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Archive for November, 2012

Ashura: the Passion of Husayn

Sunday, November 25th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — today’s solemn commemorations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India in comparative religious perspective ]

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

DoubleQuoting Rubio and Obama

Friday, November 23rd, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — one fault-line in current American political tectonics runs through the age of the planet ]

I thought Daniel Engber‘s piece in Slate doublequoted Rubio and Obama very nicely the other day:

The top quote is from Sen. Rubio, the second from then-Sen. Obama, and indeed, they both hedge their bets, as Engber goes on to suggest:

1) Both senators refuse to give an honest answer to the question. Neither deigns to mention that the Earth is 4.54 billion years old.

2) They both go so far as to disqualify themselves from even pronouncing an opinion. I’m not a scientist, says Rubio. I don’t presume to know, says Obama.

3) That’s because they both agree that the question is a tough one, and subject to vigorous debate. I think there are multiple theories out there on how this universe was created, says Rubio. I think it’s a legitimate debate within the Christian community of which I’m a part, says Obama.

4) Finally they both profess confusion over whether the Bible should be taken literally. Maybe the “days” in Genesis were actual eras, says Rubio. They might not have been standard 24-hour days, says Obama.

In light of these concordances, to call Rubio a liar or a fool would be to call our nation’s president the same …


I don’t however think Engber is right in saying of Sen. Rubio — and by implication of Pres. Obama too:

By arguing that every viewpoint has a claim to truth — that the geologists and theologians are each entitled to their own opinions — the senator gave up on dealing with reality at all.

This runs deeper than the “age of the earth” question, it seems to me, and the two sides currently facing off on a whole slate of issues seem to articulate, respectively, these two questions

  • Doesn’t anyone recognize the truth of Revelation when they see it?
  • Doesn’t anyone recognize the truth of Science when they see it?
  • My own question — which I think has the capacity to reconcile the two — would be along the lines of:

  • Doesn’t anyone recognize the truth of Poetry when they see it?
  • **

    An afterthought:

    Current American political tectonics: an issue of homeland security?

    New Article at Pragati: Beyond the Affair

    Friday, November 23rd, 2012

    I have a short piece up at Pragati – The Indian National Interest that attempts to put the latest scandal in context for their audience:

    Beyond the affair: Why the Petraeus Affair really matters 

    ….It was not to be. Instead of quieting down, the Petraeus scandal blossomed like a fireball, engulfing General John Allen, USMC, the commander of NATO and US troops in Afghanistan, subsequently merging with the already rancorous dispute between the Obama administration and Congress over the investigation of the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. The administration, which had hoped the resignation would preclude Petraeus from testifying, saw Senators and Congressmen, angry that the FBI had failed to properly inform them, compel the former CIA director to come before closed door hearings of the intelligence committees. In secret testimony, Petraeus revealed, contrary to the administration’s position, that UN Ambassador Susan Rice’s controversial Benghazi talking points from the CIA had later been “edited”, leaving Republican senators furious and determined to block any nomination of Rice to replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.

    If the reaction to the Petraeus scandal, which did not appear to involve any official misconduct, were merely another symptom of the normal partisan political dysfunction in Washington, the matter would have already faded. Unfortunately, the timing of the scandal in the immediate aftermath of the presidential election and symbolic nature of General Petraeus himself, having been lionised for his leadership role in two still-controversial wars, has served as a catalyst, inflaming existing divisions and pointing to the potential of long term effects upon the conduct of American policy, unfolding for some time to come and likely for the worse.

    Here is a brief survey of the fault lines…. 

    Read the rest here.


    Thanksgiving and Kasab: pardon and penalty

    Thursday, November 22nd, 2012

    [ by Charles Cameron — i suppose this is about the state’s claim to a monopoly of violence, seen from both ends ]

    I don’t want to go too far with this one, and I’ll start with the turkey and pardon, because pardon and forgiveness and thanksgiving all fit together and might as well be celebrated at this season — but as you’ll see, pardon has its dark side, even if it takes an anthropologist named Magnus Fiskesjö and his pamphlet titled The Thanksgiving Turkey Pardon, the Death of Teddy’s Bear, and the Sovereign Exception of Guantánamo to point it out:

    But around the same time a turkey gets a reprieve in the US, a terrorist in India gets the death penalty.

    I think it’s important to remember the Mumbai atrocities of 2008,and of which Ajmal Kasab (depicted below, and recently deceased) was the sole surviving perpetrator — if for no other reason than because he’s considered a martyr by some, and will be avenged.

    But first, let me wish a Happy Thanksgiving! to all Zenpundit’s American readers, and good wishes to all others.


    The problem with martyrdom… is that it’s a force-multiplier. Okay when the force is purely spiritual, not so much when it runs to violence and terror…

    photo credit: Outlook India

    Retired Indian intelligence chief Bahukutumbi Raman, whose tweets I often follow to articles on his Raman’s strategic analysis blog, warned us all:

    Before the execution of Ajmal Kasab, the Pakistani terrorist of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET), who had participated in the 26/11 terrorist strikes in Mumbai, at Pune on the morning of November 21, 2012, our security agencies must have examined the likelihood of retaliation by jihadi terrorists in Pakistan and India and strengthened security precautions to prevent retaliatory attacks.

