Iran, India ink many deals, vow to strengthen ties

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Syed Zafar Mehdi

Reiterating their commitment to strengthen bilateral ties and take their ‘civilizational relationship’ to the next level, President Hassan Rouhani and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi held wide-ranging talks on cooperation in the areas of trade and investment, energy, connectivity, defence and security and regional issues in New Delhi on Saturday.

President Rouhani, who was on his first visit to India since assuming office in 2013, flew to New Delhi from southern Indian city of Hyderabad on Saturday morning. He was accompanied by a high-level 21-member delegation, including Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

Before the bilateral talks, President Rouhani was given a state reception at the Rashtrapati Bhavan (President’s house) where he also met President Ram Nath Kovind. He said the people of Iran and India have had “friendly relations with each other” since many centuries and this century belongs to Asia in which the two neighboring countries have a key role to play.

Following the bilateral talks, the two leaders issued a joint statement, outlining their vision for the future of India-Iran ties. Prime Minister Modi said the two countries want to enhance cooperation in various areas and deepen bilateral ties. He lauded President Rouhani’s vision of giving access for trade with landlocked Afghanistan through Chabahar Port and hoped the bond between the people of India and Iran will grow stronger with easier visa norms and educational ties.

Prime Minister Modi said the enhanced cooperation between India and Iran will hugely benefit their immediate neighbor – Afghanistan, and said the two countries share same vision for peace and prosperity in the region.

President Rouhani, in his brief talk, said the two countries have reached good understanding on the Chabahar Port and cooperation in the areas of energy, petroleum and gas will also improve significantly.

The two sides signed nine agreements, with strong focus on the strategically important Chabahar Port in southeastern Iran. The agreements signed include double taxation avoidance agreement, MoU on exemption of visa requirements for diplomatic passport holders, exchange of instrument of ratification of extradition treaty, lease contract for Shahid Beheshti Port – Phase 1 of Chabahar Port between PMO and IPGL, MoU on cooperation in the field of traditional systems of medicine, MoU on the establishment of an expert group on trade remedy measures to promote cooperation in areas of mutual interest, MoU on cooperation in the field of agriculture and allied sectors, MoU on cooperation in the field of health and medicine, MoU on postal cooperation.

On the sidelines of the visit, some other MoUs between trade bodies were also signed, most notably MoU between EEPC India and Trade Promotion Organisation of Iran, MoU between FICCI India and ICCIMA Iran, MoU between ASSOCHAM India and ICCIMA Iran, MoU between PHDCCI India and ICCIMA Iran.

President Rouhani had earlier expressed his country’s willingness to share its vast oil and natural gas resources with India and offered to simplify visa norms for hassle-free people-to-people ties. The two sides also agreed on ‘rupee-rial mechanism’ to evade banking problems caused by the draconian Western sanctions.

In a warm gesture, following the talks and signing of agreements, President Rouhani gifted an animated version of Kalila Wa Demna (Persian translation of Panchtantra) and a copy of the Mahabharat in Persian to Prime Minister Modi.

President Rouhani kicked off his three-day visit to India on Thursday from Hyderabad, a city designed on the pattern of Iran’s Isfahan by legendary Iranian architect Mir Momin Ashtarabadi. He visited the historic Qutub Shahi tombs, built in Persian architecture by Qutub Shahi dynasty rulers who had Iranian ancestry. He also visited Salar Jung Museum, Golconda Fort and held a series of interactions with students and religious scholars.

Addressing a gathering of Muslim leaders and scholars in Hyderabad, President Rouhani hailed India as a “living example of peaceful co-existence”, and called for Shia-Sunni unity while warning of plots and conspiracies being hatched in the West to divide Muslims. He said Iran wants cordial relations with all countries in the region, and reiterated his country’s commitment to strengthen ties with India.

On Friday, he joined worshippers at Hyderabad’s historic Makkah Masjid to offer joint Shia-Sunni congregational prayers. He also became the first head of a state to deliver address at the 17th century mosque. In his brief but beautiful speech, President Rouhani, who is also a distinguished scholar of Islam, emphasized the importance of upholding the banner of unity and bridging the growing chasm between Shias and Sunnis.

