Muhammad, the founder of the Islamic faith, was in close contact with the affluent and influential Jewish tribes of Arabia (among whom were to be found the ancestors of today's Yemenite Jews) who probably accounted for the majority of the population of al-Madinah, the first Islamic community.
Much Jewish teaching was incorporated into Muhammad's message, and he in turn directed much of his preaching to the Jews, in hope that they would accept him as a true prophet. Almost all of the names used to designate the principal observances of Islam derive from Hebrew or Aramaic terms that were in common use among the Jews.
Islamic tradition bases this custom on a reference in the Koran (2:183-187) to keeping "the fast as it was prescribed for those before you". Muslim tradition explains that "those before you" were the Jews, and that Muhammad in this passage was commanding that his followers adopt the Jewish custom of fasting on the Day of Atonement.
The Arabic word Ashura is none other than the Hebrew word Asor, the tenth, the term used in the Bible (Leviticus 16:29, etc.) to designate the date of the holiday (the tenth day of the seventh month).
The origin of this precept is described in the Muslim "oral tradition" (Hadith) as collected by the noted 9th century authority, Al-Bukhari:
When the Prophet came to al-Madinah he found that the Jews observed the fast of Ashura. He enquired about this and was told that it was the day on which God had delivered the Children of Israel from the enemy and Moses used to keep a fast on it as an expression of gratitude to the Almighty. The Prophet thereupon remarked that "Moses has a greater claim upon me than upon you," and he fasted on that day and instructed his followers to do the same.The reference to the deliverance from "the enemy" is puzzling. In other versions of this tradition, the event it is explicitly identified as the drowning of Pharaoh's armies in the Red Sea. This does not seem to correspond with any Jewish traditions about the significance of Yom Kippur.
Some Islamic scholars were consequently moved to reject the traditional identification, and apply it to Passover. Such an identification was made more likely by the dual system used for enumerating the Jewish months, according to which the month that had originally been counted the first (Nisan) came later to be regarded as the seventh. The fact is, however, that the older Islamic traditions do appear accurate. For in a way that non-Jews often have difficulty appreciating, the Jewish mood on Yom Kippur has always been one of joy and good spirits, precisely because of the confidence that God has indeed forgiven our sins and we may joyfully begin life anew with a clean slate.
The Mishnah (end of Ta'anit) describes this atmosphere vividly: "Israel knew no days as joyous as...the Day of Atonement, in which the daughters of Jerusalem would go out in...white garments and dance in the vineyards..."
As to the question of the supposed victory over Moses' enemy on Yom Kippur, it seems clear that the original reference was not to Pharaoh or any mortal foe of the Jews, but rather to Satan (the Hebrew term literally translates as "the Antagonist"). This accords with the traditional Jewish identification of Yom Kippur as the day on which Moses finally concluded the 40 days of prayer and pleading with God to forgive the Israelites for the sin of worshipping the golden calf.
According to the Midrash, it was on Yom Kippur that God finally announced (against the counter-arguments proposed by Satan) that Moses was allowed to present the people with the second tablets of the Law. This story was well known to Muhammad, and alluded to elsewhere in the Koran.
Such changes have normally been attributed to Muhammad's frustration at the fact that the Jews did not ultimately come to accept him as a prophet. Thus, for instance, he originally ordered that his followers pray three times a day and in the direction of Jerusalem--like the Jews--but later altered it to five times, and towards Mecca.
In the case of the Ashura, however, the story is somewhat different. While Muhammad did indeed replace it with the fast of Ramadan, he did not altogether abolish the former custom, and pious Muslims, especially among the Shiites (for whom the date has other historical associations), are still encouraged to observe the tenth day of the month Muharram as a voluntary fast, "to atone for the sins of the coming years."
The last ten days of Ramadan (termed I'tikaf) have a special status, and have been traced by some scholars to the custom of some pious Jews of fasting throughout the "ten days of penitence" between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Medieval tradition recommends that pious Muslims also fast on Mondays and Thursdays, another custom that has venerable Jewish roots. Some scholars have even suggested that the idea of fasting for an entire month also has its root in the Jewish custom of observing the whole month of Elul as a penitential period. The association with the revelation of the Koran also parallels the Jewish identification of Yom Kippur with Moses' giving of the second set of tablets.
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Publication History: JS, Sept. 9 1988.