Brief history of Azadari: From Karbala to Kashmir

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Syed Zafar Mehdi

It’s that time of year again when the campaigners of truth and justice, cutting across ethno-sectarian and ideological lines, rally to pay homage to the ‘master of the martyrs’, a 7th century revolutionary historical figure who redefined the ideas of resistance and resilience on the desert plains of Karbala (Iraq) 1400 years ago. The uprising and martyrdom of Imam Hussain (as), the beloved grandson of Prophet Mohammad (pbuh), in 61 hijri (680 AD) arguably has no parallel in the annals of history. To invoke poet Sir Mohammad Iqbal (ra), “he watered the dry garden of freedom with the surging wave of his blood, uprooted the despotism and awakened the slumbering Muslim nation”.

Hussain ibn Ali’s (as) uprising against Yazid ibn Muawiya was not a struggle for power or one-upmanship; it was a confrontation between truth and falsehood, just and unjust, blood and sword. In the battle of Karbala, blood triumphed over the sword. Hussain (as) and 71 companions fought against Yazid and his 30,000 strong army. Hussain (as) had made it clear that he will not pledge allegiance to a despot like Yazid. In Maqtal al-Hussain by Al-Khwarizmi Hanafi, it is mentioned that when Waleed ibn Uqbah, the governor of Medina, summoned Imam Hussain (as) to swear allegiance to Yazid, he refused. “A person like me cannot give the pledge of allegiance to a person like him,” Hussain (as) said.

Through these annual Muharram commemorations, the people of conscience reaffirm their pledge to the sacrosanct principles exemplified by Hussain (as) in Karbala. It strengthens their resolve to speak truth to power, like Hussain (as) did in Karbala and his sister Zainab bint Ali (sa) did in the aftermath of Karbala. Its message is timeless and resonates even today, with tremendous clarity, inspiring truth-seekers and the advocates of human rights across the world. In Ziyarat e Ashura, we beseech Allah to “provide us an opportunity to fight for justice…” That’s the legacy of Karbala.

The tradition of azadari, commemoration of the events related to Karbala, which is essentially a universal protest of oppressed against oppression, began soon after the tragedy of Karbala when the members of Holy Prophet’s (pbuh) household, including Sayyeda Zainab (sa), Sayyeda Umme Kulsoom (sa) and Imam Zainul Abideen (as), were released from Yazid’s prison in Damascus and sent back to Medina.

The first marsiya, a poetic elegy for the martyrs of Karbala, was composed and recited by Umme Kulsoom (sa), the sister of Hussain (as), in Medina.

What is the significance of azadari? In the words of Imam Jafar Sadiq (as), a great scholar of Islam, it is the means of keeping alive the movement started by Imam Hussain (as) in the desert plains of Karbala. The movement, which has gripped the hearts and minds of people for fourteen centuries, continues today in Kashmir, in Palestine, in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen, in Bahrain, in Afghanistan. Understanding the purpose of Hussain’s (as) uprising is essential to understand the philosophy of Karbala and the significance of these annual commemorations.

“Every revolution”, says Iranian sociologist Dr. Ali Shariati, “has two visages: blood and the message. Hussain (as) and his companions undertook the mission of blood. The second and equally important mission is to carry the message of this blood to future generations.” That is essentially the objective of Azadari and these annual Muharram commemorations.

The first marsiya, a poetic elegy for the martyrs of Karbala, was composed and recited by Umme Kulsoom (sa), the sister of Hussain (as), in Medina. Ummul Baneen (sa), the mother of Abbas ibn Ali (as), played a pivotal role in making the practice popular in Medina by writing some heart-rending marsiyas. Those marsiyas, according to historical accounts, jolted people out of slumber and laid bare the evil machinations of Umayyad rulers. These are the women of Karbala, who toppled a powerful empire with their spoken and written word.

When Yazid was informed by Marwan bin Hakam, his close aide, about these mourning gatherings in Medina, he feared public mutiny and ordered the re-arrest of Imam Zainul Abideen (as), the ailing son of Hussain (as) and the only surviving male member of the holy household. That forced the caravan to move back to Damascus. But, notwithstanding the hegemonic diktats of Yazid and his coterie, the insurrection caused by the martyrdom of Hussain (as) and his companions was kept alive through azadari in Medina, followed by other places.

The importance of the role played by Zainab bint Ali (sa), the sister of Hussain (as), in the aftermath of Karbala to keep the institution of azadari alive cannot be emphasized enough. The ‘messenger of Karbala’, a model of defiance against injustice and oppression, shook the foundation of Yazid’s empire with her soul-stirring marsiyas and sermons. When she confronted Yazid in his Damascus palace, there was a stunned silence. “I swear by Allah that I do not fear anyone but Him and do not complain to anyone but Him,” said the daughter of Ali ibn Abi Talib (as). “You may employ your deceit and shrewd tactics, but I swear by Allah that the shame and ignominy you have earned for yourself by the treatment meted out to us cannot be erased.” That is exactly what happened as the word spread and a mighty empire of Yazid was razed to ground.

In 352 hijri, the first Muharram procession was taken out in Baghdad by then Abbasid ruler Mu’tazz Daulah. Almost 11 years later, on the occasion of Arbaeen (the fortieth day after Ashura), a historic procession was taken out from Baghdad to Karbala. In 423 hijri, first zuljanah procession was taken out in Kufa by the members of Banu Assad clan. Many similar processions were later taken out in Baghdad, Iran and India. In India, Muharram processions were first taken out in Awadh (present day Lucknow), almost 200 years ago, under the patronship of the Nawabs of Awadh. Mirza Abul Qasim, a legendary marsiya nigaar of Kashmir, had travelled all the way to Awadh on the invitation of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. 