The enthusiastic audience, which included Andhra Pradesh Deputy Chief Minister Mohammed Mahmood Ali and highly influential Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi, latched on to every word he had to say about Muslim unity, peaceful co-existence, Western imperialism and Indo-Iran historic ties.

This is perhaps for the first time a foreign leader from a Muslim country has started his India visit from a historic mosque and made Muslim unity and brotherhood his main talking point. It is significant and timely considering the problems Muslims are facing in India and across the world with growing specter of Islamophobia and hate crimes. In such an environment, unity becomes indispensable.

Muslim unity is also crucial to counter the despicable project of sectarianism and takfirism that is being promoted by certain powers to sow seeds of discord among Muslims. Unlike leaders in the Arab world, Iranian leaders, especially Supreme Leader Sayed Ali Khamenie and President Hassan Rouhani, have been very vocal and powerful advocates of Muslim unity.

President Rouhani’s visit to India comes a month after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s first official trip to India and days after Modi’s whirlwind four-nation tour of West Asia and Gulf region. The growing proximity between New Delhi and Tel Aviv in recent years has raised many eyebrows in India and abroad. Regional observers believe Modi government is playing with fire by mollycoddling a ‘Frankenstein monster’, which can prove counterproductive to India’s global ambitions. Pertinently, Netanyahu was greeted with street protests across India, while President Rouhani was accorded warm reception in both Hyderabad and New Delhi.

Iran and India have shared age-old historical, commercial and cultural ties. Iran has been the main supplier of crude oil to India even at the peak of Western sanctions between 2012 and 2016. Although the volume of business was affected by the crippling sanctions, the partnership only became stronger. Since Modi’s visit to Iran in May 2016, when New Delhi and Tehran renewed many key business deals and signed a trilateral agreement on transit and transport between India, Iran and Afghanistan, the two countries have significantly enhanced their bilateral ties. The trade volume was estimated to be $12.89 billion dollar in 2017-2018, according to figures provided by India’s Foreign Ministry.

The export of crude oil has substantially increased in last one year, making Iran the third largest oil exporter for India. According to energy experts, India is slated to become world’s second-largest consumer of hydrocarbons in three decades so future appears bright for Indo-Iran energy partnership.

While the ambitious deal on India’s investment in Farzad B offshore gas field, with gas reserve of 21.7 tcf, has failed to make headway, all eyes are now on Chabahar Port in Sistan-Baluchistan province, which was inaugurated in December last year, shortly after the first consignment of wheat was sent from India to Afghanistan. India has committed to invest $500 million in the project, besides an additional $16 billion investment in Chabahar free trade zone. The port connects India with Afghanistan and opens a new strategic transit route to many Central Asian countries, bypassing Pakistan.

According to sources, the development of Farzad B gas field by Indian companies figured prominently in talks between the two sides on Saturday. Iran had some reservations and sought new terms of the deal.

President Rouhani’s first visit to India marks an important turnaround in Indo-Iran relations at a time when the Zionist regime is sucking up to New Delhi and some Western powers are trying hard to throw a spanner in their ties. Although the U.S. has said it would not come in the way of India-Iran trade matters, regional watchers believe the devil can never be trusted.

(First published in Tehran Times)

U.S. has “destroyed” Afghanistan, says former Afghan president

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Syed Zafar Mehdi

Addressing the Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi on Thursday, India’s flagship foreign policy conference held annually, the former Afghan President Hamid Karzai lashed out at the United States, claiming that it had “destroyed” Afghanistan.

Participating in ‘The Afghan Poser’ panel session, Karzai said he had invited the U.S. to Afghanistan to bring peace and stability and defeat extremism, but after coming to the country, they destroyed it.

Karzai, who served as the president of Afghanistan between 2001 and 2014, fell out of favor with the US after he rejected the controversial bilateral security agreement between Washington and Kabul in the run up to 2014 Afghan presidential elections. Since then, he has repeatedly and vigorously criticized Washington’s Afghanistan policy.

