`Āshūrā’ and the Jews of Medina at a Glance


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.

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17 Comments

    • Shibli Zaman says:

      Wonderful piece from Shaykh `Abdul Hasan Nadawi. There are a few issues worth mentioning though:

      1) Chag ha-Aviv (חג האביב), what the Shaykh refers to as “Abib” (should be “Aviv”), is just another term for Passover. So is the Shaykh saying the Jews were celebrating Passover on the 10th of Muharram? This is not likely.

      2) Yom Kippur is not, and never has been, a day of mourning for Jews. Actually, mourning on Yom Kippur is forbidden. If one is mourning a death, called “Shiva”, they are to consider it complete and stop if it falls on Yom Kippur. It’s a day of celebration. Regardless, whether or not it was a day of mourning is irrelevant.

      There is no need for speculation when we can easily calculate and corroborate Hijri and Hebraic dates. Muharram in 622 was the month of Av in the Jewish calendar. Passover falls nowhere near the 10th of Muharram at any time in the Prophet’s life in Medina.

    • Iqra says:

      I’m embarrassed of people like you. What makes Nadwi’s piece more scholarly? And what was the NEED to even say “more scholarly?” Why not just offer the link and keep the rest to yourself? I don’t see you writing pieces? Have you read his other works?

      http://www.suhaibwebb.com/author/shibli-zaman/

      Shame on you.

      • mw_m says:

        Wow, I seem to have hit a nerve. Br. Shibli Zaman did not take any offense at my comment (nor did I mean any) so I don’t see what you’re getting upset about.

        I do find it distasteful that you refer to someone like Shaykh Abul Hasan Nadwi as simply “Nadwi” however.

        • Shibli Zaman says:

          MW_M, I did feel that your comment could have been worded better. I have a very thick skin, but many would not appreciate you stating that their opinion is inferior to another’s without even addressing the content of either piece. Would you agree?

          Calling a scholar by their last name is perfectly fine. The scholars have said “Qaala Ahmad..” all the time and not “Qaala al-Imam al-Mubajjal Ahmad bin Muhammad bin Hanbal, Radi Allahu `anhum wa Rahimahum..” and Imam Ahmad is more deserving of that than any contemporary scholars.

          If you could please read the article, and comment on the content of it, rather than linking to another article, that would be greatly appreciated. Let’s please get back to the subject.

        • mw_m says:

          My sincere apologies then akhi, no offense meant.

  1. Peter says:

    Couldn’t it be that the Jews were actually NOT following the Hebraic calendar but instead the Arab calendar? If that was so, then the 10th of Muharram would be like the 10th of Tishrei, right after Rosh Hashanah (Ras As Sanah). That’s when the holiday falls. Isn’t that possible?

    • Shibli Zaman says:

      Peter, thanks for your excellent comment. This is most definitely possible, as is the hypothesis presented by Shaykh `Abdul Hasan al-Nadawi in the link the previous commenter shared. There are many theories within the realm of possibility. However, what differentiates them is the extent to which they rely upon known evidence as opposed to what logically appears possible.

      There are, indeed, variants in the Jewish calendar, particularly that of the Qara’im (Karaites). However, for the Jews to completely abandon their calendar and rely solely upon the pre-Islamic Arabian calendar is something that I do not see as likely, especially since the pre-Islamic Arabs were mostly idol worshipers. Of course, one can’t limit possibility to what one knows, so if there is any evidence of this, I would be most interested in it.

      Until then, I have chosen to appeal to what I had evidence of which, in this case, is the correlation of the 9th of Av with the 10th of Muharram which occurred in the first year of the Hijra.

      Ultimately, God only knows for sure.

  2. Adnan says:

    Salam Alaikum Br. Shibli,

    Thank you for your thoughts, but with all due respect, you seem to be overlooking a major aspect of the history of the Islamic/Arab calendar – the existence of intercalated months, “Nasi,” before the 10th year of Hijra. This was forbidden by verses 9:36-7 in Sura Tauba.

    Since the Muslims were following the Arab lunar calendar before the 10th year of hijra, complete with its intercalary months, it is thus completely incorrect simply match the Hebraic calendar to the Arab calendar before 10 AH, as you have done. Plainly resorting to any Islamic calendar converter is very misguided, for you assume that each year was exactly 12 lunar months. This was definitively not the case! And we have no clear evidence how many intercalated months actually did occur while the Prophet (saws) was in Medina.

    A much more accurate analysis would look to dates after the Quran forbade intercalation, i.e. from 10AH onward. The Messenger died in the Rabi Awwal of 11AH. That preceding Muharram (his last Muharram alive) did in fact coincide with the Jewish month of Nisan – the month of Passover! This suggests that the ahadith about the Jews commemorating Musa’s (as) victory over Pharoah are indeed correct.