The importance of the role played by Zainab bint Ali (sa) in the aftermath of Karbala to keep the institution of azadari alive cannot be emphasized enough

In Hyderabad, during the reign of Nizams, both Muslims and non-Muslims would participate in these processions. From quiet ceremonies inside crammed hallways to huge street processions, azadari over a period of time became synonymous with the cry of oppressed and revolt against the oppressor.

Imam Zainul Abideen (as), as an eyewitness of Karbala, played a key role in establishing the institution of azadari and conveying the message of the martyrs. His descendants kept the tradition alive. They would invite prominent poets to write and recite elegiac poetry in the honor of the martyrs of Karbala. Once Imam Zainul Abideen (as) went to Mecca for the Hajj pilgrimage. Hasham bin Abdulmalik bin Marwan, the Khalifa (ruler) of that time, was also present there. Khalifa tried hard to touch Hajrul Aswad (black stone in the eastern corner of Kaabah) but was unable to make his way through the crowd. In the meantime, a young man walked in. When he approached Hajrul Aswad, the crowd immediately dispersed. The Khalifa, who was watching the spectacle, was taken aback. He knew the young man but when someone asked him, he feigned ignorance. Furuzduq came forward and recited a beautiful poem, eulogizing the Imam and his household. The poet was immediately arrested.

Imam Mohammad Baqir (as), during his time, gave further impetus to the practice of azadari. He was followed by Imam Jafar Sadiq (as), who invited the famous poet Jafar Affan to recite marsiyas. During this time, Umayyads and Abbasids were busy fighting for the crown, so Imam Jafar Sadiq (as) had ample time and freedom to enlighten people about the philosophy of Imam Hussain’s uprising in Karbala.

During the time of Imam Musa Kazim (as), some changes were introduced to marsiya nigaari. He asked the poets of that time to write in their respective languages as per their own linguistic and cultural traditions.

In Kashmir, the history of annual Muharram commemorations is remarkable. People have offered blood, sweat and tears to keep the tradition of azadari alive. According to many historians, azadari in Muharram was popularized in Kashmir by Mir Syed Ali Hamdani (ra), the great Sufi saint who came to Kashmir from Iran. A staunch lover of Holy Prophet (as) and his progeny, he is believed to have brought many tabarrukaat (symbols of heritage) from Karbala. Before his time, Kashmiri nauhas and marsiyas were heavily laden with Sanskrit words. The popularity of Persian nauhas in Kashmir is largely attributed to him.

According to historians, azadari in Muharram was popularized in Kashmir by Mir Syed Ali Hamdani (ra), the great Sufi saint who came to Kashmir from Iran

Barely 10 years after Shah e Hamdan (ra) passed away, Syed Mohammad Madni arrived in Kashmir and settled in Ahmedpora. His contribution was commendable, so was the role played by Syed Hussain Qommi, who came from Iran and settled in Zainageer Sopore. Then came the time of Mir Shamsuddin Araqi (ra), during which the practice of azadari became widespread in Kashmir. He came to Kashmir twice. The first time as a government-appointed envoy from Iran and second time to provide spiritual guidance to people. This was during the reign of Shahmiri dynasty when Qazi Chak was the Prime Minister. Until that time, people used to do azadari inside bungalows owned by Shia aristocrats. He built Khanqah in Zadibal where he started to hold azadari majalis (ceremonies) during the month of Muharram.

The first marsiya, a blend of Kashmiri and Sanskrit, was composed by Mir Syed Hassan during the Shahmiri dynasty rule in 822 hijri. It was the language of Sheikh ul Alam Nooruddin Noorani. During the Chak rule, Kashmiri marsiyas gained unprecedented prominence. However, during the Afghan rule, marsiya nigaars were forced to go underground. Mourning ceremonies were organized mostly at night time and marsiyas were composed and recited clandestinely. In 1180 hijri, Khwaja Hussain Mir broke a new ground in Kashmiri marsiya nigaari. He revived the art and divided a marsiya into five parts – hamud, dumbaal, gath, kreakh, nishast.

Hakim Mohammad Azeem of Habakadal later gave a new pattern to Kashmiri marsiyas, which includes barkhaast, godich gaah, dumbaali, kreakh, patim gaah, naram and nishast. After him came Mirza Abul Qasim toward the end of Sikh rule and before Dogra rule. He built an Imambarah and used to recite Kashmiri marsiyas there. After him came Munshi Mohammad Yusuf and Munshi Mustafa, both of whom collaborated to pen down many popular Kashmiri marsiyas.

Keeping the Karbala movement alive, though, has come at a cost. The lovers of Ahlulbayt (as) in Kashmir have been persecuted by rulers and their lackeys throughout history. They were attacked and looted almost 21 times and the shrine of Mir Shamsuddin Araqi (ra) was set ablaze at least nine times. That partly explains why mourning ceremonies were held mostly inside packed halls, at night, till the time of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. During his time, a zuljanah procession was taken in day time from Namchibal to Zadibal Imambarah, led by Mirza Mohammad Ali, and another procession from Alamgiri Bazar to Khushalsar. At his request, it was decided to take out a joint procession from Abi Guzar to Zadibal, in which both Shias and Sunnis participated.

The first marsiya, a blend of Kashmiri and Sanskrit, was composed by Mir Syed Hassan during the Shahmiri dynasty rule in 822 hijri

In 1989, the procession was banned and the ban remains in place. Government justifies the ban saying these processions pose ‘law and order problem’, although the processions are completely peaceful in nature. This year, like every year, mourners were brutally manhandled by police personnel after they took out a Muharram procession in Dalgate Srinagar. They termed the police action as blatant breach of their religious freedom.

