By Noorzehra Zaidi
September 6, 2019
Tens of millions of Shiite Muslims from around the
world will visit Iraq on Sept. 10 this year to see the shrines of Hussain,
grandson of Prophet Mohammed, and his brother Abbas on the day of “Ashura.”
This annual pilgrimage marks the 10th day of Muharram,
the first month of the Islamic New Year. As the Islamic calendar is a lunar
one, the day of Ashura changes from year to year.
Muslims visit the shrines to observe the martyrdom day
of Hussain, who was killed in the desert of Karbala in today’s Iraq in A.D.
680. Shiite Muslims believe that Hussain was their third imam – a line of 12
divinely appointed spiritual and political successors.
Muharram may be an ancient festival, but as my
research tracing the modern-day impact of Islamic pilgrimage shows, its meaning
has changed over the centuries. What was once a commemoration of martyrdom
today inspires much more, including social justice work around the globe.
Martyrdom of Hussain (A.S)
The story of Muharram dates back 13 centuries, to
events that followed the death of Prophet Mohammed.
After the prophet’s death in A.D. 632, a dispute
emerged over who would inherit the leadership of the Muslim community and the
title of caliph, or “deputy of God.” A majority of Muslims backed Abu Bakr, a
close companion of the prophet, to become the first caliph. A minority wanted
the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali. Those that supported his claim later
came to be called Shiite Muslims.
Even if Ali was not made the caliph, Shiite Muslims
would consider Ali their first imam – a leader divinely appointed by God. The
title of imam would be passed on to his sons and his descendants.
Political leadership largely remained out of the hands
of Shiite Imams. They would not be caliphs, but Shiites came to believe that
their imam was the true leader to be followed.
By the time Ali’s second son, Hussain came to be the
third imam, divisions between the caliph and the imam had further deepened.
In A.D. 680, during the holy month of Muharram, a
caliph of the Umayyad dynasty, Yazīd, ordered Hussain to pledge allegiance to
him and his caliphate – a dynasty that ruled the Islamic world from A.D. 661 to
Hussain refused because he believed Yazid’s rule to be
unjust and illegitimate.
His rejection resulted in a massive 10-day standoff at
Karbala, in modern-day Iraq, between Umayyad’s large army and Hussain’s small
band, which included his half-brother, wives, children, sisters and closest
The Umayyad army cut off food and water for Hussain
and his companions. And on the day of Ashura, Hussain was brutally killed.
Among the men, only Hussain’s sick son was spared. Women were unveiled – a
violation of their honour as the family members of the prophet – and paraded to
Damascus, the seat of Umayyad rule.
Passion Plays and Performances
This history is re-enacted throughout the world on the
day of Ashura.
In Iraq, millions of pilgrims fill the streets to
visit the shrines, chanting poems of lamentation, and witness a re-enactment of
violence in Karbala and the capture of the women and children.
From New York and London to Hyderabad and Melbourne,
thousands take part in Ashura processions carrying replicas of Hussein’s battle
standard and following a white horse. This symbolizes Hussein’s rider less
horse returning to the camp after his martyrdom.
Persian passion plays known as “Taziyah,” music
dramas of the many martyrs and tragedies of Karbala, are performed across Iran
and many other countries. Taziyah performances are meant to evoke deep
emotions of grief in the audience.
A Powerful Set of Themes
Numerous historians and anthropologists have explored
how communities across time and space have adapted the story of Karbala or the
rituals around Ashūrā.
In the 16th century, a vast majority of the population
across Persia, or today’s Iran, would be converted to Shiite Muslims. In this
region, the passion plays evolved into a popular form of religious and artistic
The character of Zainab, the Prophet Mohammed’s
granddaughter, has also come to play a central role in remembrance of the
Scholars have drawn attention to speeches in which
Zainab denounced the violence in Karbala and lauded Hussain’s “martyrdom.”
Today, Zainab is seen as a strong female model of
In the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the story of
Karbala became a rallying point for opponents of the shah, who were fighting
against the shah’s brutal and oppressive regime. They compared the Shah to the
caliph Yazīd and argued that ordinary Iranians had to stand up to an oppressor,
just like Hussain had.
Zainab’s resistance to oppression helped emphasize the
role of women in Islamic society.
Anthropologist Michael Fischer calls this the “Karbala
paradigm” – a story that captures a powerful set of themes, including people
standing up to the state and fighting for justice and morality.
Today the story of Karbala has become a powerful tool
of fight for social justice in Muslim communities.
“Who is Hussain?,” a social movement with chapters in
over 60 cities worldwide, carries out charitable activities and blood donations
in the name of Hussain. Volunteers are encouraged to organize around events
that will be meaningful in their communities and will tie into social justice
issues that Hussain is believed to have fought for.
In 2018, local volunteers donated tens of thousands of
bottles of water in Flint, Michigan in remembrance of Hussain and his
companions, who were denied water for three days before they were killed.
As historian Yitzhak Nakash points out, the tragedy of
Karbala gives Shiite Muslims a common narrative to pass on to the next
generations. And commemorating it in multiple ways is an part of their unique
Original Headline: What is Ashura? How this Shiite
Muslim holiday inspires millions
Source: The Conversation