Shia Muslims are gathering at shrines and mosques to mark a 10-day event that will culminate on Wednesday (12 October) with the day of Ashura, which commemorates the death of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson Imam Hussein at the battle of Karbala, now in southern Iraq, in AD 680.

Many devotees beat their heads and chests with chains and knives, and gash their heads with swords to show their grief and echo the suffering of Imam Hussein.

The mourning period of Muharram comes at a particularly turbulent time in the Middle East, which has seen an increase in sectarian violence alongside the spread of the Islamic State and other extremist Sunni groups, who believe Shia Muslims are apostates deserving death. Shia Muslims, who make up nearly 15 per cent of the Islamic world, mourn for a month as part of the festival.