Reem recently wrote about the holiday Ashura, the day when many Sunni Muslims and Jews fast in recognition of Moses and the Israelites escaping from the bondage of the Egyptian Pharaoh. For many practicing Shi’a Muslims, Ashura is one of the most important days of the year. Most Shi’a view the sacrifices of Husayn and 71 others during the Battle of Karbala as a crucial turning point in Islam, saving the religion from the indulgence and tyrannical rule of Yazid.
Having taken a few courses related to Islam in college, I was vaguely familiar with Ashura, but was unaware of the significance it holds for many Muslims around the world. My first personal experience of Ashura was in 2007 during a trip to Pakistan, where I witnessed Ashura processions performed by local area Shi’a in a small village in the Northern Areas (Pakistani controlled Kashmir).
The ceremonies began mid-morning near my guest house in Karimabad, with people walking down a paved road by the hundreds (pictured above). Seemingly lost and out of place, I was warmly welcomed and escorted by members of the Karimabad Boy Scout unit who were assisting with the orderly flow of the crowd. As we slowly strolled down the mountain, men and boys beat their chests with their hands and passionately pronounced majlis chants in recognition of Husayn and others martyred during the Battle of Karbala.
The rhythmic hitting of the chest provided a uniformity to the movements and performance of the large crowd. But more importantly, the chest pounding signaled a purified heart and the remembrance of the truth and justice for which Husayn and his followers died. Even though the battle took place over 1200 years ago, Shi’a see the Ashura procession as an important reminder of what Islam stands for and how people should stand up for justice, even when death is assured.
The hour-long march concluded with a khutbah, or sermon, given in the local languages of Burushaski, Wakhi, and Shina, with an occasional sprinkle of Urdu–the national language–and Qur’anic passages recited in Arabic. The men and boys sat together on large mats spread about the clearing; women and girls listened from a small ridge just above the gathering. As the imam drew near the conclusion of his khutbah, he struggled to enunciate his words, choked up with the recollection of the slaughter of a six-month old child and dozens of others. Nearly every grown man sitting in the crowd had tears in his eyes. Other sobbed, and a few wailed from the grief they felt.
While this was my experience on Ashura in Pakistan’s Hunza Valley, it’s important to recognize that there are a number of differences in how the processions are carried out around the world. For example, while dozens of men took part in self-flagellation at the end of the commemoration, this act is considered haram, or forbidden by the Supreme Leadership of Iran, and rarely enacted in the majority of Western Shi’a communities. Many communities set up blood banks and solicit those in good health to donate their blood instead of shedding it on the streets as part of their commemoration.
Regardless of how Shi’a remember the day, the important principles underlying Ashura are universal. According to Mohd Yassin Bhat, a Kashmiri Shi’a journalist, “Karbala proves to be a clash involving Islamic truths versus falsehood, right versus wrong, belief versus disbelief, and the oppressed versus the oppressor.” Even Gandhi recognized the gravity of Karbala in a 1924 journal entry:
I wanted to know the best of the life of one who holds today an undisputed sway over the hearts of millions of mankind, … the utter self-effacement of Husayn, his fearlessness, his absolute trust in God and in his own mission to save Islam.
Given the current state of millions of Muslims standing up to their own tyrannical governments throughout the Middle East, this year’s Ashura proved to be more than a reminder of the past, but a remembrance that parallels present-day struggles of Shi’a and Sunnis alike.
What does Ashura mean to you? Have you ever taken part in the processions as a Muslim or non-Muslim, and if so, what was it like? How do you think the principles of Ashura apply to to the present?