Slamming the U.S., Karzai said its Afghanistan policy has been a complete failure, which has given rise to dreaded militant groups like ISIS. “It is up to the United States and Pakistan to explain the rise of ISIS,” the former Afghan President said. He said the militant group which has gained strong foothold in parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan in recent years sprouted in full presence of the U.S. forces.

A few months ago, Karzai had accused the U.S. of aiding ISIS in Afghanistan. “How did ISIS emerge in Afghanistan under the watch of US intelligence and military officials,” he said in an interview on RT. “We have the right to ask these questions and the US government must answer.” He also spoke of how the U.S. bases in Afghanistan are “used” and how “unmarked, non-military coloured helicopters” supply ISIS in many parts of the country.

Commenting on terror sanctuaries in Pakistan and Trump administration’s latest diatribe against Islamabad, Karzai said the U.S. knew it all along and how terrorism was being “used as an instrument of state policy”, but little action was taken. “Now that the U.S. has admitted terror sanctuaries exist (in Pakistan), I hope they act,” he said, in a sardonic tone.

On the issue of growing religious extremism in the region, without mincing words Karzai called it the “product of US-Pakistan collaboration against Soviet Union”. It is pertinent to note that the militant groups like Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network were born from the U.S.-led war against Soviet Union in Afghanistan in 1980s.

Karzai said the West is more corrupt than countries in the South-West Asia region. “I don’t believe in western indices. They represent us as savages. We are a deeply cultured society,” adding that the word “mafia” had western roots. He also said that “others” (the West) get the money from opium production while Afghans get the bad name.

Speaking on the same panel, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov dismissed speculations about Russia’s links with the Taliban. “We are offering to create conditions for talks (with the Taliban), but there is no evidence of Russian assistance to the Taliban, he stressed.

On Asia being a new power hub, Morgulov said it is no longer a geographical entity but “a dynamic political and economic concept”.

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Seyed Kazem Sajjadpour also spoke at the conference and hailed Chabahar Port as an example of win-win cooperation, echoing what India’s Shipping Minister Nitin Gadkari said last week during his meeting with Iran’s Minister of Roads and Urban Development Abbas Akhoundi.

“Chabahar is a major example of success in connectivity between Iran, Afghanistan and India. There is no competition between these orders. It’s a win-win (situation) for all stakeholders”, he said. India has pledged to invest $500 million into the ambitious project in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province, besides an additional $16 billion investment in Chabahar free trade zone.

Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj in her address denounced the use of terrorism as state policy. She said that it is high time world wakes up to this “global menace”.

Indian Army Chief Gen. Bipin Rawat downplayed the border tension between India and China, saying the bonhomie between New Delhi and Beijing has returned to where it was prior to the Doklam incident. “I don’t visualize a very serious trouble,” he said.

Designed on the lines of Shangrila Dialogue in Singapore, more than 150 speakers and over 550 delegates from around 90 countries are participating in the Raisina Dialogue.

(First published in Tehran Times)

Netanyahu in India: Why India must not shake hands with him

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Syed Zafar Mehdi

On Sunday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose animated bear hug easily beats Trump’s awkward handshake, went against protocol to welcome his new friend Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the New Delhi airport. After a bear hug and handshakes, the six-day visit kicked off with both leaders extoling each other and reaffirming commitment to enhance bilateral ties.

Modi and Netanyahu, to quote a catchy phrase from a leftist newspaper, are “ideological soulmates”. While one epitomizes right-wing Jewish nationalism, the other represents right-wing Hindu nationalism. Under Modi government, India and Israel have strengthened bilateral defence and trade ties much to the chagrin of civil society and intelligentsia in India, which is fiercely pro-Palestine. The covert cooperation between the two countries has become more overt in recent years.

Modi became the first Indian premier to visit Israel in July last year and Netanyahu is the first Israeli premier to visit India in 15 years, since Ariel Sharon in 2003. Hailing India-Israel partnership as a “marriage made in heaven”, Netanyahu, who is accompanied by a strong 130-member delegation of Israeli diplomats and entrepreneurs, said his visit is a testimony that India-Israel relationship is “moving on so many fronts forward”.