    In year 11AH, according to the Jewish calendar, the Jews began celebrating Passover on Saturday, April 11, 632CE (Julian date). This corresponds to the 14th of Muharram, 11AH. The Christians were also celebrating Easter on Sunday, April 12, 632CE (Julian date). This corresponds to the 15th of Muharram, 11AH.

    This strikes me as interesting since the hadith records that “It is a day revered by BOTH the Jews and the Christians.” So the Prophet (saws) was recorded to have said, “In the coming year, if God wills, I will fast the ninth.” He did not however live an additional year. This means that the incident occurred in the Muharram of 11AH, which, as shown above, was around the time that the Jews were celebrating Passover and the Christians were celebrating Easter.

    I don’t know why the 10th is special versus other days in Muharram – maybe the Arabian Jews did fast shortly before Passover. But regardless, it is completely incorrect to assume that there was no intercalation, “nasi,” before 10AH, since the Quran’s prohibition clearly indicates that it did occur. Thus we can by no means claim that Ashura is related to the Jewish fast of Av, which is a day of mourning, not rejoicing as the ahadith seem to indicate.

    With all due respect, this article should be retracted due to its errors.

    • Shibli Zaman says:

      Wa `alaykum al-salām, Adnan. Why, you’re so very welcome! First and foremost, my brother, relax. Not everyone is going to agree with you, nor will you agree with everyone. Learn to differ with composure and etiquette. If you want to throw your weight around and order people to remove content from their websites just because you didn’t agree with it, then you really should be emailing the admins of the site and signing with a little bit more than just “Adnan”. Now to your points:

      You said: “Since the Muslims were following the Arab lunar calendar before the 10th year of hijra, complete with its intercalary months, it is thus completely incorrect simply match the Hebraic calendar to the Arab calendar before 10 AH, as you have done…”

      Only to say a few sentences later…

      “And we have no clear evidence how many intercalated months actually did occur while the Prophet (saws) was in Medina.”

      Precisely. Absolutely nothing is known to what degree months were intercalated, nor is there any evidence at all how often it occurred. There is a scholarly consensus that al-Nasī’ did occur, but there is no scholarly consensus on the degree of it. Al-Tabarānī narrates from Ibn Mardawayh and `Amrū bin Shu`ayb that it may have been every 27 years. Beyond that little to nothing is known.

      You said: “A much more accurate analysis would look to dates after the Quran forbade intercalation, i.e. from 10AH onward. The Messenger died in the Rabi Awwal of 11AH. That preceding Muharram (his last Muharram alive) did in fact coincide with the Jewish month of Nisan – the month of Passover!”

      Tada! Right? Wrong. 10 Muharram in the year 632 was a full week before Pesach (Passover). I think you knew that the dates didn’t match so you stated “the month of Passover!” as if the Jews can celebrate Passover anytime in the month.

      The biggest problem with your insistence is that the Jews don’t fast for Passover. They actually feast on the Passover Seder (called Qurbān Pesach in Hebrew) from the 10th to the 15th of Nisan.

      There is the Ta`nit b’Khorim or “Fast of the Firstborn”, but that is only observed by firstborn men and takes place the day before Passover on the 14th of Nisan. Even that doesn’t work according to the dates you’ve proposed.

      You further stated: “This suggests that the ahadith about the Jews commemorating Musa’s (as) victory over Pharoah are indeed correct.”

      Passover is not the celebration of the Moses and the Israelites crossing the Red Sea and Pharaoh being drowned. It could be a general reference to the freedom of the Jews from Egypt, but it’s agreed upon meaning is the celebration of the “Spirit of the Lord” *passing over* the houses of the believers when the souls of every firstborn were taken during the 10th Plague. The Hebrew name for Passover is “Pesach” (פֶּסַח) which is cognate to the Arabic “Fasaha” (فسح) meaning “He cleared a way”. Tynsdale was the first to call it “Passover” in English.

      You further stated: “In year 11AH, according to the Jewish calendar, the Jews began celebrating Passover on Saturday, April 11, 632CE (Julian date). This corresponds to the 14th of Muharram, 11AH. The Christians were also celebrating Easter on Sunday, April 12, 632CE (Julian date). This corresponds to the 15th of Muharram, 11AH.”

      So, you mean to say that `Āshūrā’ was the 14th and 15th of Muharram that year? So why isn’t it called Khamsat-`Āshūrā’?? Forgive me, but I have difficulty taking that seriously.

      Then you say: “I don’t know why the 10th is special versus other days in Muharram – maybe the Arabian Jews did fast shortly before Passover.”

      You don’t know why the 10th of Muharram is special and you guess the Jews just might have fasted a week before Passover. Wouldn’t it have been better then if you had posed some questions rather than the way you chose to approach this subject?

