TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Millions of Shiite Muslims in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and around the world on Friday commemorated Ashoura, a remembrance of the 7th-century martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Hussein, that gave birth to their faith.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban cut mobile phone services in key cities holding commemorations for fear of militants targeting Shiites, whom Sunni extremists consider heretics. Security forces in neighboring Pakistan as well stood on high alert as the commemorations there have seen attacks in the past.
Not all Shiites, however, were to mark the day Friday. Both Iraq and Lebanon planned their remembrances for Saturday, which will see a major suburb of Beirut shut down and the faithful descend on the Iraqi city of Karbala, where Hussein is entombed in a gold-domed shrine.
Shiites represent over 10% of the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims and view Hussein as the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad. Hussein’s death in battle at the hands of Sunnis at Karbala, south of Baghdad, ingrained a deep rift in Islam and continues to this day to play a key role in shaping Shiite identity.
Over 1,340 years after Hussein’s martyrdom, Baghdad, Tehran, Islamabad and other major capitals in the Middle East were adorned with symbols of Shiite piety and repentance: red flags for Hussein’s blood, symbolic black funeral tents and black dress for mourning, processions of men and boys expressing fervor in the ritual of chest-beating and self-flagellation with chains.
In Iran, where its theocratic government views itself as the protector of Shiites worldwide, the story of Hussein’s martyrdom takes on political connotations amid its tensions with the West over its advancing nuclear program.
Iranian state television aired images of commemorations across the Islamic Republic, tying the event to criticizing the West, Israel and the U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in 2020. Anchor Wesam Bahrani on Iran’s state-run English-language broadcaster Press TV referred to America as the “biggest opponent of Islam” and criticized Muslim countries allied with the U.S.
Men wore black, rhythmically beating their chests in mourning or using flails to strike their backs. Some wore red headbands, as black and red banners bore Hussein’s name. Some sprayed water over the mourners in the intense heat.
The commemoration in Iran also comes as Tehran prepares for the one-year anniversary of the death of Mahsa Amini. Her death launched protests nationwide in Iran that reportedly saw more than 500 protesters killed and some 20,000 others detained. Authorities have begun stepping up their enforcement of mandatory hijab, or headscarf, laws for women in recent weeks.
In Pakistan, authorities stepped up security as an Interior Ministry alert warned “terrorists” could target Ashoura processions in major cities. The main Ashoura processions will be held in the eastern city of Lahore in the Punjab province, where thousands of police officers have been deployed. Processions also will be held in Karachi and elsewhere.
Associated Press writers Munir Ahmed in Islamabad and Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.