The institution of azadari could not be obliterated by Yazid of that time and it cannot be obliterated by Yazids of today. The tyrant always seeks to hide his tyranny. The campaigners of truth and justice commemorate Karbala through azadari to keep the movement alive, so that people know who killed whom and why. When people know facts, they will hate the tyrant and his tyranny. That is precisely why sympathizers of these tyrants oppose the practice of azadari, to hide the oppression unleashed on the oppressed.

Author is a journalist who divides his time between Kashmir, Kabul and New Delhi. He tweets at @mehdizafar 
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Muharram begins with Ashura

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Syed Zafar Mehdi

Karbala does not end with Ashura. It begins with Ashura. Hussain ibn Ali’s (as) ordeal is over. The master of the martyrs has returned to his Lord, well pleased. He chose death with dignity than life with humiliation. He gave blood to revive human values, to uproot despotism, to pave the ground for Islamic awakening and social reformation. Zainab bint Ali’s (sa) ordeal has just begun. She will be paraded through the crowded markets of Kufa and Shaam, manacled and chained, along with other female members and children of the holy household. 

Zainab (sa) is no ordinary woman. She is the daughter of Ali ibn Abi Talib (as) and Fatima bint Mohammad (sa). She is Fasihah (skillfully fluent), Balighah (intensely eloquent) and Alimah Ghayr Mu’allamah (who has knowledge without being taught). Her mission is equally important, to reveal the truth, to unmask the tyrants, to be an eloquent tongue of her brother’s blood. Martyrs gave blood and now survivors have to convey the message of that blood to future generations. Zainab’s (sa) mandate is heavier than her brother’s mandate. If blood has no message, it remains unspoken in history.

As Dr. Ali Shariati reminds us, those who died committed a Hussainic act, those who remain must perform a Zainabic act, otherwise they are Yazids. Hussain (as) is the martyr of Karbala and Zainab (sa) is the messenger of Karbala, the savior of Karbala. We have to choose either blood or the message, to be martyr like Hussain (as) or messenger like Zainab (sa).

The caravan Hussain (as) led from Medina to Karbala was led by Zainab (sa) from Karbala to Shaam. When the caravan halted in Kufa, Zainab courageously confronted the people of Kufa who had betrayed Hussain (as). “O people of Kufa! Do you know whose heart you have burned, what blood you have shed, and what sanctity you have violated? You have done a monstrous deed, something for which the heavens are about to split asunder and so is the earth, and for which the mountains crumble. You have done something most defaced, duskiest, most horrible as much as the fill of the earth and of the sky.”

When the caravan reached Yazeed’s court in Damascus, Zainab (sa) stood up and spoke with the valor and eloquence of her father. Her speech shook the foundation of Yazid’s empire. “O Yazid! I swear by Allah that I do not fear anyone except Him and do not complain to anyone but Him. You may employ your deceit and trickery, but I swear by Allah the shame and disgrace you have earned by the treatment meted out to us cannot be eradicated”.

Zainab (sa) kept alive the movement of Karbala and inspired future generations to unmask Yazids and Ibn Ziyads of their time. Her courage, steadfastness and resilience gives sense of hope and optimism to those who believe in the righteousness of their cause. We are forever indebted to her.

السَّلاَمُ عَلَيْكِ يا ممُْتَحَنَةُ في تحَمُّلِ المَصائبِ كالحُسَينِ المَظلُومِ، وَرَحْمَةُ اللهِ وَبَرَكَاتُهُ

Philosophy and essence of Muharram commemorations

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Syed Zafar Mehdi 

The annual Muharram commemorations help the campaigners of truth and justice reorganize their life around the principles exemplified by Imam Hussain (as) and his followers in Karbala

Muharram, contrary to the popular perception, is not merely a poignant chapter in history, orbiting around a grief-centric ritual. It is a profoundly illuminating philosophy that defines the relationship between truth and falsehood, between righteousness and impiousness, between dignity and ignominy. Imam Husain’s (as) uprising on the desert plains of Karbala 1400 years ago was not a struggle for paltry political gains or one-upmanship. It was the beginning of a movement for Islamic awakening and social reformation. The movement about the eternal struggle of right versus might, just versus unjust, truth versus falsehood. The movement, which has gripped the hearts and minds of people throughout history, continues even today – in Kashmir, in Palestine, in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen, in Bahrain, in Afghanistan. Understanding the essence of Imam’s uprising is therefore essential to understand the philosophy of Karbala and the significance of these annual commemorations.

Muharram and Karbala are in a way symbolic; their appeal cutting across the frontiers of time and space. As Imam Khomeini (ra) famously said, ‘Kullu yaumin Ashura, kullu arzin Karbala’ (every day is Ashura and every place is Karbala). Despots, crooks and scoundrels have existed in every age and every time. They have tried to disrupt social order, ban peaceful religious practices, create civil disturbance and target innocents on flimsy grounds. They exist even today, in various forms and manifestations, across the world. Karbala teaches us the importance of defiance and resistance against these forces.

In Maqtal al-Hussain by Al-Khwarizmi Hanafi, it is mentioned that when Waleed ibn Uqbah, the governor of Medina, summoned Imam Hussain (as) to pay allegiance to Yazid, he flatly refused. “We are the household of the Holy Prophet, the core of His message, the place where angels descend to, and the place of mercy. Allah brought victory through us and will conclude by us, while Yazid is a corrupt man who consumes alcohol, kills the innocent, and openly disobeys God. A person like me cannot give the pledge of allegiance to a person like him,” Hussain (as) said.  Despite all overt and covert pressure tactics; the beloved grandson of the Holy Prophet (pbuh) refused to yield, thus obliging the command of his Creator, who says in Surah Munafiqun that “the might belongs only to Allah and to His Apostle and to the believers”.