      Finally, you say: “Thus we can by no means claim that Ashura is related to the Jewish fast of Av, which is a day of mourning, not rejoicing as the ahadith seem to indicate.”

      The narrations do not say the 10th of Muharram is a day of rejoicing for the Jews. The Asl of the word `Eid means repetition. Meaning it happens at the designated time every year.

      Ibn al-Mundhir’s Lisān al-`Arab states:

      والعِيدُ كلُّ يوم فيه جَمْعٌ، واشتقاقه من عاد يَعُود كأَنهم عادوا إِليه
      “And `Ēid is every day within which is a gathering. It is derived from `Ād, Ya`ūd (returning) in that they return (`Ādū) to it…”

      It later came to refer to celebrations by way of association but, by definition, it means a day that is repeated at a designated time and/or date.

      God knows best.

      This is a subject that rests in the realm of theory and there are many possibilities. We can discuss them, disagree or agree upon them, but I humbly request that all egos be hung at the door…with all due respect.

      God bless you and increase us all in knowledge.

      • Adnan says:

        Salam Alaikum Br. Shibli,

        It seems I may have struck a nerve – sorry for that. I did not by any means want my objection to be taken personally, but I do believe that the content of the article reveals a major faulty assumption that greatly contradicts the position you have taken, i.e. that the fast of Muharram originated from the Jewish fast of Av – which is significant for the Jews primarily because it is the day to mourn the destruction of both temples.

        I never once said that the 10th of Muharram corresponded exactly to the days of Passover, nor that the Jews fast on Passover. My argument is that in the only year in the Messenger’s (saws) life where we can credibly match the Islamic and Hebraic Calendar (11AH), Ashura occurred in close association (shortly before) the days of Passover, which are significant for the Jews with regards to God saving Musa and the Israelites from the Pharaoh. This still raises a lot of questions for me. Why the 10th and not the 14th or 15th? We can speculate as our scholars of the past have done, but may not come to a clear answer.

        The Sunni hadith concerning Ashura talk of two incidents. One incident is the Messenger’s last Muharram alive, the Muharram where he made an intention to distinguish Muslim practice from that of the Jews and Christians. As we’ve discussed above, this occurred in 11AH and coincided with the Jewish sacred month of Nisan.

        The other incident, however, was when the Messenger (saws) first entered Medina, i.e. Muharram of 2AH (remember, Hijra occurred between Safar and Rabi I of 1AH so the Messenger could not have been in Medina for the Muharram of 1AH). Due to the existence of Nasi, we cannot credibly match this date to any specific date in the Hebraic or Julian calendar. Simply doing so, as you have done, is incorrect. Hence the flurry of speculation among the respected scholars of the past.

        Are you really assuming that the Arabs did not have any months of Nasi in the 10 years the Messenger was in Medina? This is very unlikely, since the Quran’s prohibition does suggest that it did occur and that the practice was abused by the Arabs. Unfortunately we don’t know how many months of Nasi did occur.

        If your position that Muharram 2AH corresponded to the Jewish month of Av is correct, that means there had to be at least 12 months of nasi in the 10 following years that the Messenger (saws) lived in Medina. In my opinion, this is highly unlikely – each year during that time would consistently have 13 months, and some would have 14 months, but we have no evidence of such an odd situation ever occurring.

        If the Ashura of 2AH however matched Yom Kippur, there must have been about 10 months of nasi in the 10 following years the Messenger (saws) lived in Medina. Once again, each Arab year would have about 13 months – very unlikely.

        If Muharram 2AH however matched the Jewish sacred month of Nisan, the month where God saved Musa (as) from the Pharaoh according to Jewish tradition, there would have been only 4 months of nasi in the 10 following years of the Messenger’s (saws) life. This is more likely – the Hebraic calendar itself had 4 months of nasi during this period (just enough to keep the calendar in line with the solar calendar), and the Arabs could have done also. This doesn’t mean that the Jews and the Arabs used the exact same calendar, but the calendars could have been similar.

        Alternatively, Muharram 2AH could have corresponded to neither Av, Tishri, or Nisan in the Jewish calendar, but some other month in which the Arab Jews fasted on the 10th day. Or the Arab Jews may have been using a completely different calendar. If these were the case, we have no idea how many months of Nasi existed when the Prophet (saws) was in Medina, and we’re once again left to speculate.

        Still, it should be pointed out that one cannot simply use an online “Islamic date converter” to accurately match Islamic dates before 11AH to either the Hebraic or Julian calendar. Unless you are assuming that the Arabs had no months of nasi in all the time the Messenger (saws) was in Medina, matching Ashura to the Jewish fast of Av, as you have done, is very unlikely.