    The LET and the organisations associated with it would want a quick retaliation.

    And then he went into detail

    Sure enough, Reuters then tells us:

    Pakistan’s Taliban movement threatened on Thursday to attack Indian targets to avenge the country’s execution of Mohammad Ajmal Kasab, the lone survivor of the militant squad responsible for a rampage through Mumbai that killed 166 people in 2008. Kasab was hanged on Wednesday amid great secrecy, underscoring the political sensitivity of the November 26, 2008, massacre, which still casts a pall over relations between nuclear-armed rivals Pakistan and India.

    “We have decided to target Indians to avenge the killing of Ajmal Kasab,” said Taliban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan by telephone from an undisclosed location.


    In the course of the coronation liturgy for Queen Elizabeth II, the words justice and mercy crop up quite often — justly and justice 8 times, and merciful and mercy 28. It appears to be a sovereign’s right and obligation to administer both, and during the ceremonial they are brought together as a symbolic pair.

    The Sceptre with the Cross is given into her right hand, with the words:

    Receive the Royal Sceptre, the ensign of kingly power and justice

    while the Rod with the Dove is given into her left hand, with the words:

    Receive the Rod of equity and mercy.
    Be so merciful that you be not too remiss,
    so execute justice that you forget not mercy.
    Punish the wicked, protect and cherish the just,
    and lead your people in the way wherein they should go.

    Justice is only fair: it seems, however, that it should be tempered with mercy.


    Let me simply add that my own preference would be to have remitted the death penalty in Kasab’s case, and given him a life term in which to think about the lives he took. As for the turkey — happy stuffings!

    I remember too, today, my friend and mentor Wallace Black Elk, and his wife, Grace Spotted Eagle. It was Wallace who — at least once — said:

    They called us “Indians” when they came, so we have a nickname. But we are Earth people, we are original. When they come here, I welcome them with open arms, give them a turkey dinner, corn, and all the vegetables, all the greens.

    Because this is a land of abundance…

    Seal Team Six: asymmetries and symmetries

    Thursday, November 22nd, 2012

    [ by Charles Cameron — we just might want to understand the Quranic ROE — or at least its OBL and SK Malik versions ]


    I was watching Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden, the TV movie aka Code Name: Geronimo last night [okay, okay], and one phrase early on caught my attention and sent me, first to the OBL Letters from Abbottabad and Nelly Lahoud‘s commentary, and then to the always useful Brig. SK Malik‘s Quranic Concept of Power.


    Here then, from Prof: (Brig: Retd.) S.K. Malik’s The Quranic Concept of Power, published in an edition of 500 by Progressive Publishers, Lahore, in 1991, pp. 303-04, is a brief outline of the Rules of Engagement for jihad as presented in the Quran and Sunna, and understood by the late Pakistani Brigadier and professor in the Defence & Strategic Studies department of Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad:

    The Holy Quran also directs us to observe its ethics during the application of the military instrument. The divine ethics are gracious, liberal and generous. With regards to fighting in the Prohibited Months and in the Sacred Area, our Lord has prescribed for us a law based on quality and reciprocity, We are forbidden from fighting in this period and place for as long as the enemy also observes these limits. If the enemy transgresses these limits, we are permitted to transgress the limits to the extent he does. Even I such situations, our Mighty Lord has commanded us to prefer patience and restraint. Under no circumstances, however, can we transgress the clear and well-defined limits set forth for us by our Lord.

    According to the studies carried out by the Muslim jurists on the subject, we are prohibited from cruel and torturous ways of killing the enemy during war. The killing of women, minor, servants and slaves is also forbidden. We are also to spare the blind, the monks, the hermits, the old, the physically-deformed and the insane or mentally-deficient. For bidden for us also is the decapacitation of the prisoners; the mutilation of the men and the beasts; devastation and destruction of harvests; excesses and wickedness; and adultery or fornification with captive women. We are also forbidden to kill hostages and taking to massacre to vanquish the enemy. Muslim soldiers are not permitted to kill their parents in the enemy forces except in absolute self-defence. Prohibited similarly is the killing of peasants, traders, merchants, contractors and the like who accompany the enemy forces to the battle field but do not take part in actual fighting.

    The checks and controls imposed by the Holy Quran on the use of force have no parallel in the annals of human history In practice, there were very few occasions on which the Faithful transgressed these limits and they were duly reprimanded for it. It must, however, be understood that the exercise of restraint in the use of force in inter-state relations is essentially a two-way affair. It is not possible that one side goes on exercising restraint while the other goes on committing excesses. Nor doe the Holy Quran approve of such a restraint. In such situations, the very injunction of preserving peace demands the use of limited force. The Holy Quran commands us to use force for just such a purpose.


    I am sure Brig. Malik’s work [most accessible: his Qur’anic Concept of War] is only the tip of the iceberg here, and I’d certainly advise reading western analysts (eg Cook, Firestone, and Bonner) on the topic, too — but it would surely be helpful to know what ROE jihadists are in fact supposedly following.

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