Muharram is derived from the Arabic word haram. It is the first month of the Muslim calendar of Hijrah. In the old Arab days, it was forbidden to fight in this month as Muharram is one of the four holiest months in Islam (the other three are Zulkaedah, Zulhijjah and Rajab).
One of the most significant days in Muharram is Ashura. The religious significance of Ashura, as is relevant to Sunni Muslims who form the majority (85%) of Muslims, can be summarised from a report regarding Prophet Muhammed as follows:
” Prophet Muhammed arrived in Madinah and found the Jews observing fast on the day of ‘Ashura… They said: “It is the day of great (significance) when Allah delivered Moses and his people and drowned Pharaoh and his people, and Moses observed fast out of gratitude. And we also observe it.” Then Prophet Muhammed responded: “We have more right, and we have closer connection with Moses than you have”; so he observed fast and gave us orders to observe it.” [Reported by Ibn Abbas, Ref: Sahih Bukhari and Muslim]
The Shi’a believe the above hadith to be a fabrication by the Ummayads, after the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, as a part of their campaign to turn the 10th of Muharram into a day of rejoicing. These traditions are of the same genre as those which say that it was on the 10th of Muharram that Noah’s ark rested on Mount Ararat, the fire became cool and safe for Abraham, and Jesus ascended to the heaven. In the same category came the traditions exhorting the Muslims to treat ‘Ashura as a festival of joy, and to store one’s food-grain on this very day as it would increase one’s sustenance and bring the blessings of Allah to the household.
The day of Ashura also has the historical significance of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, which however took place well after the demise of Prophet Muhammed, and should not be confused with the religious significance of Ashura. However the Shia Muslim community attributes religious significances to the day of Ashura connected with this event.
So, the best practice to do in this month is to fast both either on the 9th and tenth of Muharram (i.e. on the 18th – Friday; and 19th – Saturday of January 2008) OR the tenth and eleventh of Muharram ( Saturday and Sunday).