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Observing Ashura in Chicago

From the earliest periods in Islamic history, Muslims have commemorated Ashura, which takes place during Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar. Many Muslims fast on this day, as the Prophet Muhammad encouraged believers to do so in commemoration of the Prophet Moses’s deliverance from the Egyptian pharaoh. This year, Ashura begins the evening of August 28 and ends the evening of August 29.

In the Shi’i (Shia) Muslim community, this holy day commemorates the martyrdom of Imam Husayn at the Battle of Karbala (680 CE) in modern-day Iraq. Imam Husayn is significant to both Sunni and Shi’i Muslims. The son of Ali and Fatimah, Muhammad’s youngest daughter, he is the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, Islam’s last prophet. Imam Husayn narrated many traditions from the Prophet Muhammad, is considered the third imam (leader) by Shi’i Muslims, and is admired for his piety, bravery, and ethics.

In nonpandemic times, members of Chicago’s Shi’i Muslim community marched through the Loop to mark Ashura. The origins of the Chicago procession date back to the 1980s. Participants wear black and thump their chests as signs of mourning for Imam Husayn. For our exhibition American Medina: Stories of Muslim Chicago, a film crew captured footage of the 2019 procession for use in the exhibition’s introductory video.

A team of eight teen historians, all local American Muslim youth, conducted seventeen oral history interviews for the Chicago Muslim Oral History Project, which was the basis of the exhibition. One of the teen historians participated in the 2019 procession by carrying a banner, which now hangs in the exhibition. Watch the video.

Procession images are stills from the American Medina introductory film, which was produced by Zero One Projects. Banner image by CHM staff.

Now on View

Our exhibition American Medina: Stories of Muslim Chicago draws from more than 100 interviews conducted with Muslim Chicagoans sharing their stories of faith, identity, and personal journeys. Dozens of objects from local individuals and organizations, such as garments, artwork, and photographs, as well as videos and interactive experiences expand on how and why Chicago is known as the American Medina. Learn more.


Chicago History Museum Sharing Chicago Stories