The Day of `Āshūrā’ means different things to different Muslims. To some it is a day of fasting to commemorate a day when Moses and the Children of Israel were rescued. To some it is a woeful day of lament wherein al-Ḥusayn ibn `Alī, the beloved grandson of the Prophet Muḥammad ﷺ (peace be upon him), laid down his life in defiance against tyranny. To many –arguably most– it is both.
Yet, scholars have often speculated what fast the Jews were observing on the 10th of Muḥarram circa 622CE as recorded in our Ḥadith literature. Was it Pesach (Passover), Yom Kippur, or perhaps a lesser fast like Asher b’Tevet?
It is narrated in Imām Bukhārī’s Ṣaḥīḥ:
عن ابن عباس رضي الله عنهما قال: قدم النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم المدينة، فرأى اليهود تصوم يوم عاشوراء، فقال: (ما هذا). قالوا: هذا يوم صالح، هذا يوم نجى الله بني إسرائيل من عدوهم، فصامه موسى. قال: (فأنا أحق بموسى منكم) فصامه وأمر بصيامه
“Ibn `Abbās (رضي الله عنهما – May Allah be pleased with them) reported: The Prophet ﷺ entered Medina and observed the Jews fasting on the Day of `Āshūrā’ (10th of Muḥarram). He asked, ‘What is this?’ They said, ‘This is a righteous day. It is the day that God saved the Children of Israel from their adversary, so Moses fasted.’ The Prophet said, ‘I have a right to Moses greater than theirs.’ Thus, he fasted and ordained fasting for that day.”
There is little need for speculation when today one can calculate and corroborate Hijrī and Hebraic dates. Muḥarram in 622CE was the month of Av in the Jewish calendar. Specifically, the 10th of Muḥarram was the 9th of Av, better known to Jews as Tish`a b’Av (תִּשֽׁעָ בְּאָב). One may calculate the Gregorian date of the 10th of Muḥarram 1 Anno Hejirae, then convert that Gregorian date to a Hebraic date, being mindful of the sunset, resulting in the 9th of Av, 4382.
The Jewish exegesis Midrash Rabbah, Eychah, Petichta 33 relates the legend behind the fast of Tish`a b’Av and the holiday of Tu b’Av:
ר’ אבין ור’ יוחנן
אמרי יום שביטל החפר מן מתי מדבר, א”ר יסיף ר’ אבין ור’ יוחנן אמרי יום
שביטל החפר מן מתי מדבר, א”ר לוי כל ערב תשעה באב היה משה מוציא
,כרוז בכל המחנה ואומר צאו לחפור והיו יוצאין וחופרין קברות וישנין בהן
לשחרית היה מוציא כרוז ואומר קומו והפרישו המתים מן החיים והיו עומדים
ומוצאין עצמן חמשה עשר אלף בפרוטרוט /מספר מדויק/ , חסרו שש מאות
אלף, ובשנת הארבעים האחרון עשו כן ומצאו עצמן שלמים. אמרו: דומה
שטעינו בחשבון; וכן בעשור ובאחד עשר ובשנים עשר ושלשה עשר וארבע
עשר, כיון דאיתמלא סיהרא /התמלא הירח/ אמרו דומה שהקב”ה ביטל
.אותה גזירה מעלינו וחזרו ועשאוהו יום טוב
“Rav Abin and Rav Yochanan taught: The 15th of Av is the day upon which the grave digging of the dead stopped. Rav Levi taught: On the eve of the 9th of Av, Moses would announce throughout the camp: Go dig! The people of Israel would go and dig their graves and sleep inside them. When morning came, Moses announced: Let those who live separate themselves from the dead. The live ones would rise, separate themselves from the dead, and count –and each year 15,000 would die. On the 40th year since leaving Egypt they did the same thing. But in the morning –none had died. Perhaps we had miscalculated the date? They thought, and slept in their graves again the following night, on the 10th of Av, and so again on the 11th, and on the 12th, and on the 13th, and on the 14th –When the moon became full on the 15th, they declared: The Holy One, Blessed be He, cancelled the decree. They made this day into a holiday.”
One may wonder about the numerous narrations on the subject which relate a correlation between `Āshūrā’ and the Children of Israel being saved from Pharaoh and Pharaoh being drowned. This suggests a background more similar to Pesach (Passover) which commemorates the Jews liberation from Egypt and its Pharaoh. However, the dates do not coincide between Passover and `Āshūrā’ until over a decade after the Hijra and even then Passover falls on the 18th of Muḥarram, and not the 10th.
It is reported in other narrations that the Tribe of Quraysh would commemorate the Day of `Āshūrā’ as well as the Jews as is also recorded in Imām Bukhārī’s Ṣaḥīḥ:
عن عائشة رضي الله عنها قالت: كان يوم عاشوراء تصومه قريش في الجاهلية
“`Āisha (رضي الله عنها – May Allah be pleased with her) said: The Quraysh used to fast on the Day of `Āshūrā’ in the times of ignorance (before Islam)…”
Thus, in the various narrations it is possible that the plural verb قالوا, meaning “they said”, could refer to the non-Muslim Arabs of Quraysh just as it could refer to the Jews. What is interesting is the perspective of the following answer:
هذا يوم نجى الله بني إسرائيل من عدوهم
“This is the day that God saved the Children of Israel from their adversary.”
Of course, it is also possible that a Jew was speaking of his forebears and, hence, referred to their adversary. Yet, it is also possible that this was a Qurayshī who simply related what he thought was the origin of the fast based upon his limited, and likely erroneous, information on Jewish religious practices.
Ultimately, the hardest evidence is the calendar itself which is relatively immutable. If the Jews were, indeed, fasting for Tish`a b’Av –as can plainly be seen by resorting to any Hijri to Hebraic calculator– then this would negate the suspicions of our dear brethren from the Shī`ah that the fast of `Āshūrā’ was created by the Umayyads as a distraction from the martyrdom of our Master al-Ḥusayn (عليه السلام – Peace be upon him). It is remarkable that such chronological accuracy was not only recorded but preserved over the ages and is a testimony to the overall veracity of the Sunnah.