“Ashura” is an Arabic word that literally means “tenth”. Since it is originally “Aramaic” and came along in Arabic after Islam, it is considered to be common in all Semitic languages. The Day of Ashura, which is the common date of various events concerning the history of humanity, is significant not only for Muslims, but also for the other two Semitic religions; Judaism, Christianity. It is significant for the Jews, as Prophet Moses was saved from the tyranny of Pharaoh on the Day of Ashura. In order to respect this special day, the Jews spent it fasting.
In Islam, it is not obligatory to fast on the Day of Ashura. It is “sunnah” of Our Prophet (pbuh), He fasted and recommended fasting; but not in the way that the Jews did. The Jews used to fast only on the Day of Ashura, which is the 10th day of Muharram. So, in order not to be similar to them, He recommended fasting for two or three days; on the both 9th and 10th of Muharram or both the 10th and 11th of Muharram.
The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) said:
“Fasting the day of ‘Arafah I hope Allaah will expiate thereby for the year before it and the year after it, and fasting the day of ‘Ashoora’ I hope Allaah will expiate thereby for the year that came before it.” Narrated by Muslim, 1162.
This is by the bounty that Allaah bestows upon us, whereby fasting one day expiates for the sins of a whole year. And Allaah is the Owner of great bounty.
Aisha (ra) narrated that:
“Quraish used to fast on the day of ‘Ashura’ in the Pre-lslamic period, and Allah’s Apostle too, used to fast on that day. When he came to Medina, he fasted on that day and ordered others to fast, too. Later when the fasting of the month of Ramadan was prescribed, he gave up fasting on the day of ‘Ashura’ and it became optional for one to fast on it or not.” (Bukhari, Volume 3, Book 31, Number 220)
The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) used to be very keen to make sure he fasted on the day of ‘Ashoora’ because of its great status. It was narrated that Ibn ‘Abbaas (may Allaah be pleased with him) said:
I never saw the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) so keen to make sure he fasted any day and preferring it over another except this day, the day of ‘Ashoora’, and this month – meaning Ramadaan. Narrated by al-Bukhaari, 1867.
What is meant by being keen to make sure he fasted it is so as to earn its reward. With regard to the reason why the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) fasted on the day of ‘Ashoora’ and urged the people to do likewise is mentioned in the hadeeth narrated by al-Bukhaari (1865) from Ibn ‘Abbaas (may Allaah be pleased with him), who said: The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) came to Madeenah and saw the Jews fasting on the day of ‘Ashoora’.
He said, “What is this?” They said, “This is a good day, this is the day when Allaah saved the Children of Israel from their enemy and Moosa fasted on this day.” He said, “We are closer to Moosa than you.” So he fasted on this day and told the people to fast.
The words “this is a good day” – according to a version narrated by Muslim, “This is a great day when Allaah saved Moosa and his people and drowned Pharaoh and his people.”
The words “so Moosa fasted on this day” – Muslim added in his report: “In gratitude to Allaah, so that is we fast on this day.”
According to another version narrated by al-Bukhaari, “So we fast it out of respect for it.”
The words “and told the people to fast” – according to another version narrated by al-Bukhaari, “He said to his companions, ‘You are closer to Moosa than them, so fast this day.”
The expiation of sins that is achieved by fasting ‘Ashoora’ refers to minor sins; with regard to major sins, they need separate repentance.
Al-Nawawi (may Allaah have mercy on him) said:
Fasting the day of ‘Arafaah expiates for all minor sins, in othr words this brings forgiveness for all sins except for major sins.
Then he said:
Fasting the day of ‘Arafaah is an expiation for two years, and the day of ‘Ashoora is an expiation for one year, and if a person’s Ameen coincides with the Ameen of the angels, his previous sins will be forgiven… Each of the things mentioned may bring expiation. If he does something that expiates for minor sins he will be expiated, and if there are no minor or major sins, it will be recorded for him as good deeds and he will rise in status thereby… If there is one or more major sins and no minor sins, we hope that it will reduce his major sins. Al-Majmoo’ Sharh al-Muhadhdhab, part 6.
Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyah (may Allaah have mercy on him) said: The expiation of purification, prayer, and fasting Ramadaan, ‘Arafah and ‘Ashoora’ applies to minor sins only. Al-Fataawa al-Kubra, part 5.