Why do the grown-ups cry during Muharram?

Do you cry on cue? Can you squeeze out the tears? What if you simply don’t feel like it?

Batool Zehra November 25, 2012
As children, we found ways to amuse ourselves in Muharram. On the majlis farsh we planted ourselves besides the most interesting of the dowagers and matriarchs listening somberly to the majlis. Most dressed in black shalwar kameezes, some wore black chiffon saris whose blouses had grown smaller in such subtle gradations (half an inch every Muharram) over the years that, though their flesh now spilled out of them, they could not perceive the difference in the fitting. From those blouses, their flesh cascaded in soft, maternal folds and it was its shaking and quivering when they wept during the majlis that was an endless source of entertainment to us, the little children of the house.

We would pick our quarries carefully: That one slaps her thighs while she bellows exaggeratedly. She weeps soundlessly but the whole corpulent mass of her, heaving, then still, then jiggling again, is wonderfully amusing. This one now is totally boring, simply bends her head and sniffles politely, the way we’re going to cry when we grow up and finally understand what it is that they’re all going on about.

Because, just as one has the certainty in childhood that they will one day be beautiful, that they will not grow up to be like the faintly ridiculous, plain awkward or simply ugly adults they make fun of, one is also assured that the emotions they feel will be the lucid, comprehensible ones.

So I was never going to be the woman who would have to gasp and choke for air in her weeping, nor the woman who loses control and cries and shrieks during the matam. I preferred the volume of the Majlis, not at a feverish pitch, but at a suitably roused level. I wanted the emotions stirred in the audience to be precisely explained by the narration in the majlis, a mathematical, one-on-one mapping of event and emotion.

My 30-year-old self would make a ripe target for my childhood self.

“Her shoulders shake,” I can imagine my 7-year-old self saying. “And just keep shaking. Also” and this would be the truly damning part of the indictment, the reason she would find me amusing and absurd “she cries even when they’re not on the sad part of the majlis.”

I would find it something of a challenge to explain to her why I’m crying, or what at. Because the calculus of grief is hard to grasp, not just for a 7-year-old with a penchant for tidiness and logic, but for people of all ages. Happiness, well-being, these states seem amenable to calculation and management. Grief is harder to contain and control.

And this question, Why do people cry at majlises? It is posed in various ways: Why give importance to this particular battle – Karbala – over others? Why mourn something that happened so terribly long ago? Sometimes, the very act of crying is found to be disturbing, disruptive, and the question then is, Why grieve, why cry at all? Other times, people want to figure out the mechanics of it, DO you cry on cue? Can you squeeze out the tears? What if you simply don’t feel like it? And how, how can you cry over the same things over and over, every  year?

There are many different answers to these questions. Most people recount patiently the events leading up to Karbala, then they try to impress their interrogator with the magnitude of the tragedy that took place, its uniqueness – the individual stories, the collective sacrifices, the body count, the cruelties. Those with a predilection for debate will launch into the complexities of political Islam. And there will of course be those who will emphasise how the incident provides us with guiding principles, distinctions between good and evil, and thus becomes an integral part of our lives.

Yes, we cry because of all of that, but apart from all these explanations, there is another explanation so simple and so bare that it is almost – but not quite – tautological: we cry because the majlis is a space for grief, a place for empathy and imagination unfettered by time and distance.

And the logical, mathematical mind might want the grief expressed to be proportionate to the event, commensurate with the story told, but the fact is that you cannot dole out expressions of sorrow in manageable, palatable, commercial chunks.

So we choke over tears, we gasp as the air becomes thinner, the world progressively less bearable, we sob with abandon. We cry for the Prophet (pbuh) and his family, but also, vitally, we cry for ourselves. We bring our own sorrows to the majlis, our private sufferings. We cry because we feel frail, because we feel no more than human. And every year, as our sorrows increase, and our blessings, we cry a little harder.

Read more by Batool here, or follow her on Twitter @batool1767 
Batool Zehra A sub-editor on the magazine of The Express Tribune.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


Syed Hasan Mustafa | 10 years ago | Reply @Divine-Wisdom Islamic teachings forbid u to cry for more than 3 days eh? have u ever read these so called Islamic teachings urself or are u just parroting what ur local mullah has said? crying is the sunnat of the Ambiyah (AS) which is why Hazrat Hajrah cried for Hazrat Ismail, Hazrat Yaqoob cried for Hazrat Yusuf, Hazrat Maryam cried for Hazrat Issa, Hazrat Mohammad cried for Hazrat Hamza and so on. matam is only an elevation of this grief. did u ever get a chance to see a program PTV used to air a couple of yrs ago called Kashmir File? it showed the families of youths who were taken from their homes and killed by the indian army or young women who had been raped and then killed in front of their family members. see how the surviving parents, siblings and family members would wail in grief and beat their faces and chests at their calamitous loss. we do the same but for the family of the Prophet who suffered even more at the hands of the rulers of the time. the only people who come up with these Islamic injunctions are the ones who cannot bear to see people mourn Imam Hussain or cry for the tragedies that befell not just him at the battle field of Karbala but the women (the daughters of the daughter of the Prophet) and children of his family who were taken captive by Yazid son of Mawiya and imprisoned for over 2 yrs in Damascus becos once people start investigating the history of the event, all fingers point towards a truth that shakes the very foundation of orthodox Islam. tell me this, if not for the fact that every Moharram us shias open our houses for all and sundry to come mourn Hussain and take out processions commemorating his martyrdom, would u all even remember what happened at Karbala? or would history continue to be distorted at the hands of the orthodoxy for the political salvation of a few like it has been since the death of the Prophet?
Qasim | 10 years ago | Reply @Another North Indian: No one is asking you to see things from 'our' eyes as you say. Maybe its your own lack of consideration for other people's views that's talking here. You're incredibly impressed by Marxist theories, Martin Luther King's speeches and Shakespeare's fiction that have got nothing to do with you or your society but are too prejudiced to even listen to icons related to the Muslim world just because you were discriminated against by a bunch of headless, mindless and heartless people who call themselves Muslims. I expected better from a North Indian given the quality of education and professional experience and my personal experiences with North Indians, sadly though prejudice knows no bounds.
Replying to X

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

For more information, please see our Comments FAQ