As Imam Khomeini (ra) famously said, ‘Kullu yaumin Ashura, kullu arzin Karbala’ (every day is Ashura and every place is Karbala). Despots, crooks and scoundrels have existed in every age and every time

Hussain (as) did not seek confrontation or conflict. He was forced out of Madina and Mecca simply because he refused to recognize an alcoholic ruler as the ‘leader of the faithful’. He asked his noble companions like Burayr ibn Khudayr, Habib ibn Muzahir, Zuhair ibn Qain and Muslim ibn Awsaja to liberate people from their self-inflicted misery. He even addressed his opponents and reminded them of their religion and the position of their Prophet (pbuh). He then raised a call, an immortal call. “Is there anyone to come to our rescue? Is there any helper to help us?” It is a universal call that resonates even today. In Ziyarat e Imam Hussain (as), we say: “wish we were with you (O Hussain) so we would have won the greatest victory”. Kufans played deaf to Hussain’s (as) call, but will we also snub him? Are our hearts beating for Hussain (as)?

The epic battle of Karbala, contrary to what you hear from some over-zealous ecclesiastics, was not decided in the battlefield. It was decided in the hearts of those who draw inspiration from Karbala and single-mindedly resist the forces that terrorize, intimidate, humiliate and kill. These forces have existed since the time of Prophet Adam, as noted by the celebrated Iranian scholar Dr. Ali Shariati. “Our history, starting from Habil and Ghabil, is the manifestation of the eternal conflict between the two poles of God and Satan, though in each period of time these two poles have disguised differently.” And the evil forces have always faced disgraceful defeat, as emphasized in the Holy Quran. “And Allah will by no means give the unbelievers a way against the believers.” (Surah Nisa)

In the month of Muharram, Muslims around the world collectively remember the martyrs of Karbala and reaffirm their pledge to carry forward the mission of Husain (as). Muharram commemorations were first held by Imam Husain’s sister Sayyeda Zainab (sa) and his son Imam Zainul Abideen (as). Zainab (SA) – who came to be known as Fasihah (skillfully fluent) and Balighah (intensely eloquent) – played a significant role in the aftermath of Karbala. Dr. Ali Shariati pays her a beautiful tribute. “She accomplished her mission thoroughly, perfectly and fairly. She expressed with words the truth that Hussein expressed with blood… It was Zainab (sa) who stood against and confronted the ruling oppressive power and overcame all resistance.” Even 1400 years on, these annual commemorations have not lost their significance or relevance, but have become more popular and powerful.

The epic battle of Karbala, contrary to what you hear from some over-zealous ecclesiastics, was not decided in the battlefield. It was decided in the hearts of those who draw inspiration from Karbala

Massive processions are taken out across the world in this month to send out a clear and strong message that injustice vanishes and truth shines bright. The soul-stirring elegies and hymns recited in Muharram gatherings remind us of the cruelty of Yazid and patience of Husain (as). They speak of the unyielding stand taken by Husain (as) and give a sense of hope and purpose to those who believe in the righteousness of their cause. They describe the events that unfolded after Ashura and how Zainab (sa), the ‘savior of Karbala’, led the caravan comprising women and children from Iraq to Syria and bravely confronted Yazid in his Damascus court.

These commemorations help us reorganize our life around the principles exemplified by Husain (AS) and his followers in Karbala. That is precisely why these processions, which are completely peaceful in nature, remain banned in main Srinagar city where injustice and oppression is a standard operating procedure for rulers and their lackeys. This year, amidst the simmering unrest, government authorities imposed ban on Muharram processions even outside Srinagar, while facilitating Amarnath Yatra.

Every revolution, Dr. Ali Shariati says, has two visages: blood and the message. Husain (AS) and his companions undertook the mission of blood. The second and equally important mission is to carry the message of this blood to future generations. We, the campaigners of truth and justice, have been entrusted with the task that was first carried out by Zainab (sa) after the battle of Karbala.

The 20 million people who marched by foot from Najaf to Karbala on Arbaeen (the fortieth day after Ashura) last year, beating the heat and ISIS threats, bore testimony to the fact that the mission of Zainab (sa) is alive. This year, on Arbaeen, the number of pilgrims is likely to swell even further. The exemplary sacrifices rendered by Husain and his companions will never be forgotten. As long as there is injustice, oppression and corruption in the world, Karbala will remain relevant.

Back home in Kashmir, death, as poet Agha Shahid Ali writes, has turned every day into some family’s Karbala. People continue to be killed, maimed, terrorized and humiliated but they refuse to be cowed down. That is how Hussainis deal with Yazidis and we know who prevails in the end.

(First published in Greater Kashmir)

ISIS declares war on Hazara Shias of Afghanistan

 

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Syed Zafar Mehdi 

It was Thursday night (shab e jumah) and Haji Ramazan Hussainzadeh was busy making last-minute preparations for the ceremony to mark the death anniversary of Hazrat Ali (as), the cousin of Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) and the fourth caliph of Muslims. Masjid Al-Zahra, a popular mosque in Shia-dominated Dasht e Barchi area of Kabul which Haji Ramazan founded, was packed with worshippers – young and old, men and women. Inside the mosque, a local cleric was reciting heart-rending eulogies, invoking the martyrdom of Hazrat Ali (as), who was assassinated in Masjid e Kufa (in present-day Iraq) while offering morning prayers on the same day in 40 AH.