        But your position, though I disagree with it, is very interesting. Jews mourn on Tish’a b’Av as one of the saddest days of the year – commemorating the destruction of both temples in Jerusalem. It would be interesting that the Prophet (saws) also fasted Ashura because of this Jewish mourning day, for Ashura would come to mark the anniversary of the horrible massacre of his own family. It seems interesting that mourning over Hussain could be matched to the Jewish mourning over the destruction of the two temples.

        Once again, please don’t take it personally, but I do think a more scholarly assessment of the Arab and Hebraic calendar, accounting for the known existence of Nasi, would greatly weaken the argument you make in the article.

        I still have a lot of personal questions about Ashura that I can’t easily resolve. My position could definitely be wrong. In the end, as always, God knows best.

        Keep well and best wishes!

        • Anne says:

          Br. Adnan, as salaamu ‘alaikum,

          I know that this is an old post and you might not be reading my reply but I wanted to commend you on how well composed you have kept your etiquette in your reply. In my perception, you were unjustly accused of being rash and not tactful in your original post in a manner that in fact exactly fit the attitude of the accuser, yet you came back humbly, politely and yet intelligently in return to that.

          Good for you.
          Your sister in Islam.

    • John Ederer says:

      Dear Brother Adnan,

      Our scholars teach us that passing knowledge goes hand in hand with etiquette. It seems to me that you were very impressed with your opinion the second it popped in your head. I pray that you take an advice which was give to me by one of my teachers. “Always assume you might be wrong and research and discuss with the people of knowledge until the truth becomes clear- be it your opinion or others. Imam Shafi’ee’s famous quote “I assume my opinion right and their is a possibility it is wrong whereas my detractor I consider wrong with the possibility of being right.” is for someone who has reached the level of Imam Shafi’ee which no one on earth could claim! But if one were a Mujtahid Mutlaq then he or she might think as such. Until then lets all humble ourselves bro!

      • Adnan says:

        Very true Br. John,

        I’m looking over my first post and do see my error in etiquette. Forgive me for that, Br. Shibli. I had become quite aroused over what I saw as clearly incorrect, but my own matching of Muharram to Nisan may also be just as incorrect. In the end, we’re left to speculate over Ashura as the scholars of the past have done – and since they were not able to come to an answer, we are just as unlikely to do so.

  3. Abdullah says:

    “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 .”

    This is what I was really hoping to read. Actually, just before reading this article, I thought of the same idea of correlating 1 Muharram to the Hebraic calendar!

    Great article!

  4. New Muslima says:

    As I have been trying to learn everything I can about the history of my new religion, I’ve been saddened by the tone taken by some authors when they write about events or customs or issues that juxtapose the Sunni and Shi’a traditions. It is profoundly refreshing, hope-giving, to read something that takes a more conversational tone.

    Jazak Allah khair.

  5. Rushdi says:

    11/13/2013

    Here are the thoughts of a Muslim layperson, neither a scholar nor a polemic. As I reflect on Ashura, and the uncertainty of dates, and its correlation with events of significance to the Jewish community. After reading the extensive discussion on this thread, I am left with the same conclusion that I feel sums up arguments about the actual date of laylat-ul-qadr.

    The reason we don’t have a specific date for the “night of power” relates to the disagreements and verbal hostilities that took place on one night at the time of Prophet.

    ‘Ubaadah Ibn Saamit relates: “Once the Prophet (SWS) came out to inform us of the (correct date of) Laylatul Qadr. Unfortunately, a quarrel took place between two Muslims, whereupon He (SWS) said ‘I came out to inform you as to when Laylatul Qadr occurs, but because two people quarreled with each other, the knowledge of the correct date was taken away. Perhaps that is better for you. So, seek it among the ninth, seventh and fifth nights.’”

    The Noble Prophet also related: “Shall I inform you of an action that is better than Salaah, fasting and charity?” The Sahabah replied: “Certainly.” Rasulullah (SWS) replied ” “Maintain peaceful and good relations amongst yourselves, for verily quarrels among yourselves removes faith,”

    This Ashura, I’m using the day to thank God for everything He has gifted us, including most importantly an opportunity to gain insight into our own failings. Moreover, I’m reaching out to our brothers and in the Jewish community and rekindling friendships over common grounds. This should be a holiday that unites communities and brings salaam to hearts and minds. Today in 9 attacks, 22 people died in attacks upon Shia holy sites. What a sad state of affairs. We should consider that just as blasts damage bodies, words are in turn like arrows.

    To me, once more, an unlettered nobody, the real message of Ashura is bridge building instead of putting up walls between hearts. I believe the Prophet (PBUH) was the perfect embodiment of this attribute. Quarreling with others over the veracity of things that are simply not known was not part of his playbook.

    That all being said, the above discussion from previous years was fascinating and illuminating.

    Peace, love and goodness to each of those who took time to respond to this thread.

    Additionally, many blessings to those who humbled themselves, and made their speech gentle in their discourse with their fellow Muslims.

    Rushdi Abdul Cader

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