Ashura marks the tenth day of Muharram, the first month in the Hijri Islamic lunar calendar. It is a day of solemn religious import as well as joyous festivities in the Moroccan tradition.
Some argue that Ashura has become a commercial holiday, but its history and observance merit a look at its roots and meaning.
The first day of the month of Muharram marks the anniversary of Hijrah, the migration of Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina. The journey eventually led to the establishment of the first Muslim religious and political regime.
As such, Muslims consider it the second most sacred month in the Islamic calendar, after Ramadan. Muslims observe the tenth day of Muharram, called Ashura, throughout the world in different manners.
Shiite Muslims consider it a day of mourning, as it coincides with the martyrdom of Hussain Ibn Ali, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, in the Battle of Karbala. Sunni Muslims celebrate Ashura by fasting on the ninth and tenth days of Muharram, as part of a tradition shared by other Abrahamic religions.
In Morocco, fasting is not the only aspect of observance of this religious holiday. Moroccan traditions have bestowed upon it a local air that makes it an important occasion eagerly anticipated by many Moroccans, especially young children.
Each year, Moroccan children expect their parents and older relatives to shower them with sweets, dried fruits and nuts, and toys and games. While in the past these consisted mainly of handmade musical instruments, especially traditional types of drums, today all sorts of plastic toys, electronic games, and even more complex devices are in high demand during Ashura.
This makes Ashura an opportunity for commercial benefit, in the same way that several religious festivals across the world have become commercialized. Store owners and street vendors alike use the opportunity to sell toys, traditional Moroccan sweets, and other merchandise appealing to children, who constitute their principal clientele during this joyous occasion.
While some argue that these practices are stripping Ashura of its religious character, and replacing it with a more mundane aspect verging on blatant consumerism, the occasion remains a chance for both spiritual and material growth on an equal measure. For some people, fasting and prayer are the center of their activities during Ashura, to gain favor and closeness to God. For others, it is an opportunity to increase revenue.
Ashura, in all its religious, cultural, and even commercial manifestations, has a special place within the Moroccan culture. The unique flavor it acquired locally positions it among the most well-known, purely Moroccan festivities, despite its otherwise universal nature.