On the eve of Muharram, many get set to exchange “Happy New Islamic Year” messages. My family and many more like us prepare for 2 months and 8 days of mourning. That means no partying or music; avoiding loud colorful clothes and so on.
The difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is that we are Shia.
Shias form about one-tenth of the Muslim population and it is widely believed that we are a faction of Muslims that believe Hazrat Ali should have been the first Caliph of the Muslim Ummah.
I believe that to be very generalized and only part of the truth. I also believe that writing us off as JUST the followers of Ali is a very lazy approach to understanding who we are, what we do and why we do it.
Yes, we believe Ali should have been the first caliph, but we also resigned to the fact that he was not. We believe the first three should be given the utmost respect. Shia-ism is not about politics or the fight for power. It is so much more.
This article is not about Shia-ism; it is about Muharram. However, the two go hand in hand.
Muharram is the first month of the Islamic Calender and it is one of the four declared holy. The Ashura falls on the 10th of Muharram and has a special place in religious history from the time of Moses. According to Ah-hadith, Prophet Muhammad, when migrated to Madinah, found out that the Jews of Madinah used to fast on the tenth of Muharram. They said it was the day Moses and his followers crossed the Red Sea and the Pharaoh was drowned. On hearing this, the Holy Prophet said that we are more closely related to Moses and directed Muslims to fast on this day.
Shias commemorate the Ashura not just as the day Moses gained victory, but also as the day Hussain was martyred in Karbala.
Hussain was the grandson of Prophet Muhammad (P.B.U.H) and the son of Ali ibn Abi Talib. Not long after the death of the Prophet, the Muslim empire slid into turmoil and corruption as Yazid usurped power and began destroying the moral fibers of society. In order to gain credibility to his rule, Yazid wanted Hussain to take an oath of allegiance to him. Due to moral obligations towards his principles and honor, Hussain refused and chose to take a stand.
In order to avoid violence, he, along with his family and 72 companions began a journey towards modern-day Iraq. When the news of Hussain’s refusal and subsequent movement reached Yazid, he dispatched an army of 30,000 to halt Hussain and his supporters.
Hussain and his supporters were stopped in the desert land of Karbala where they had been denied access to water for three days. On the day of Ashura, the battle commenced at noon and one after the other Hussain’s supporters fought and died until eventually, Hussain had no one left.
Hussain, instead of giving in and taking the oath Yazid wanted so dearly, fought until he fell and was ruthlessly beheaded.
Even though Hussain was martyred in Karbala, he was victorious. His actions and the events of the battle of Karbala triggered a series of small uprisings that eventually led to Yazid’s demise.
Yazid’s army took the women and children from Hussain’s camp from Iraq to Syria where they were held captive. This brutal treatment of the members of the Holy Prophet’s family, and Hussain’s sister, Zainab, and his son, Zain-ul-abideen’s defiance in Yazid’s own courtyard through sermons unnerved even his closest allies.
Thereon, the day of Ashura is remembered by millions as the day Hussain chose to stand against corruption and tyranny and won the war even though he lost his own life.
Now, coming back to my family as we prepare to mourn for the next two months and eight days, you must be wondering why we are so bothered about something that happened in 680 A.D.
Let me ask you this. When was the last time you heard or read about Hussain? Maybe in Islamic Studies when you probably heard through your teacher or parent that Hassan and Hussain were great favorites of our Holy Prophet (P.B.U.H) you might also remember stories about when they were children.
Maybe when you grew up, the same teacher or parent brushed along the topic of Karbala but that was it. You probably didn’t know the history I re-told above. I am certain you don’t know about the atrocities committed by Yazid towards the direct descendants of the same Prophet whose Ummah he was so keen to rule.
We mourn for Hussain to ensure that our children do the same. So that the legacy of Hussain, all that he stood for, does not die.
Contrary to popular opinion, we don’t spend our time beating our chests, scratching our cheeks, crying our eyes out. The structure of our gatherings (called Majalis) is such that we spend a few minutes reciting poems about Hussain, followed by a detailed lecture on a given topic by a deemed scholar. After the lecture, the scholar recounts the history of the battle of Karbala to remind us to not bow our heads to tyranny but to fight oppression in whatever way we can.
Throughout history, Hussain and his legacy have been examples to Muslims to fight for what is right. Shias are regularly reminded to live like Ali (in doing what is right and just) and to die like Hussain (for what is right and just).
In today’s world, it shouldn’t be about who is Shia or Sunni, it should be about who stands for the right and oppressed and who sides with the powers that rule regardless of their cruelty and tyranny.
In today’s world, Hussain still stands as a symbol for fighting for justice. His legacy requires us to stand up for our principles no matter what the cost.
In today’s world, we need Hussain as an example a lot more then you would think.