Muharram’s ties with justice
Muharram is long over but the memory of that month of the Islamic calendar continues to play on the mind. The mourning rituals witnessed in Lucknow during these months in remembrance of the martyrdom in the seventh century of Husain, grandson of Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, once again raised questions of rationality in this day and age.
The azadari or lamentation exhibited in public by large crowds dressed mostly in black and white, including groups of people who beat their chests in sorrow while others whip themselves with chains until they bleed, inspires both awe and visions of archaism.
There is the imposing silent procession of mourners called the chup tazia, a theatrical re-enactment of the Battle of Karbala where Husain was killed on Ashura, the 10th day of Muharram, by the powers of the time.
It is recalled that in 680, a group of civilians led by Husain began a journey in Muharram, the first month of the Muslim calendar. Husain started from Mecca in the Arabian Peninsula for the garrison town of Kufa in modern-day Iraq to meet supporters. Along with 72 companions, Husain was on his way to challenge the nomination of Yazid as the new leader of Muslims.
At the time the Muslim community, consolidated by Muhammad in the name of peace, unity, equality, universal brotherhood and social justice in Medina, had transformed just half a century after the death of the Prophet and in the new capital of Damascus into a glittering monarchy and a great military power. Husain felt that this was against the spirit of Islam. He spoke against the evil of monarchy. He felt it was his moral duty to stand up against the cruelty, corruption and tyranny of the day.
However, Husain’s caravan was stopped before he could reach Kufa on the painfully hot and dry plains of Karbala. The enemy encircled Husain and the waters of the Euphrates river were cut off from his camp. Women and children too were left to thirst and Husain was murdered, along with other members of the family of the Prophet, giving rise to Shiaism or Shiate Ali or friends of Ali.
To follow the path of Husain today means to be forever at war against injustice and tyranny. The rituals during Muharram keep alive ideas of hope and redemption. The occasion promotes notions of revolt against powerful tyrants.
Muharram forces the self to question if it is possible to remain silent in the face of injustice and decline in human nature. Over centuries, Shiaism has come to be interpreted as the Islam of protest.
Throughout this period of mourning, Majlis or gatherings of mourners are held regularly in Lucknow where literary and musical genres like marsiya, noha and soz are used to recall the tragic incident of Karbala and attract large crowds.
This incident from nearly 1,500 years ago is more than just a religious ritual, according to Reza Aslan, an Iranian-American professor at the University of California and author of No god but God. Muharram rituals are kept alive as a commitment of all believers to justice and goodness and are reinterpreted according to time and place so that historical characters and events merge freely with contemporary ones.
As far as the Shia are concerned, Husain’s death is not just an act of martyrdom but a turning point in the history of humanity. That is why Dr Ali Shariati, the Iranian revolutionary who died in 1977 at the age of 44, felt that in the face of injustice every place is Karbala and every day is Ashura.
Shariati, who studied the sociology of religion, said that to observe Muharram is to refuse to cower before cruelty. For him, the public display of mourning during Muharram is a spectacle of the struggle of all downtrodden and oppressed people especially in rural areas and represents a movement of the masses against the stubbornly insensitive powers of
This people’s movement is inspired by Ali – cousin, first companion and son-in-law of Muhammad. The memory of Ali, father of the martyred Husain, is a manifestation of justice, truth and generosity as practised by the family of the Prophet. Muharram follows the tradition of the Prophet and not traditions forced upon people by dynasties of the Ummayids, Abbasids, Ghaznavids, Seljuks, Mongols and Timurids. The followers of Ali have little regard for gangsters and ruffians from the Arab, Persian, Turk, Tartar and Mongol dynasties who imposed their leadership on the people to the exclusion of the family of the Prophet.
Shariati saw the Shia identity as one that repeatedly revolts against injustice and oppression.
That is what Muharram is all about and not just the public display of the pain of Persians unable to accept that their mighty empire was militarily defeated some thousand years ago by an army put together by nomadic Arabs who had at first seemed to be nobodies!