Q. As Ashura approaches, there are many emails and publications within various Muslim communities exhorting them to fast on this day in order to reap its benefits. I did an Internet search on the origin of Ashura and came across several articles on this subject, including these two (Ashura and The Islamic "Yom Kippur"). There are numerous ahadith (reported Prophet traditions) about the virtues of fasting for Ashura, with the Prophet Muhammad allegedly claiming in one of them that Muslims have more claim over Moses than the Jews (a rather bold statement).

Narrated Ibn Abbas: The Prophet came to Madina and saw the Jews fasting on the day of Ashura. He asked them about that. They replied: "This is a good day, the day on which Allah rescued Bani Israel from their enemy. So, Moses (Musa) fasted this day." The Prophet said: "We have more claim over Moses than you." So the Prophet fasted on that day and ordered (the Muslims) to fast (on that day). Sahih Bukhari Chapter No: 31, Hadith no: 222

While the following statement may give the majority of Muslims a lot of heartburn, it is abundantly clear that many of the beliefs and practices in Islam are of Jewish origin (shellfish being frowned upon, stoning to death, punishment in the grave, etc.). In fact I sometimes remark to a Jewish friend at work that we (Muslims) do a better job of practicing Judaism than you (Jews). This is indeed ironic given the number of anti-Jewish reports in the various hadith collections. Have you done any research in this area and if so, what is your view of Ashura? Is it possible that the Prophet mandated this fast for Ashura as claimed in numerous ahadith, or is it a tradition that early Jewish converts to Islam were averse to abandoning, and thus incorporated it into the religion (similar to the Christmas tree and December 25th for Christianity), and then the statement attributed to the Prophet to sanction the fast for Ashura?

A. As you pointed out, it seems clear that the Prophet did not see himself as coming to create a new religion, but to rather continue the monotheistic message of the antecedent paths, albeit adapted for the Arabs. Therefore the early Muslims did not see it necessary to negate many Jewish practices, and indeed built upon such, based upon one of the acknowledge sources of the Shari’ah, "Shari'at man qablana" -- the Shari’ah of those before us, i.e., the Jews. The nature of the fast in Judaism, and the honor accorded to the Children of Israel were all factors in the Ashura fast. With the passing of time, however, and other events that occurred on this day, Muslims have added to the commemoration. As far as the hadith goes, where the Prophet supposedly claims that Muslims have more of a right to Moses, this can probably be seen as a triumphalist insertion, an example of what hadith scholars term "ziyadat al nass" -- an addition to the narrative.

It would seem that some early Muslims, after the death of the Prophet, took the search for ideal practice to an extent that incorporated the "shari’at man qablana" and therefore implemented laws that they perceived would make for a better society. In a typical medieval, androcentric environment, where there was an obsession with sexuality and what constituted sexual misconduct, the more rigid Jewish law of stoning for adulterers must have seemed more appropriate in comparison to the Qur’anic concept of lashes. The suggestion you make about early Jewish converts being averse to abandoning certain practices could certainly be the case, since every religion, Islam included, has accretions that are incorporated and become legitimized with the passage of time. But it is equally possible that the respect for anything that could be a provenance to Moses and the early Jews were admired by the Arabs, especially since the Prophet most mentioned in the Qur'an is Moses.

Posted October 30, 2015