Amid the hectic activity outside, a suicide bomber and gunmen forced their way inside the mosque compound after opening fire at police guarding the mosque. One detonated his explosives and the other fired on the crowd, killing four and injuring at least a dozen. Haji Ramazan was among those killed while giving instructions to the kitchen staff.

ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack, which comes at a time of deep political turmoil following the devastating truck bomb explosion in Kabul on May 31, which resulted in unprecedented civilian casualties.

The dangerous spiral of sectarian bloodletting in Afghanistan has assumed alarming proportions since the advent of ISIS, also known by their Arabic acronym Daesh. Their hatred for Shias has a historical background, dating back to the assassination of Hazrat Ali (as). ISIS ideologues take inspiration from those fanatics who carried out the murderous assault on Hazrat Ali in Kufa mosque. They praise the murderers of his son Imam Hussain (as) and deem the homicide of his followers as legitimate.

Attack on Al-Zahra Mosque is not the first incident of its kind. On the eve of Muharram 10 last year, a gunman wearing army fatigue opened indiscriminate fire at Shia mourners inside Ziyarat e Sakhi shrine in Kabul, leaving more than 18 dead and 54 injured. Victims included four women and two children. ISIS immediately claimed responsibility for the gruesome attack. The following day, in a show of extraordinary defiance, thousands of people marched through the streets of Kabul, remembering the martyrs of Karbala and the martyrs of Kabul.

The dangerous spiral of sectarian bloodletting in Afghanistan has assumed alarming proportions since the advent of ISIS, also known by their Arabic acronym Daesh

While the Ashura procession was underway in Kabul, people in the northern Balkh province were mourning their dead. At least 15 Shia mourners were killed in an IED explosion the same day. ISIS again claimed responsibility for the deadly attack on “heretics”. The attacks raised very few eyebrows since the fanatical nihilism of terror against Hazara Shias in Afghanistan has become routine and shockingly predictable.

Exactly 40 days later, on the day of Arbaeen, the terrorists struck again in Kabul. At least 27 people were killed and hundreds wounded after a suicide bomber blew himself up at the Baqir ul Uloom mosque on Darul Aman Road, a few blocks away from the residence of President Ashraf Ghani and the parliament house. President Ghani in a statement condemned the attack as “barbaric” and the United Nations described it as an “atrocity”.

Hazara Shias are among the few races whose origin remains shrouded in mystery. There are multiple theories about their origin. Some anthropologists trace their ancestry to Turko Mongols, while some believe they were originally Buddhists who lived in Hazarajat, the territory inhabited by Hazara people in the central highlands of Afghanistan, since the period of Kushan Dynasty 2000 years ago, before the arrival of Islam. During the period of Kushan Dynasty, Hazara-populated Bamyan was the hub of Buddhists, which is mentioned in the book The Hazaras by Hassan Poladi. Hazaras are predominantly Shias, although a small percentage subscribe to Sunni and Ismaili schools of thought.

Afghanistan has a grim history of ethnic violence, especially when it comes to targeted killing of Hazara Shias. In the late 1900s, brutal Pashtun ruler Abdul Rahman Khan had ordered extermination of all Shias in central Afghanistan, which led to the gory massacre of thousands of Hazara Shias. Their properties were confiscated and they were forced to flee their homes. For almost a century, Hazara Shias were incarcerated and sold as slaves to wealthy merchants. Their women and children were sexually abused. Many of them were forced to observe taqiyya (seclusion) and register as Tajiks or Uzbeks.

The attacks last year and again this year have brought back chilling memories of 1990s when the Taliban would raid houses, identify and kill Hazara Shias, mostly in northern provinces. “Hazaras are not Muslims, you can kill them,” Moulvi Mohammed Hanif, a Taliban commander, once told a gathering of Pashtun tribal elders in northern Afghanistan. Muharram commemorations were completely banned in Afghanistan during the Taliban regime. While many Hazara Shias fled to Pakistan and Iran during 1990s, many stayed back to face the specter of unutterable horror. In one of the most barbaric episodes in recent history, thousands of Hazara Shias were systematically killed in northern Mazar e Sharif city in 1998, which author-analyst Ahmed Rashid describes as “genocidal in its ferocity”.

The attacks last year and again this year have brought back chilling memories of 1990s when the Taliban would raid houses, identify and kill Hazara Shias, mostly in northern provinces

After the Taliban regime was ousted in 2001, Hazara Shias – who account for up to 20 percent of Afghanistan’s 30 million population – emerged out of obscurity. However, they continue to walk the tightrope with the advent of many new armed groups in Afghanistan. Abductions, extortions and targeted killings by groups operating under the banner of ISIS have increased alarmingly over the past few years. In November 2015, seven Hazara Shias, including women and children, were abducted and killed mercilessly in the southern Zabul province. In June last year, 25 Hazara Shias were abducted by armed assailants in the northern Saripul province. Many such horrifying stories often go unreported.

For these Hazara Shias, terrorism and discrimination represents a dangerous cocktail. In July last year, thousands of them took out a march in Kabul to express their anger and resentment over government’s decision to move a power transmission line out of Bamiyan, the only Hazara-dominated province in Afghanistan. A deadly explosion ripped through the peaceful rally, killing at least 85 people and wounding 400 others. The attack was one of the deadliest in Kabul and deadlier than the bombing of Abul Fazl Mosque in Murad Khane in 2011, which left 70 dead. Following the carnage, thousands of Hazaras launched an online campaign under the hashtag #Justice4Hazaras to commemorate those killed in the attack and to demand justice, equality and equal representation for Hazaras.