Last month, India voted in favor of a resolution to reject the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, in line with New Delhi’s traditional position on Israel-Palestine conflict. The resolution, which came as an embarrassment to Washington and Tel Aviv, created some tension between India and Israel ahead of Netanyahu’s India visit. The annulment of a lucrative arms deal with Israel’s state-owned defence contractor last month had already raised a few eyebrows in Tel Aviv.

Speaking to mediapersons in New Delhi, Netanyahu admitted that Israel was “disappointed” with the UN vote but said his visit marks the “dawn of a new era” in India-Israel relations. The two countries seek enhanced cooperation in the areas of security, agriculture, technology, tourism. But, the major focus is on defence and security. India is one of the biggest importers of military equipment and Israel happens to be its biggest supplier, selling $billion worth arms every year.  It has been widely described as a “worrying trend” since India’s defence budget is big and imports are extremely high. For a country hailed as a ‘rising power’ and ‘economic powerhouse, it doesn’t augur well.

The deepening ties between Israel and India under the Modi government have become a cause of concern to many people in India, who fear it might put a spanner in India’s relations with countries in the Arab/Persian world. India has historically been a strong advocate of the Palestinian cause. Founders of modern India Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were vocal supporters of Palestine and they minced no words in condemning Israeli barbarism in Palestine. An editorial in a popular Indian leftist newspaper ‘People’s Democracy’ this week lashed out at Netanyahu and emphatically stated that the people of India have always stood in solidarity with the people of Palestine and against Israeli aggression.

So, even though the current political dispensation in New Delhi is cozying up to Israel, this “marriage” will most likely end up in an acrimonious divorce. The popular mood in India suggests that Israel cannot be a bankable, long-term partner for India which seeks a bigger role in regional and global politics. By embracing Israel, India will be antagonizing many important players in the region, including Iran.

To register their protest against Netanyahu’s India visit and India’s growing ties with Israel, people took to streets in many parts of India, including New Delhi, Kashmir, Lucknow and Hyderabad. Social media has also been abuzz with anti-Israel and anti-Netanyahu posts and hashtags. So, the writing is on the wall. India must look at the bigger picture, focus on long-term goals and shake hands with time-tested friends. Israel is not one of them.

First published in Tehran Times

After UN snub, Netanyahu trying to woo India

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Syed Zafar Mehdi

As the clamor for his resignation grows louder at home over large-scale corruption and hideous family scandals, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to board the flight for India, where his “friend” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was waiting to welcome him with a bear hug. The growing proximity between New Delhi and Tel Aviv in recent years, especially since the BJP government came to power in India, is intriguing considering India’s historical ties with Tehran and many Arab states.

Modi became the first sitting Indian premier to visit Israel in July last year and Netanyahu is the first Israeli premier to visit India in 15 years. This bonhomie between Modi and Netanyahu, whom a leftist newspaper in India described as “ideological twins”, has raised many eyebrows in India’s intelligentsia circles who consider it a departure from Nehruvian foreign policy principles.

Jawaharlal Nehru, considered the architect of modern India, was a strong proponent of anti-colonialism and non-violence. He believed that the foreign policy must be rooted in principles of solidarity with the oppressed and that is what informed India’s foreign policy for decades. So, in line with Nehruvian-era foreign policy principles, India has traditionally been an advocate of Palestinian cause. Even though New Delhi recognized the so-called ‘state’ of Israel in 1950, diplomatic ties between them were established only 42 years later – in 1992 – during the Narsimha Rao government.

Despite diplomatic ties, the successive governments in New Delhi have appeared reticent in embracing the Zionist regime openly owing to India’s historical ties with many Muslim countries and a sizeable domestic Muslim population. India’s strong cultural and commercial ties with Iran – the bête noire of Israel – is a case in point. Iran has traditionally enjoyed tremendous amount of goodwill, respect and support in India, particularly among the burgeoning Muslim community. The two countries  And New Delhi has been wary of antagonizing them.

