It is traditional for Shiite Muslims to wear mourning black around Ashura, a memorial day commemorating the death of one of their sect’s most important icons. But while some grieve and work on their piety, others in Karbala are doing big business trading in black clothing and black fabrics. And interestingly enough, so are Chinese manufacturers.
Wearing black during the holy Islamic month of Muharam is a sign of respect, local woman Ghufran, explains. She’s standing on a shopping street in Karbala, looking for more black clothing today. And it’s a tradition she inherited from her mother and one that she will pass on to her own five children, she adds.
“Every year my children wear black clothes at the beginning of Muharam,” the 43-year-old explains. “They only change back into other colours after Ashura.”
Ashura is an important religious festival for both Sunni and Shiite Muslims but for Shiite Muslims it is particularly important because it involves one of the most significant figures in their creed, the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson, the Imam al-Hussein. Ashura is more of a memorial than a celebration, and it involves a tradition of symbolic mourning for his death. Locals in Karbala, with its Shiite-Muslim dominated population and its series of important Shiite sites and seminaries, are particularly observant of Ashura.
During Ashura there are many rituals performed such as self flagellation in mourning – some of the best known images from Ashura are still those of devout men cutting and whipping themselves until they bleed – giving away food, placing red and black flags and cloth around the house, fasting and wearing black.