Karbala is a call for empathy, a call to stand up against injustice
Today, conversations on religion, religious beliefs and notions even peripheral to religion are quickly associated with extremism, conservatism and terrorism. Therefore, I would like to begin with a definition of the word ‘religion’. Religion means ‘to bind’, to connect an individual to God – it is an institution with a purpose to transcend human beings and connect them to their creator, be it Allah (SWT), Ram, Jesus, Buddha or just Nature. However, religion remains incomplete without a line of tradition and rituals, which is an attempt to humanise the process of connecting with God.
Muharram is the first month of the Islamic calendar and it is accompanied by a show of religious fervour with its roots in the deserts of Iraq – Karbala. At the shrine of Imam Hussain (RA), pilgrims gather from around the world, often numbering over 10 million, to honour the martyrdom of Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) grandson and his family. This event dates back to 680 AD, but its impact on Muslim culture, politics, sociology, music, art and most importantly history remains unprecedented even today.
The religious fervour and commemoration of the martyrs of Karbala does not remain exclusive to the city of Karbala, but it manifests itself in cities, towns, villages and neighbourhoods around the world, in the form of processions, religious gatherings, drama, poetry, art and literature. All activities are directed towards remembering the event of Karbala and mourning the martyrdom of Imam Hussain (RA) and the atrocities faced by the family of the Prophet (PBUH) following the tragedy of Karbala at the hand of Yazid and his government.
In a theatrical show of emotions, Shias express their love for the Prophet’s (PBUH) family with plethora of cultural overtones and traditional rituals which do not necessarily represent Shia religious beliefs, but are cultural forms of expressing love. The rituals are often aimed at recreating the scenes of Karbala in order to allow the believers to empathise with the martyrs and their families in Karbala.
In Iran, dramas are staged, with characters from the event of Karbala along with drums and hypnotic chest beating and chanting of “Ya Hussain”. Some men dressed as knights with swords, mount on adorned horses to recreate the battle scenes of Karbala, while others wearing black shirts proceed in uniform manner flagellating their backs with two pound chains (zanjeer zani), and others beat their chest (sehna zani) and mourn in remembrance of Imam Hussain (RA).
Women and children accompany the procession in groups walking through the streets and creating a mental image of how the women of the Prophet’s (PBUH) family must have felt at the battle of Karbala, witnessing their loved ones go one after another. Special food is prepared and distributed at religious gatherings (majlis) or at the processions (juloos). Similar forms of mourning are adopted in Pakistan, however the performance of chest beating, flagellating and even the recitations (nohas) differ significantly due to Indian cultural influence.
Even within Pakistan, the manner of chest beating (matamdari) varies from region to region based on local norms. Many of the ritual practices are inspired from India, especially Lucknow since a large group of Shias migrated from Lucknow at the time of partition and settled in Karachi. Even in small towns like Thatta, one would witness multiple forms of matamdari, some standing in uniform files wearing black clothes beating their chest in regular intervals, while others wear green clothes and perform a dance-like ritual on drum beat in a choreographed manner.
Other ritual practices include setting up of water or milk stalls (sabeel) on streets in the name of those martyrs, women and children who were denied water for three days between Muharram 7th to 10th in Imam Hussain’s (RA) camp. This ritual is practiced especially in remembrance of Imam Hussain’s (RA) six-month-old son, Ali Asghar (RA), who was martyred in the scorching heat of the desert in extreme thirst when a heartless soldier named Hurmala struck an arrow through his dry throat. Imam Hussain (RA) held him in his arms requesting for some water for the child.
In Iraq, this ritual is practiced in a much more elaborate manner as resting houses, free food camps, water and milk stalls are set up by individuals along all the major routes to Karbala on which pilgrims often walk hundreds of miles in the scorching desert heat to honour Imam Hussain’s (RA) martyrdom. Many people from Pakistan and other countries also join the locals in this arduous journey and walk from Najaf or Baghdad to Karbala.
Standards (alam) with a black flag and a silver hand on top are hoisted during processions to remember the standard bearer of Imam Hussain’s (RA) army – Hazrat Abbas Alamdar (RA). He was one of the most valiant warriors in the whole of Arab world at the time and was often mistaken for his father, Ali ibn Abi Talib (RA), when he moved on the battlefield. However, he was greatly outnumbered in the battlefield at Karbala, when he went to fetch water for the kids in Imam Hussain’s (RA) camp. The hand on top of the alam is symbolic of the event, when he was carrying the water back to the camp and his arms were cut by the opposing forces before he met martyrdom.
The acts of remembrance and commemoration continue even after the Muharram 10th (Ashura), when Imam Hussain (RA) was martyred, until the Rabiul Awal 8th. The stories of the atrocities faced by Imam Hussain’s sister, Bibi Zainab (AS), his three-year-old daughter Bibi Sakina (AS), and his son Imam Zainul Abedeen (AS) after the battle are narrated in religious gatherings. Many Shias wear steel bangles which look like hand cuffs as a way to empathise with the period the family spent as prisoners. The Prophet’s (PBUH) family was not only dragged and dishonoured in front of the huge crowd in the bazaars of Damascus but also at Yazid’s Palace.
After the battle of Karbala, Imam Hussain’s (RA) camp was set ablaze and a long treacherous journey of patience, perseverance and honour began for the Prophet’s (PBUH) family members who were taken as prisoners. The heads of the martyrs were raised on spears and were used as a symbol of victory by the forces of Yazid. Bibi Zainab (AS) and other honourable ladies of Prophet’s (PBUH) family were chained and were left bereft of their chaadars, scaring the dignity of Islam’s most respected women. Bibi Sakina (AS), Imam Hussain’s (RA) daughter, met martyrdom in captivity and her shrine in Syria is one of the most emotional experiences for the lovers of Ahlulbayt.
Karbala was not about a single personality, it was not a war, it was not a political stunt and nor was it a struggle for power. It was a matter of justice and struggle to save the religion from falling into the hands of an incapable, indulgent, unjust ruler who lacked intellect, piety, character and empathy to lead the Muslim Ummah. Imam Hussain (RA) stood for his rights and to protect Islam, he taught us to always stand up for what is truly ours, he taught us to stand for justice, humanity and never remain silent in the face of tyranny and injustice. On the other hand, Yazid was a personification of worldliness, indulgence, injustice and abysmal hunger for worldly power.
Muharram is a call for empathy. It is a call for all of humanity to understand how important it is to raise your voice against tyranny and injustice. Imam Hussain (RA) left an undying legacy for all of humanity to come. In this world, there will always be those who reflect the characteristics of Yazid; for example, the terrorists who martyred the innocent APS students in Peshawar. But then for every Yazid there will be a Hussain (RA) – look at the students who returned to their schools to stand up for their right to be educated – they are all Hussain.
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