How Shiite Islam reached Tanzania, and Ashoura processions became an annual tradition

Each year, the largest contemporary Muslim pilgrimage takes place in Iraq to remember Imam Hussein, the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson. Before the pandemic, this event reportedly drew more than 30 million people, but in recent years participation declined to more than 14 million. This procession from Najaf to Karbala, where Hussein is buried, commemorates the 40th day after his martyrdom, a typical length of mourning in Muslim traditions. In 2022, this falls on Sept. 17.

Following the death of the prophet in A.D. 632, a dispute developed over who would be his rightful successor. This became the source of the Sunni-Shiite divide. For Shiites, Hussein was their third Imam, a beloved spiritual and political leader.

After many years of war, the Umayyad dynasty, which lasted from 661 to 750, established its rule over the Middle East and North Africa. The inhabitants of Kufa, a garrison town in Iraq, were among those who defied the Umayyads and invited Hussein to lead them in revolt. But Hussein and his army were outnumbered and suffered a brutal defeat during the Battle of Karbala. Hussein was killed in 680 on the 10th day of the Islamic month of Muharram, a day known as Ashoura.

Scholars have long been fascinated by the variety of cultural performances evoking intense emotions that occur during Muharram. Since the 1979 Iranian revolution, Shiites have adapted the commemoration to connect Islamic history with the present and to highlight the need for social justice for Muslim populations today.

Public commemorations take place in other parts of the world as well. As a scholar of Shiite communities in Africa, I have studied the processions in northern Tanzania. These are usually scheduled according to the Islamic lunar calendar to fall on the ninth and 10th days of Muharram.

The history of Shiite Islam in East Africa

In Tanzania, Shiite Islam first arrived with the Khoja trading community, a caste from India that converted from Hinduism to Islam. Khojas began to settle in East Africa in the 19th century due to drought, famines and religious persecution in their homeland.