For the political parties in India, it has also been a smart move to keep Muslims – who constitute country’s 15 percent population – in good humor. The issue of Palestine touches the emotional chord of Indian Muslims; hence it is directly linked with ‘vote-bank’ politics for these parties. That perhaps explains why New Delhi for all these years chose to keep its ties with Tel Aviv covert, for the fear of losing important allies in the Muslim world and upsetting Muslims at home.

Since Modi took office in 2014, much to the chagrin of Indian Muslims and to the astonishment of regional observers, the cooperation between India and Israel has become more overt and visible. In recent years, India has sought to de-hyphenate its policies toward Israel, which is today one of the major suppliers of arms to India, selling almost $1 billion worth military equipment each year. In April last year, they signed a lucrative $2 billion deal for surface-to-air missiles, launchers and communication technology. The overall trade between them is estimated to be around $4 billion annually.

Netanyahu’s India business

Despite the deepening commercial ties beyond their longstanding covert defence partnership, the build-up to Netanyahu’s visit to India was soured when New Delhi last month cancelled a $500 million deal to buy anti-tank guided missiles from Israel’s defense contractor Rafael. India’s Defence Ministry chose to offer the lucrative contract to a local company, leaving Tel Aviv fuming. It was followed by New Delhi’s vote at the UN against the U.S. move to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, which compounded the matters further.

Speaking to media in New Delhi, Netanyahu admitted that Israel was “disappointed” by India’s snub at the UN, but went on to describe India-Israel relationship as a “match made in heaven”. He said his visit to India will “strengthen cooperation in areas like technology and agriculture and other spheres that are changing the world.” Clearly, he sounded like a jilted lover complaining about the heartbreak and desperately trying to woo back the beloved. And Modi responded with his famously infamous bear hug.

During his six-day visit, Netanyahu, who was accompanied by 130-member entourage, repeatedly spoke about the “dawn of a new era” in India-Israel ties. At least nine MoUs were signed in the areas of gas and oil, renewable energy, aviation, industrial research and development, cyber-security, reciprocal investments, supplementary medicine, space research and joint movie productions. The business honchos accompanying Netanyahu, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported, included senior executives of an Israeli drone maker under criminal investigation by the police’s international crimes division. That is something no media outlet in India highlighted.

In their wide-ranging talks, Modi and Netanyahu explored possibilities of enhancing cooperation in various fields, while vowing to strengthen their defence partnership. Looking back, Israel and India had a difficult defence relationship until 1992. After the collapse of Soviet Union, India looked for an alternative source of arms and Israel raised its hand. Since then, many agreements have been signed between them rather clandestinely.

The fact that Israel is one of the top arms suppliers to India is a difficult pill to swallow for many in India. While the country aspires to be an economic superpower and a military giant, it has the dubious distinction of being the world’s top defense importer. The growing defence partnership with Israel also raises concerns of arms race in the region that could possibly lead to tensions with neighboring nuclear-armed countries like Pakistan and China.

India’s relations with Pakistan continue to be marked by acrimony and relations with China continue to fluctuate from good to bad. The deepening defence cooperation between New Delhi and Tel Aviv, strategic affairs analysts warn, might force countries like China and Pakistan or even Japan to have similar arms deals, which could have dangerous ramifications for peace and security in the region.

Shadow of US/Israel on Iran-India relations

Iran and India have had long, time-tested historical, commercial and cultural ties, often bracketed under “civilizational relationship.” New Delhi has been a major importer of Iranian crude oil, even at the height of draconian Western sanctions on Iran. Since last year, the crude exports to India have increased significantly and now Iran happens to be its third largest supplier. In 2015, the trade volume was estimated to be $16 billion dollar, and during Modi’s visit to Tehran in May 2016, New Delhi and Tehran reaffirmed their commitment to renew business ties and inked many deals.

India’s geographical closeness to Iran makes it an important customer for oil and gas reserves. And as energy experts have forecasted, India will become the world’s second-largest consumer of hydrocarbons in next three decades and then Iran’s oil and gas reserves will be extremely important to India.

