraini government donates both food and money to mawatim for this purpose every year.
The Bahraini flag, normally white with red at the right end is transformed into a white-and-black flag of mourning for Ashura purposes, and these flags are hung up over public streets, along with other Ashura Day banners. The right to hang up these flags and banners is included in Bahrain’s constitution, and Ashura Day processions in Bahrain date back at least to 1891, when the first such celebrations was put on the historical record.
Three things to do if in Bahrain during Ashura Day are:
- See some of the most famous and architecturally impressive of Bahrain’s thousands of mawatim (Shia mosques). They are all clustered in the central part of the capital city of Manama, and many date from the 1800’s, including Matam al Ajam al Kabeer and Matam bin Rajab. These buildings are also called “Hussainia.”
- Watch any of the processions throughout the month of Muharram, which occur nearly every day, but especially those on the Day of Ashura and in Manama. Some participants beat their chests as they pass by, an act of mourning, while others whip themselves or strike themselves with swords. These displays have been looked down on by some Muslim leaders and are becoming more rare, but there are also less “extreme” processions. You will also hear strumming drums and chants, see camels and white horses in the parades, and hear musical performances.
- Besides the marching, you will see on the streets those dressed up in the costumes of the past. They will reenact past historical events, such as the Battle of Karbala. There is no telling what other events they will reenact, but the performance is sure to be worth the watching.
Ashura day adds additional events to your “things to do” list while in Bahrain, and all of the “usual” activities like beaches, shopping, and sightseeing are still available as well.