The Commemoration of the Day of Ashura

The first part of the month of Muharram is a time of mourning for Bektashis in Turkey, though it is not commemorated by beating of the breast or shedding blood, as it is among some Shi‘ites. Rather, it is a time for quiet reflection on the martyrdom of Husayn and the tragic event at Karbala.

Bektashis commemorate Husayn’s martyrdom in principle by fasting the first twelve days of Muharram, though this number can in fact vary from ten to twelve, depending on the day of the week on which the first day of Muharram falls – in order to avoid two Fridays falling within the period, since Husayn’s martyrdom occurred on a Friday. The fast involves completely refraining from certain foods and drinks during this period – primarily water (since Husayn and his party were left in the desert without access to water) and meat. Some other foods which leave a heavy scent – like onions – are also not eaten. The reason for this is that in the past Bektashis would also not bathe during the fast. The ban on bathing is generally not observed in the present day, since modern conditions require Bektashis to operate in the world among those who are not fasting. Likewise with the traditional ban on shaving and cutting the hair. Entertainment during the fast is also discouraged, as is drinking alcohol. Bektashis are encouraged to reflect on the martyrdom of Husayn during this period, and to read a chapter a day of Fuzuli’s Hadiqatu’s-Su‘ada, which recounts the tragedy of Karbala. When two Bektashis meet during this period, their greeting consists of one saying “Ya Imam!” and the other responding “Ya Husayn!”

The Bektashi ritual ceremony known as meydan is not held during this period, but there are special rites that mark the tragedy and commemorate Husayn, the Twelve Imams, and Fatima. The fast is begun in a ceremony in which special lamentations, called mersiye, are sung, while soil from Karbala is mixed into a container of water, which is drunk at the end of the ceremony by all present. On the fifth day of the fast, a gathering takes place in which the same ceremony is performed, but with rice
pilav served instead of the water. On the seventh day the ceremony is again performed with the distribution of a sweet called helva, made of semolina, which recalls the soil of Karbala. The mood during these ceremonies is somber, and many participants weep.

The fast is broken on the day of ‘ashura by drinking from the same water with soil from Karbala mixed in that was drunk at the beginning of the fast. A sweet soup, also called ‘ashura, is prepared, eaten by members of the Bektashi community, and distributed to guests, neighbors, the poor, etc. Once the fast is over, the mood immediately lightens, and the rest of the year is generally free of emotional mourning for Husayn, though he and his family and descendants are of course never forgotten.

While some Shi‘ites of Azeri origin who live in Turkey stage dramatic
ta‘ziya events to commemorate the martyrdom, you won’t see any blood or beating of the breast (or even passion plays) among Bektashis and Alevis. Their mourning is usually quiet and somber. It is likely, though, that in centuries past, Bektashis (or maybe proto-Bektashis) were more physical in their mourning. The 14th-15th-century Kaygusuz Abdal has a poem in which he describes what goes on at pilgrimages to his master Abdal Musa’s dergah – it includes a line saying that blood is shed during the month of mourning. Similar activities are also known to have taken place at the Seyyid Gazi complex near Eskisehir in the 16th century, but these were not Bektashis per se, but rather Abdals. It was during this time that the Ottoman state was becoming increasingly orthodox and Sunni (probably due to its recent assumption of the role of protector of the Islamic world, and to its conflicts with the Shi‘ite Safavids), and was cracking down on what it saw as heterodoxy. The Abdals were dispersed, and many were eventually absorbed into the Bektashi order, which was then developing as a centralized institution, and was apparently more acceptable to the Ottoman rulers and ‘ulama. As to the extent to which the physical mourning of Husayn continued beyond this period among Bektashis, more research needs to be done.

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