Even though India’s investment in Iran’s Farzad B offshore gas field, which contains up to 12.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, has hit a roadblock, the operationalization of Chabahar Port in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province has taken India-Iran relations to another level.  India has pledged to pump $500 million into the project, besides an additional $16 billion investment in Chabahar free trade zone. In May 2016, when the deal to develop the port was signed, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said it was not only an economic document but also a political and regional one, emphasizing the importance of enhancing ties with India and other regional players.

The U.S., which has considered Iran an adversary since the 1979 Islamic revolution and which has developed close ties with India since the 2005 Indo-US civilian nuclear deal, has tried hard to put a spanner in relations between Tehran and New Delhi, but it has proved counterproductive. Observers believe the growing proximity between Israel and India should not pose any threat to India’s relations with Iran since the popular mood in India is strongly in favor of India’s friendship with Iran and fiercely against India’s relationship with Israel. Ultimately, in a democracy, people hold the mandate.

What Netanyahu calls a “match made in heaven” is actually a “marriage of inconvenience” that is most likely to end in a rancorous divorce. India’s relations with Tehran and some Arab countries have stood the test of time and the overwhelming sentiment in India favors close ties with them. The writing on the wall is that the warm handshake with Tel Aviv can have good short-term results but in the long-term would prove counterproductive to India’s long-term strategic goals and interests.

Mass murderer not welcome

When a country’s foreign policy disregards popular public sentiment, it cannot produce the desired results. Thousands of people who poured into the streets this week in different cities of India made a resounding statement that a ‘mass murderer’ cannot be welcomed in the land of ‘the messiah of non-violence’. Protestors in New Delhi, Kashmir, Kargil, Lucknow, Hyderabad, Kolkatta and Mumbai burnt effigies with pictures of Netanyahu and raised slogans against the Zionist regime’s horrendous atrocities in the occupied territories of Palestine.

The leaders and workers of CPI and CPIM, leftist parties in India, also took to streets to condemn Netanyahu’s visit to India. An editorial published in ‘People’s Democracy’, a newspaper owned by the party, launched a scathing attack on both Modi and Netanyahu. “One represents right-wing ultra-Jewish nationalism while the other is an advocate of right-wing Hindutva nationalism,” it said, echoing the popular sentiment in India.

Senior CPI leader D. Raja said they don’t approve the policies of the Israel regime. “Unless we resolve the Palestinian question there cannot be peace and security in West Asia. It is better to address the Palestinian question in a proper historic perspective,” he added.

On Wednesday, quite ironically, Modi escorted Netanyahu to his home province Gujarat where more than a thousand Muslims were killed in one of the worst anti-Muslim pogroms in 2002. Modi was the province’s chief minister that time and he is yet to apologize for the massacre. That perhaps explains why the leftist newspaper called them “ideological twins”.

Writing on the wall

Modi government, which has faced blistering criticism over the cases of mob lynching and cow vigilantism in different parts of India in recent months, is under attack now – at home and abroad – for hosting a man who presides over the genocide of Palestinians. The growing partnership between India and Israel, the popular opinion suggests, subverts India’s traditional position on Palestine at a time when the global consensus is building against the Jewish regime, especially after the UN vote.

India, which aspires to be a global economic giant and permanent member of the UN Security Council, should not be playing into the hands of Western powers and subscribing to their foreign policies. The growing defence partnership with Israel also goes against the principles of India’s founding fathers and makes arms race in the region inevitable. The resounding cry on the streets makes it clear that India’s deepening defence ties with the Zionist state is not in India’s interest and not in the region’s interest.

Netanyahu, implicated in a number of corruption cases in Israel, is feeling increasingly isolated at home. And after the embarrassment at the UN, he feels more frustrated. The timing of his visit to India, just after the UN vote, assumes importance because India is an important player in the region where Israel has few friends. By trying to court India, he wants to stage a comeback of sorts. But, the people in India and people in this region have already announced their verdict: Zionists cannot be anyone’s friend.

(First published in Press TV web)

How Islam empowers women

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Syed Zafar Mehdi

The western discourse has consistently argued that the women in Islam are oppressed, subjugated and degraded. Muslim women, the vociferous feminists in the West contend, have no ‘voice’ and need to be ‘liberated’.