ISIS has reportedly claimed that they attack Hazara Shias because of their involvement in the Syria war. “Unless they (the Hazara Shias) stop going to Syria and stop being slaves of Iran, we will definitely continue such attacks,” a top ISIS commander told Reuters last year. Hundreds of Hazara Shias from Afghanistan are fighting in Syria as part of the Liwa Fatemiyoon force. However, the more plausible reason behind the unrelenting attacks on Hazara Shias is the fact that their religious beliefs clash with the radical Islamism propounded by ISIS ideologues.

In February 2013, a group of activists and poets had written a letter to then UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, asking him to take necessary measures to ensure safety and security of Hazara Shias. “Even in their homeland, Afghanistan, Hazaras are not safe. Every year, they are attacked by Afghan Kuchis who are backed by the Taliban and the Afghan government. Hazara roads are blocked by the Taliban gunmen. Hazara cars are halted and passengers are killed,” read the letter. Maryam Jafri, writing in a UN Dispatch in April 2015, said Afghans need to embrace their national identity as a multi-ethnic society if they want to survive and thrive. “They need to stand up against sectarian and ethnic division. This is not only for the good of ethnic minorities like Hazaras, but for the whole of society,” she stated.

Rohullah Yakubi, a fellow at UK-based Human Security Center, believes there are two reasons for the horror unleashed by ISIS on the long-persecuted Hazara community in Afghanistan. “First, ISIS refers to the Shiites as the Rafidah (the rejecters) and views them as heretics worthy of death. Hence, Hazaras are legitimate targets. Second, ISIS seeks to ignite sectarian violence in the country,” he wrote last year, adding that the attacks have failed to push Hazaras towards sectarianism but have deepened the community’s alienation from the Afghan government.

After the latest attack, a Hazara Shia friend said he feels insecure and hopeless. “Even a place like mosque is not safe for us anymore, they don’t even respect the sanctity of God’s abode,” he said. That sums up the tragedy of Hazara Shias in Afghanistan.

(First published in Huffington Post)

Life and legacy of a revolutionary poet

 

 

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Syed Zafar Mehdi

Some goodbyes are never said easily. I vividly remember that somber rainy morning, exactly two years ago, when raindrops gently mixed with teardrops.  My uncle, who taught us how to fight against odds, had lost the biggest battle of his life. His tragic and untimely death left us all shattered but gave us a new resolve to carry forward his unfinished mission.

Of course, life is a fleeting shadow and death is inevitable. We all have to depart someday. So, I will not mourn his death. I will celebrate his life, his legacy.

Prof. Syed Mohammad Raza, ‘Raza Uncle’ or ‘Raza Sir’ for many of us, was an acclaimed scholar and poet of Kashmiri and Urdu. His contribution to Kashmiri literature, especially Kashmiri poetry, will be remembered for a very long time. He taught Urdu at Kashmir University for many years.

Prof. Raza’s love for Kashmiri language, history and culture was unmistakably reflected in his works. In our ‘noon-chai discussions’, he would often lament over the slow and painful demise of Kashmiri language. He wanted Kashmiri youth, including myself, to emulate the likes of Mahjoor, Rehman Rahi and Amin Kamil.

On September 3 last year, when the catastrophic floods had wreaked havoc in Kashmir, Prof. Raza left for his heavenly abode

He was perhaps the best-known expert on Ghalibyat in Kashmir. He was tremendously influenced by the works of Mirza Asadullah Ghalib. Once, while in Delhi for a conference, he literally dragged me to Ghalib’s grave in Nizamuddin.  Then, we spent hours in the adjacent Ghalib Academy, searching for rare manuscripts.

Apart from being a prolific writer, Prof. Raza was also a voracious reader. There was hardly any space to sit in his small living room at his ancestral home in Budgam. The collection of books ranged from biographies of renowned scholars and poets, contemporary world history, Islamic history, Kashmir politics and poetry books.

He would so passionately talk about Aristotle, Nietzsche, Marx, Locke, Avicenna, Confucius, Foucault, Iqbal, Ghalib, Maududi and Khomeini. There was never a dull moment with him around. His scholarly temperament was infectious and his intellectual pursuits were mighty. Literary people tend to be tad serious and somber but his sense of humor was razor sharp, which often had us in splits.

Prof. Raza was also perhaps the best-known marsiya nigaar (one who writes elegiac poems in the memory of the martyrs of Karbala) in Kashmir. He perfected the art of writing nauhas (elegies) in Kashmiri language. During the month of Muharram, he would appear on local television channels to recite nauhas and host special commemorative shows on Muharram. He was greatly influenced by the works of Mir Anees and Mirza Dabir, the two greatest exponents of marsiya nigari.

On September 3 last year, when the catastrophic floods had wreaked havoc in Kashmir, Prof. Raza left for his heavenly abode. Despite the floods and heavy rain, thousands of people participated in his funeral, which included many eminent literary personalities of Kashmir valley. Rain and tears were virtually indistinguishable as people slowly marched towards the graveyard.

I had flown from Kabul just a few days before his death. We had planned to visit many places and work together on many projects but it turned out to be our last meeting. I lost a friend, philosopher and guide. But, as Thomas Campbell said, to live in hearts we leave behind is not to die. He lives on.

