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Ashura: the Passion of Husayn

[ by Charles Cameron -- today's solemn commemorations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India in comparative religious perspective ]
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I was listening to Mozart‘s Requiem last night, and it is rich in grief shot through with glory. That’s the thing about mourning celebrations in which death is accompanied by the “sure and certain hope of the Resurrection into eternal life”.

One such observance is found in Shia Islam, and falls this year on the 25th of November — today. It is the day of Ashura, the 10th day of Muharram in the Islamic calendar, and its epicenter is at Karbala in Iraq. As the saying goes:

Every day is Ashura and every land is Karbala.

For the Shia, Ashura commemorates the martyrdom of Husayn, grandson of the Prophet, at the Battle of Karbala, when he refused to give allegiance to the Umayyad caliph Yazid. Husayn’s martyrdom is dramatized in Ta’zieh, passion plays, giving us a hint that the martyrdom of Husayn at Ashura figures in the devotional life of the Shia much as the passion and death of Christ figures within Christianity, both in passion plays such as that at Oberammergau and in Catholic rituals such as the Stations of the Cross. This may seem a far-fetched analogy to some of my readers, but both deaths are viewed as redemptive. As another saying has it:

A single tear shed for Husayn washes away a hundred sins.

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As you can see depicted in the lower panel above, Shiite mourning can include flagellation with chained blades, not something that sits easily with most westerners — yet as Roy Mottahedeh has said (quoted in SA Hayder, Reliving Karbala: Martyrdom in South Asian Memory):

Self-mutilation in emulation of the “passion” of heroes who are human yet divine is no stranger to the West: flagellants who whipped themselves both in penance and in remembrance of the scourging and crucifixion of Jesus appeared in almost every western European country in the Middle Ages…

The upper panel above depicts Husayn’s horse, riderless and bloody, and can perhaps give us some sense of the dark ceremonial beauty of the occasion for those whose grief transcends time and unites them in aspiration with Husayn himself — their flagellation attesting to their wish that they themselves could have stood beside him on that day so long ago, standing for truth against an army of injustice.

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Their grief may be trans-temporal, but the possibility of dying for their faith persists to this day, for Sunni militants of the jihadist sort view Ashura differently — primarily as a day of fasting first performed by Moses and continued by Muhammad — and detest the breakaway sect of the Shia as rafidun, heretics.

In Iraq, Ashura there has seen millions of pilgrims visiting Karbala this year, with comparatively little violence:

Millions of Shiites flooded the Iraqi shrine city of Karbala on Sunday for the peak of Ashura rituals, which have been largely spared the attacks that struck pilgrims in past years. A bomb wounded 10 pilgrims in Diyala province, north of Baghdad, but it was the first such attack since a car bomb against pilgrims killed three people on November 17.

Farther afield, what the Pakstani police describe as a “major terror plot to attack the Muharram processions in Karachi” was avoided this year when “large amounts of explosive material, two suicide jackets and grenades” were confiscated during a raid, with the Minister for Religious Affairs declaring that the Tehreek-e-Taliban were behind the plots. Elsewhere in Pakistan:

At least five persons were killed and over 70 others injured on Sunday when a Shia procession was targeted with a bomb at Dera Ismail Khan in Pakistan’s restive northwest, the second such attack in the city in as many days.

Meanwhile in Kabul:

For the past week, the Afghan capital has been draped with black cloth arches and festooned with huge colored banners. Mournful, pounding chants pour from loudspeakers across the city, filling the air with slow martial intensity.

The dramatic display is all part of Muharram and the 10-day Shiite festival that commemorates the slaying of Imam Hussein, a 7th-century holy figure and early champion of Islam. But it is also a symbol of the growing religious and political freedom that Afghanistan’s long-ostracized Shiites have had in the past decade.

That’s from a Washington Post piece yesterday titled Afghan’s Shiite minority fears a return to old ostracism — and the next two paragraphs bear out the title:

Now, as Western military forces prepare to leave the country by 2014, Afghan Shiites, most of whom are from the Hazara ethnic minority, fear that their window of opportunity may slam shut again, leaving larger rival ethnic groups as well as Taliban insurgents, who are radical Sunni Muslims, dominating power.

“Everything we have achieved, our ability to come out and participate in society, has been in the shade of the international community and forces,” said Mohammed Alizada, a Hazara Shiite who was elected to parliament in 2009. “We are very concerned that once they leave, the fundamentalists will reemerge, ethnic issues will return, and we will lose what we have gained.”

Tribal politics, sectarian issues, the impending departure of US forces, the Taliban, cross-border alliances — and the sheer power of devotion — all these are intricately intertwined in today’s Afghanistan and its future. We may do well to understand something of the meaning of this day of Ashura, in our own calendar, 25th November 2012.

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Annemarie Schimmel, the great Harvard scholar of Islamic mysticism, has a fine essay on the poetry of Ashura, encompassing both Sunni and (strongly Shia-influenced) Sufi traditions, Karbala and the Imam Husayn in Persian and Indo-Muslim literature. The mindset is very different from contemporary secular westernism, seeing death itself — and the grief that accompanies it — as a prelude to resurrection, and thus part of the timeless love-play of God with those who love him:

In having his beloved suffer, the divine Beloved seems to show his coquetry, trying and examining their faith and love, and thus even the most cruel manifestations of the battle in which the ‘youthful heroes’, as Shah Latif calls them, are enmeshed, are signs of divine love.

The earth trembles, shakes; the skies are in uproar;
This is not a war, this is the manifestation of Love.

