Philosophy of Muharram Commemorations

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Muharram, contrary to the popular perception, is not merely a poignant chapter in history, orbiting around a grief-centric ritual. It is a profoundly illuminating philosophy that defines the relationship between truth and falsehood, between righteousness and impiousness, between dignity and ignominy. Imam Husain’s (AS) uprising on the desert plains of Karbala 1400 years ago was not a struggle for paltry political gains or one-upmanship. It was the beginning of a movement for Islamic awakening and social reformation. The movement about the eternal struggle of right versus might, just versus unjust, truth versus falsehood. The movement, which has gripped the hearts and minds of people throughout history, continues even today – in Kashmir, in Palestine, in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen, in Bahrain, in Afghanistan. Understanding the essence of Imam’s uprising is therefore essential to understand the philosophy of Karbala and the significance of these annual commemorations.

Muharram and Karbala are in a way symbolic; their appeal cutting across the frontiers of time and space. As Imam Jafar Sadiq (AS) famously said, ‘Kullu yaumin Ashura, kullu arzin Karbala’ (every day is Ashura and every place is Karbala). Despots, crooks and scoundrels have existed in every age and every time. They have tried to disrupt social order, ban peaceful religious practices, create civil disturbance and target innocents on flimsy grounds. They exist even today, in various forms and manifestations, across the world. Karbala teaches us the importance of defiance and resistance against these forces. When Yazid asked his governor Walid to Husain (AS) to forcibly demand an oath of allegiance from him, Husain (AS) refused. “A person like me cannot pledge allegiance to a person like you.” Despite all overt and covert pressure tactics, the beloved grandson of the Holy Prophet (pbuh) refused to yield, thus obliging the command of his Creator, who says in Surah Munafiqun that “the might belongs only to Allah and to His Apostle and to the believers”.

The epic battle of Karbala, contrary to what you hear from some over-zealous ecclesiastics, was not decided in the battlefield. It was decided in the hearts of those who draw inspiration from Karbala and single-mindedly resist the forces that terrorize, intimidate, humiliate and kill. These forces have existed since the time of Prophet Adam, as noted by the celebrated Iranian scholar Dr. Ali Shariati. “Our history, starting from Habil and Qabil, is the manifestation of the eternal conflict between the two poles of God and Satan, though in each period of time these two poles have disguised differently.” And the evil forces have always faced disgraceful defeat, as emphasized in the Holy Quran. “And Allah will by no means give the unbelievers a way against the believers.” (Surah Nisa)

In the month of Muharram, Muslims around the world collectively remember the martyrs of Karbala and reaffirm their pledge to carry forward the mission of Husain (AS). Muharram commemorations were first held by Imam Husain’s sister Sayyeda Zainab (SA) and his son Imam Zainul Abideen (AS). Zainab (SA) – who came to be known as Fasihah (skilfully fluent) and Balighah (intensely eloquent) – played a significant role in the aftermath of Karbala. Dr. Ali Shariati pays her a beautiful tribute. “She accomplished her mission thoroughly, perfectly and fairly. She expressed with words the truth that Hussein expressed with blood… It was Zainab (SA) who stood against and confronted the ruling oppressive power and overcame all resistance.” Even 1400 years on, these annual commemorations have not lost their significance or relevance, but have become more popular and powerful.

Massive processions are taken out across the world in this month to send out a clear and strong message that injustice vanishes and truth shines bright. The soul-stirring elegies and hymns recited in Muharram gatherings remind us of the cruelty of Yazid and patience of Husain (AS). They speak of the unyielding stand taken by Husain (AS) and give a sense of hope and purpose to those who believe in the righteousness of their cause. They describe the events that unfolded after Ashura and how Zainab (SA), the ‘savior of Karbala’, led the caravan comprising women and children from Iraq to Syria and bravely confronted Yazid in his Damascus court.

These commemorations help us reorganize our life around the principles exemplified by Husain (AS) and his followers in Karbala. That is precisely why these processions, which are completely peaceful in nature, remain banned in main Srinagar city where injustice and oppression is a standard operating procedure for rulers and their lackeys. This year, amidst the simmering unrest, government authorities have imposed ban on Muharram processions even outside Srinagar, while facilitating Amarnath Yatra.

These commemorations help us reorganize our life around the principles exemplified by Husain (AS) and his followers in Karbala. That is precisely why these processions, which are completely peaceful in nature, remain banned in main Srinagar city where injustice and oppression is a standard operating procedure for rulers and their lackeys. This year, amidst the simmering unrest, government authorities have imposed ban on Muharram processions even outside Srinagar, while facilitating Amarnath Yatra.

Every revolution, Dr. Ali Shariati says, has two visages: blood and the message. Husain (AS) and his companions undertook the mission of blood. The second and equally important mission is to carry the message of this blood to future generations. We, the campaigners of truth and justice, have been entrusted with the task that was first carried out by Zainab (SA) after the battle of Karbala.

The 20 million people who marched by foot from Najaf to Karbala on Arbaeen (the fortieth day after Ashura) last year, beating the heat and ISIS threats, bore testimony to the fact that the mission of Zainab (SA) is alive. The exemplary sacrifices rendered by Husain and his companions will never be forgotten. As long as there is injustice, oppression and corruption in the world, Karbala will remain relevant.

Back home in Kashmir, death, as Agha Shahid Ali writes, has turned every day into some family’s Karbala. People continue to be killed, maimed, terrorized and humiliated but they refuse to be cowed down. That is how Husainis deal with Yazidis and we know who prevails in the end.

 

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