 (First published in The Witness magazine)

 

Al-Quds Day: Rallying for the liberation of Palestine

Syed Zafar Mehdi

“And for those who after having been treated badly bring about justice themselves, against them no action can be taken. Action will only be taken against those who are unjust to people and who without reason become violent on earth. These are the ones who will receive painful punishment.” (Surah Ash Shura: 41-42)

For the campaigners of truth and justice, International Al-Quds Day (Yaumul Quds Al-Alami) has an extraordinary historical significance. Al-Quds is Arabic for Jerusalem. It is an affirmation of our solidarity with the oppressed and subjugated people of Palestine in their struggle for the liberation of Jerusalem, the third holiest sanctuary for Muslims. It is an expression of unwavering commitment to end the Tel Aviv regime’s horrendous atrocities in the occupied territories of Palestine.

Al-Quds Day was first observed in 1979 in Iran by Ayatollah Rohullah Khomeini, soon after the Islamic Revolution. Since then, the day is observed across the world every year on the last Friday (Jumatul Wida) of Ramadan to express solidarity with Palestinians and to protest the Zionist entity’s illegal occupation of Jerusalem. It also calls for the political unification of Muslims, cutting across the ideological divide, for the cause of justice and righteousness. Last year, Al-Quds Day demonstrations were held in 770 major cities in more than 80 countries across the world.

The holy month of Ramadan granted Muslims a historic victory in the Battle of Badr. It is the month in which the holy city of Mecca was conquered and cleared of idol worshippers (mushrikeen). It is the month in which all the Abrahamic scriptures, including the Holy Quran, were revealed. It is the spirit of this month that inspired our brave forefathers to struggle in the way of Allah and overcome insurmountable odds. So it is highly appropriate that the last Friday of this blessed month is dedicated to the struggle of Palestinians and all other oppressed people of the world.

The idea of Al-Quds Day solidarity rallies was conceived by Ayatollah Khomeini, who appealed to Muslims across the world to extend moral support to their brethren in Palestine. In August 1979, Khomeini declared the liberation of Jerusalem ‘a religious duty of all Muslims’. “I invite Muslims all over the globe to observe the last Friday of Ramadan as Al-Quds Day, and to pledge support and solidarity to the people of Palestine and their legitimate rights. I ask all the Muslims of the world and the Muslim governments to join hands and sever the hand of this usurper and its supporters,” he said.

It is highly appropriate that the last Friday of this blessed month is dedicated to the struggle of Palestinians and all other oppressed people of the world.

It is also a day to remember people in other occupied lands, who are abused and crushed by strong military powers. “The Al-Quds Day is a universal day. It is not an exclusive day for Quds (Jerusalem). It is a day for the oppressed and the supporters of oppressed to rise and stand up against the arrogant oppressors,” Khomeini said.

During the first Palestinian Intifada in January 1988, the Jerusalem Committee of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) declared that Al-Quds Day be observed publicly throughout the Arab world. Their official endorsement of Al-Quds Day was significant as some Arab countries who had strategic ties with Israel found themselves isolated.

Every year, on the Al-Quds Day, hundreds of people pour into the narrow streets of Gaza to protest the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The officials of Hamas, Islamic Jehad Movement (IJM), Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) and other resistance groups also take part in these public gatherings. Massive rallies are also taken out in Britain, Canada, Sweden, Russia, India, Pakistan, Kashmir, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, United States etc. Protestors wave Palestinian flag and raise slogans like ‘Death to Israel and America’, ‘Israel Your Days Are Numbered’, ‘Zionism Must Go’ and ‘From River to Sea Palestine Will Be Free’.

Every year, on the Al-Quds Day, hundreds of people pour into the narrow streets of Gaza to protest the Israeli occupation of Palestine

In Britain and US, many anti-Zionist Jews and Christians also attend these rallies and join the chorus for the liberation of Palestine. Rabbi Joseph Kohn, speaking at the Al-Quds Day rally in Houston last year, said the city of Quds was forcibly occupied by the Zionist state of Israel. “When the state of Israel was formed, Palestinians were totally ignored, as the Zionist slogan went ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’. They were displaced, oppressed, killed and robbed – unjustly and illegally – in order to make room for the creation of the modern state of Israel,” he said.

According to Ramazan Sharif, the head of the Quds Center at Iran’s Islamic Propagation Coordination Council, Al-Quds Day has a major influence on the issue of Palestine and prevents it from sliding into oblivion. Al-Quds rallies seek to raise awareness about the plight of Palestinians and the atrocities unleashed on them by the Zionist state.

Al-Quds Day will continue to be observed every year until there is a complete and unconditional withdrawal of Israelis from the occupied territories, including Jerusalem. The return of Palestinians who were forced to leave their land after the 1948 Nakba should be facilitated, and they must be compensated for the damage of land and property. There should be a complete ban on the construction of new settlements and immediate evacuation of all existing settlements. More than half a million Israelis occupy over 120 illegal settlements built since 1967. These settlements blatantly violate the Hague and Geneva Conventions, threaten Al-Aqsa Mosque and violate the sanctity of the sacred Islamic sites.

Hence, it is a sacred duty of all Muslims, and people of conscience, to raise their voice, individually and collectively, against the naked aggression, in Palestine and all other occupied lands across the globe, on Al-Quds Day.

(First published in Press TV website)

Why I feel at home in Afghanistan

At Home in Afghanistan

Syed Zafar Mehdi

Working in strife-torn Afghanistan is nothing short of a thrilling, awe-inspiring adventure. It’s like walking on the razor’s edge, groping in the dark, and dealing with myriad glorious and inglorious uncertainties of life.

For many khaarijee (read: foreign) journalists coming to this beleaguered country is tantamount to imperiling life and safety. For me, though, it felt like a homecoming. As Miguel Syjuco writes in ‘Ilustrado’, the ruckus of homecoming is brutally enjoyable.