Hijab has drawn tremendous amount of attention and backlash, often seen as a ‘symbol of oppression’ and perceived as a threat in countries like France where the government has banned it in public spaces.

Western mainstream media has played a key role in perpetuating these fallacies and stereotypes of Muslim women. On the contrary, what the veiled women have to say about hijab is totally different from the critique of feminists in the West.

The concept of women’s rights and women’s emancipation in Islam has a fairly long history. Before the advent of Islam in Arabia, referred to as the ‘age of ignorance’, young girls were buried alive and women were degraded and used as objects of lust. Islam liberated them and empowered them. Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) enforced justice, making it obligatory for men to respect the rights of women. Women were freed from slavery of men and given the ownership of their life and property.

Prophet Mohammad’s (pbuh) first wife Hazrat Khadija (sa), who was the first person to accept Islam and divine revelations that culminated into the Holy Qur’an, was also a successful and independent businesswoman. She inherited her father’s business empire which she expanded by trading goods from Mecca to Syria to Yemen.

Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) enforced justice, making it obligatory for men to respect the rights of women. Women were freed from slavery of men and given the ownership of their life and property

Holy Prophet’s daughter, Fatima (sa) was another exemplary woman in the history of Islam.

As Dr. Ali Shariati notes in Fatima is Fatima, Holy Prophet (pbuh) was the inheritor of Abraham, Noah, Moses and Jesus, while Fatima (sa) was his only heir. “In a society that felt the birth of a daughter to be a disgrace which only burying alive could purify, where the best son-in-law a father could hope was called ‘the grave’, Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) knew what fate had done to him. Fatima knew who she was. This is why history looked in amazement at the way Holy Prophet (pbuh) behaved towards his young daughter, Fatima (sa), at the way he spoke with her and at the way he praised her.”

Then we have an example of another woman in the history who shook the foundation of an evil empire with her extraordinary resistance and resilience. When Yazid ibn Muawiya asked “who is this arrogant woman?” The woman rose to answer: “Why are you asking them? Ask me. I will tell you who I am. I am Muhammad’s granddaughter. I am Fatima’s daughter.”

There was stunned silence in the court of Yazid. Zainab’s (sa) delivered a historic sermon. “O Yazid, You can never reach the level of our lofty position, nor can you destroy our remembrances, nor can you wipe out the ignominy you have earned for yourself by your abominable and vile actions. Your decisions are poor and your days are numbered. Your party will disperse the day when the Announcer will announce – Allah’s curse be on tyrants and transgressors.”

There are many examples of women in Islam who changed the course of history through their actions, something you don’t see in any other religion. As Annie Besant writes in The Life and Teachings of Mohammad (1932), it is a slander to suggest that the women in Islam are subjugated and denied freedom. “It is only in the last twenty years that Christian England has recognized the right of woman to property, while Islam has allowed this right from all times.”

In modern times, we have seen Muslim women play an instrumental role in peace building processes in places like Sierra Leone, Philippines, Afghanistan, El Salvador, Nigeria, Lebanon etc

Contrary to the popular perception, Islam does not promote gender disparity. “And whoever does righteous deeds, whether male or female, while being a believer – those will enter Paradise and will not be wronged, [even as much as] the speck on a date seed” (Quran 4:124). A man, in Islam, has the responsibility to safeguard and strengthen the family, provide food, shelter and other basic needs. In terms of rights, both women and men share the same pedestal which is clearly illustrated by this verse: “And for women are rights over men, similar to those of men over women.” (Quran 2:228)

In modern times, we have seen Muslim women play an instrumental role in peace building processes in places like Sierra Leone, Philippines, Afghanistan, El Salvador, Nigeria, Lebanon etc. For example, in Afghanistan, many progressive steps have been taken towards women’s inclusion in the peace process with Taliban, especially since the landmark UN resolution 1325 (2000) that enables women’s intervention at all stages of peace building, peacemaking, peacekeeping and conflict prevention.

From Pakistani teenage activist Malala Yousufzai, Muslim American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, Yemeni journalist and Noble Peace Prize winner Tawakkul Karman, Malaysian feminist Zainah Anwar, Afghanistan’s first female prosecutor general Maria Bashir, to Kashmiri activist and APDP chairperson Parveena Ahangar, there are numerous stories of extraordinary courage, conviction and resilience.