The poet knows that affliction is a special gift for the friends of God, Those who are afflicted most are the prophets, then the saints, then the others in degrees’, and so he continues:

The Friend kills the darlings, the lovers are slain,
For the elect friends He prepares difficulties.
God, the Eternal, without need what He wants, He does.

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The spirit here is not too far from that of the Greek philosopher Plotinus, who wrote in his Enneads [III.ii.15]:

Men directing their weapons against each other- under doom of death yet neatly lined up to fight as in the pyrrhic sword-dances of their sport- this is enough to tell us that all human intentions are but play, that death is nothing terrible, that to die in a war or in a fight is but to taste a little beforehand what old age has in store, to go away earlier and come back the sooner.

together with that of the early Christian Father, Origen, who wrote [De Martyrio, 39]:

And let each of us remember how many times we have been in danger of an ordinary death, and then let us ask ourselves whether we have not been preserved for something better, for the baptism in blood which washes away our sins and allows us to take our place at the heavenly altar together with all the companions of our warfare.

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In India, indeed, the martyrdom of Husayn takes on an interfaith character in some places, as Hindus and Christians join Muslims in Ashura commemorations, as Naim Naqvi relates:

One can observe the richness and beauty of the diversity of Indian Culture at the occasion of Muharram. Since the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, Muharram ceremonies are observed all over the world including India. Hindus take part in them with great reverence and devotion. The tragedy of Karbala has become the harbinger for interfaith understanding in the Indian sub-continent. Participation of Hindus in the mourning rituals of Imam Hussain has been a feature of Hinduism for centuries in large parts of India. Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and even Christians observe Muharram. In the city of Varanasi which is the holiest city for Hindus many Hindu families participate in Muharram processions.

Describing the participation of one such Hindu family in Orissa, we read:

District police chief Lalit Das said Padhihary family has been doing this every year for the last 338 years, adding other local Hindu families also participate in the procession.

Muslims said it reflected the perfect harmony between the two communities in the area.

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3 Responses to “Ashura: the Passion of Husayn”

  1. Charles Cameron Says:

    Well, Pakistan didn’t do so well… Here’s Foreign Policy’s AfPak channel report from Jennifer Rowland today, under the header Series of sectarian attacks rock Pakistan:

    Deadliest days
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    A suicide bomber attacked a Shi’a Muslim religious procession around midnight on Wednesday in the Pakistani military hub of Rawalpindi, killing 23 people and injuring over 60 others (AP, BBC, CNN, NYT, Guardian). The Taliban later claimed responsibility for the attack, as well as two earlier bombs detonated outside a Shi’a mosque in the port city of Karachi, which killed one person and wounded at least 15 others.
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    Then, early on Saturday, a roadside bomb in the northwestern Pakistani town of Dera Ismail Khan ripped through another Shi’a Muslim religious procession early on Saturday, killing at least seven – including four children – and wounding at least 30 others (NYT, AP, Reuters, BBC, Guardian, CNN). Participants of the processions were observing Ashura, an annual ten-day mourning period during which Shi’a Muslims remember the killing of Imam Hussein in the 7th century. The Taliban quickly claimed responsibility for the attack, and promised that more would come (AJE).
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    On Sunday, a second blast shook Khyber Pakhtunknwa Province’s Dera Ismail Khan, when a bomb hidden in a bicycle repair shop killed five people and injured over 70 others (CNN,
    BBC, AP, Reuters, LAT). Pakistani authorities have deployed thousands of additional police officers, and suspended mobile phone services during the weekend in major cities across the country in an effort to reduce the likelihood of attacks on the Ashura processions (Reuters, BBC).

  2. Charles Cameron Says:

    More on Pakistan and Karbala, this time confirming the interfaith character of the commemoration in Lahore:

    For well over 1,332 years, the tragedy of Karbala moves everyone who hears about it, be they Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Sikh or any other religion. This is one incident that brings out the need to support those with a moral position.
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    As children we attended the ‘sham-i-ghareeban’ with our Shia friends, and learnt the lesson of supporting those in the right. Everyone respected the beliefs of others. Yes, there were always a few silly chaps who wanted attention, but they were at best ignored.
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    The ancient city of Lahore is connected to the tragedy in no uncertain terms.
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    Historical accounts say seven brave warriors from Lahore died while fighting in the Battle of Karbala. It is said their father Rahab Dutt, an old man who traded with Arabia in those days, had promised the Holy Prophet (Peace be upon him) to stand by his grandson in his fight to uphold the truth.
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    That pledge the brave Rajput Mohiyals of the Dutt clan from Lahore upheld.
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    Today they are known as Hussaini Brahmins, who lived in Lahore till 1947.
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    Then there is the fact that besides the Hindu Rajputs of Lahore, in the battle also fought John bin Huwai, a freed Christian slave of Abu Dharr al-Ghafari, whose `alleged` descendents, one researcher claims, still live inside the Walled City of Lahore.

    That’s from a piece titled ”Karbala and how Lahore was involved” in today’s Dawn, and you can read the rest here.

  3. Charles Cameron Says:

    And more from Baghdad:

    Back-to-back explosions tore through tents housing Shiite pilgrims in southern Iraq Thursday, the deadliest in a wave of bombings that killed at least 43 people nationwide, officials said.
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    The attacks in Hillah began with a roadside bombing near tents set up for Shiites commemorating the 17th century death of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Imam Hussein. That was quickly followed by a car bomb targeting emergency response teams.

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