In October 2013, when the biting chill of winter was beginning to set in, I touched down in Kabul. A small step, I must confess, felt like a giant leap. A fleet of U.S. army choppers quite ominously greeted me at the highly-fortified Kabul airport. It was not unsettling or astonishing. It was a feeling of déjà vu. Indian army choppers at the Srinagar airport is a familiar sight.

Before leaving for Kabul, I was repeatedly warned of dire consequences by some doomsayers and scaremongers. I refused to fret or fume. For someone who has grown up in the Kashmir of 1990s, there is no scope for fear. We have seen the worst.

While most foreign journalists feel out of place in Kabul for different reasons, I feel at home. Kabul and Kashmir are similar in many peculiar ways.

We, the people of Kashmir, have lived through decades of conflict. We have harrowing childhood memories. We have suffered long enough and sacrificed too much. And yet we have stood firm and resisted all the overt and covert attempts to break our resolve.

Nothing can more compellingly illustrate the unflinching spirit of people than their determination to resist. Afghanistan, like Kashmir, mostly conjures up the macabre images of death and destruction. The war-weary people of Afghanistan, like the people of Kashmir, have been suffering for more than three decades. Both are occupied by foreign forces and both want freedom from occupation.

While most foreign journalists feel out of place in Kabul for different reasons, I feel at home. Kabul and Kashmir are similar in many peculiar ways. Security situation never improves; spring weather is always unpredictable; municipality workers never show up; public transport is always crowded; loudspeakers go ballistic on Ramadan nights, and weddings are always big and fat.

Travelling to remote Taliban-infested provinces can be risky for foreigners but I have always managed to pass off as a local, which makes me, in the words of my Afghan friends, “both an insider and outsider”. The one thing that strikes you most is the extraordinary hospitality accorded by people in provinces. Despite living a life of penury, they know how to make guests feel special, even complete strangers.

Travelling to remote Taliban-infested provinces can be risky for foreigners but I have somehow always managed to pass off as a local

I vividly remember my first trip out of Kabul to eastern Kunar province in January last year, exactly eight years after the ‘Operation Red Wings’ in which three U.S. Navy SEALs were killed by Taliban insurgents and one managed to survive.

I went to a sleepy, forlorn village tucked inside the mountains of Kunarto to look for the family who helped the American soldier, the only survivor of that deadly military operation. After running helter-skelter for hours, wearing local dress to avoid unwanted attention, I finally managed to track the family. They opened the door and treated me like an honorable guest.

Gulab, head of the family, risked his own life to save the American soldier from Taliban because of an age-old tradition of hospitality and protection among Afghans. “That man had asked help from a Pashtun family so we had to protect him even if he was our enemy,” Gulab told me. His words were impactful and moving.

At his insistence, I spent the night in their modest one-storey home and was accorded wonderful hospitality. From a complete stranger, I suddenly became a part of their family.

Majestic hillocks of Kabul, shimmering lakes of Panjshir, hustle and bustle of Jalalabad, Blue Mosque of Mazar e Sharif, Buddhas of Bamyan, saffron fields of Herat, historic monuments of Balkh – there is much more to this country than war and violence

Afghanistan, like Kashmir, is also a breathtakingly beautiful country. Majestic hillocks of Kabul, shimmering lakes of Panjshir, hustle and bustle of Jalalabad, Blue Mosque of Mazar e Sharif, Buddhas of Bamyan, saffron fields of Herat, historic monuments of Balkh – there is much more to this country than war and violence. But, quite interestingly, Afghanshave huge admiration for the beauty of Kashmir, which is illustrated by a famous Pashtu proverb: ‘harcha ta khpalwatan Kashmir de’ (for everyone, their country is like Kashmir).

There is some inherent bond between Afghanistan and Kashmir, not simply because Afghans have ruled over us but because there are many things that unite us. A jolly taxi driver in Kabul once told me that he so desperately wants Kashmir to be part of Afghanistan “because both are torn by conflict and both are occupied by khwarijees”. He used the choicest of expletives for India and Pakistan, accusing them of proxy war in Afghanistan. And to my pleasant surprise, he knew Kashmir politics better than many of our commentators, and even offered to mediate ‘peace talks’ between various factions of Hurriyat.

The two action-packed years I have spent in this country have been truly enriching. Waking up every morning to write about suicide attacks, IED explosions, drone strikes, armed clashes and kidnappings is a daunting task. And most of the time, we happen to be in the line of fire ourselves, working under dangerous, life-threatening conditions. According to a local media watchdog body, 2014 was the deadliest year for journalists in Afghanistan.

In March last year, I lost a friend and guide, a courageous journalist who was killed along with his wife and two small children in a hotel attack, a day before Navroz, Afghan New Year. Following the tragic incident, journalists in Kabul announced the boycott of Taliban coverage. Less than a week later, a Swedish journalist was shot dead by unknown assailants just a few blocks from my home.

It is always heartening to see young children playing in dilapidated grounds but unfortunately even these playfields can be dangerous in Afghanistan

In such a stressful environment, it is important to not lose sanity. A game of cricket at Darul Aman ground, boating in Qargah Lake, horse-riding on Nadir Hill, mountain-climbing in Paghman and fishing at Sarobi helps in some ways.

It is always heartening to see young children playing in dilapidated grounds but unfortunately even these playfields can be dangerous in Afghanistan, as we saw in eastern Paktika province last November. More than 60 people were killed in a powerful suicide attack during a volleyball match. As expected, no group claimed responsibility for the attack.

Life is a perennial struggle in this country that continues to be a flammable tinderbox. It explodes anytime and consumes anyone. But, the spirit of life refuses to die. Long Live Afghanistan. Long Live Kashmir.

(First published in GK magazine Kashmir Ink)