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Wednesday, May 6, 1998 Published at 20:18 GMT 21:18 UK


Shia Muslims day of mourning
image: [ In India Shiite mourners walk on hot coals in memory of Hussain ]
In India Shiite mourners walk on hot coals in memory of Hussain

The tenth day of the Muslim month of Muharram, also known as 'Ashura' has become a charged occasion in many places as Shiite Muslims remember the martyrdom of Hussain the grandson of the prophet Mohammad. Here is our Religious Affairs Reporter Jane Little.

Some Shias go as far as to say that 'Everyday is Ashura', underlining the deep significance that the seventh century death of Hussain has for the Shia community.

He is revered as one of the 12 Imams whom Shias believe were the rightful successors to the Prophet Muhammad - instead he was killed at Kerbala in modern-day Iraq, by the Caliph Yazid for failing to submit to his authority.

Today that spirit of defiance and righteousness lives on in the processions and public self-beatings which have become associated with Ashura.

Shias account for only 16% of the world's one billion Muslims, and the occasion has taken on political momentum as minority communities proclaim their presence.

In the Pakistani province of the Punjab, the gathering of thousands of Shiite muslims dressed in black and beating their chests, takes place in a charged atmosphere, as Sunni and Shia extremists continue a campaign of sectarian killings; while in Iran, the Ashura procession of 1978 proclaimed the final days of the Shah's regime as two million Iranians paraded through the streets of Teheran bearing political placards.

But for most Shias, it's an occasion of deep mourning and sacrifice, where food is distributed to the poor, and collective prayers are said.

Some Sunnis also fast on this day for a different reason, remembering the fast of the Prophet Mohammad when he arrived in Medina where he established the first Muslim community.

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