Ashura and the Hebrew Exodus

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On the 10th Muharram we are encouraged to fast, not simply because Muhammad, the final messenger of God did so, but because the believers have been told to mark the Exodus which was when God saved Moses and his people from Pharaoh. When the Prophet arrived in Madinah after the great hijrah (emigration), he found that the Jews there fasted on the 10th Muharram who said, “This is a blessed day: on this day God saved the Children of Israel from their enemy and so the Prophet Moses fasted on this day giving thanks to God.” The Prophet responded, “We are closer to Moses than you are.” So he fasted on that day and commanded the believers to fast. (al-Bukhari)

Not only did the adults fast, but the prophetic companions (sahabah) also encouraged their children to do so as well. It was the first obligatory fast in the (final) sharī’ah and a precursor to Ramadan. There are many points to contemplate from this, which I’ll leave for you, your friends and families to discuss!

“Moses said: ‘Pharaoh, I am a messenger from the Lord of all the Worlds, duty-bound to say nothing about God but the truth, and I have brought you a clear sign from your Lord. Let the Children of Israel go with me’…And so, because they rejected Our signs and paid them no heed, We exacted retribution from them: We drowned them in the sea and We made those who had been oppressed succeed to both the east and the west of the land that We had blessed. Your Lord’s good promise to the Children of Israel was fulfilled, because of their patience, and We destroyed what Pharaoh and his people were making and what they were building.” (Quran 7:104-137)

Ashura is a stark reminder of our true religious identity, an articulation that often leaves some British Muslims very uncomfortable due to its expansive nature. Being believers, our tradition isn’t Muhammadan as the Orientalists have coined it, or the basis of ethnic protest and/or decoloniality, but deeply Abrahamic. Our belief and practices aren’t 1400 years old as many put it – this is an absolutely erroneous idea that has been embedded into the public psyche (both Muslim and non-Muslim alike), but the one true faith spanning human history. We worship and prostrate to the Ever-Living and Eternal God – El, Elohim, Eloi, Elah, Allah – that the righteous have always served – using the same semitic terms the ancients of the Middle East have for “Lord of the east and the west.” (Quran 73:9)

The core practices of the faithful have remained with the believers over millennia, where submission to God (islam) is built on five practices: To proclaim that God Almighty is one and unique; to stand before God, bow and prostrate (salat); to offer the tithes/zedekah/sadaqah; to fast in a show of abstinence; to make the pilgrimage to the holy sanctuaries in Jerusalem and Makkah. Just as we, diverse believers from across the globe continue to do so, when the Children of Israel “heard that the Lord was concerned about them and had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshiped.” (Exodus 4:31) The Prophets after Moses continued to teach their people what God wanted: “Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker.” (Psalms of David 95:6)

Ashura, or the day of the Exodus, is a day to remember how God saves his believers from wickedness and tyranny, and how God sent Prophets to emancipate the souls of mankind and guide them to the ways of truth and uprightness. ‘We revealed the Torah with guidance and light, and the Prophets who had submitted to God, judged according to it…’ (Quran 5:44)

On this day, we particularly remember how God sent Moses to Pharaoh, and to the Israelites, how God spoke to Moses in the wilderness through the burning bush, and sent repeated signs to the Egyptians. As we fast, we remember Moses’ struggle: the affable message, the haughtiness of the pagan Egyptians, the miraculous escape, believers walking with parched throats and empty stomachs through the desert; the spring that gushed forth from a rock struck by the staff of Moses, and manna and quails sent from the heavens for sustenance. We remember the simple and upright Ten Commandments, how the Samiri misguided the emancipated Hebrews to worship the calf, and the response of disobedient Hebrews when they were commanded to fight for the land of Israel: “you and your Lord go in and fight, and we will stay here.” (Quran 5:24)

There are many lessons to be learned, and much to ponder over. Ultimately, the 10th Muharram is about thanking God, seeking His graces, and reconnecting with the tradition that includes Moses. Just as the 1st Muharram reminds us of the flight of the Arab believers from their pagan counterparts to Madinah, the 10th does so with the Hebrews from the pagan Egyptians. It’s not simply a day of hunger which it becomes for many. Let’s concentrate our day, with our families, around its true meaning. Tell stories, have discussions, and relate the narrative in the Qur’an. Feel a connection with the faith of Moses; your faith and the faith of the righteous who came before you. Share the story of your fast with inquisitive non-Muslim family, neighbours and friends. As Abrahamic believers we must recognise that we, as the monotheists of Moses, are nearer to him than any other claimants – including Jews – so let us practice and conceptualise faith in a way that everyone might know that we are.

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