In Kashmir, which is the modern world’s longest and most militarized occupation, women have been at the forefront, demanding justice for the crimes committed against them. They are not passive, voiceless victims but the agents of change. Many accomplished women writers, poets, artists, teachers and scientists have emerged in Kashmir in recent years, making their presence felt, in and outside their homeland.

Of course, not everything is hunky-dory. There are still numerous challenges on multiple fronts and lot of work is still required to empower women and make them equal partners. In Kashmir, where has traditionally been a patriarchial society, things are changing for good, which is evident from the way girls are outshining boys in academics and competitive

And it’s important to remember what the great Khan Abdul Ghaffar said once: “If you wish to know how civilized a culture is, look at the way they treat their women.”

(First published in The Witness)

Islamic unity key to defeat takfirism and sectarianism


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Syed Zafar Mehdi

For Muslims, the staggering fall from grace can largely be attributed to fragmentation in their ranks, exacerbated by the scourge of sectarianism fanned by divisive forces. The condition of Muslims today, in both the realms of spiritual and temporal, is appallingly poor.

Having ruled the world for eight to nine centuries, bringing people out of barbarism into civilization, abolishing idolatry and advocating monotheism, Muslims have gradually and worryingly slipped into an abyss of despondency and darkness. While the Holy Quran promises that the “honor, power and glory belongs to God and to His apostle and to the believers” (Surah Munafiqun), it also cautions that the “Almighty does not change the condition of a people until they change it themselves” (Surah Ar-Ra’ad).

How can we leap forward as a divided house, with so many warring groups baying for each other’s blood. How can we progress without clutching hands and pulling in the same direction as emphasized in the Holy Quran in unequivocal and unambiguous terms. “And hold firmly to the rope of Allah all together and do not become divided” (Surah Aali Imran).

Even hardnosed European evangelists admit that the modern world was built on the scientific breakthroughs made by Muslim scholars at a time when the Europeans were struggling and stumbling. So what led to the decline and degeneration of Muslim Ummah?

In the words of Scott Gilmore, a social entrepreneur and writer, the easiest response is to say Muslims did this to themselves. “From the jungles of Sulawesi to the deserts of Libya, Muslims are killing Muslims at a rate that dwarfs the more highly publicized conflict with the West,” he says.

How can we progress without clutching hands and pulling in the same direction as emphasized in the Holy Quran in unequivocal terms. “And hold firmly to the rope of Allah all together and do not become divided” (Surah Aali Imran)

At a time when the contemptible project of sectarianism and takfirism is being promoted by unscrupulous elements to create fissures in the Muslim Ummah, it has become essential for every conscientious Muslim to uphold the banner of unity and be the vocal advocate of truth and justice.

The enemies of Islam succeed not because they have superior ideas or moral high ground but because we are fragmented and vulnerable. Unless Muslims close ranks, bury the hatchet and develop mutual-understanding, they will continue to be afflicted with misery and despair.

Holy Quran reminds us: “Muhammad is Allah’s Apostle and those who are (truly) with him are firm and unyielding towards disbelievers, (yet) full of mercy towards one another (Surah Fatah).” This beautiful element of ‘mercy towards one another’ is what actually defines the essence of Muslim unity and brotherhood.

Takfirism – the phenomenon of declaring ‘others’ as heretics – has gained traction across the world today, engulfing many Muslim societies. It is a grand project spearheaded by forces that fear Muslim unity, because if Muslims band together the enemy wouldn’t have the temerity to bombard Muslim countries and exploit their rich resources.

What makes matters worse is the fact that some of us are willfully playing into the hands of enemies. Zionists, aided by the Western imperialist powers, have occupied Palestine because some Arab countries don’t wish to antagonize their friends in Tel Aviv. For them, petty political interests overshadow the larger interests of Muslim Ummah.

Takfirism is a grand project spearheaded by forces that fear Muslim unity, because if Muslims band together the enemy wouldn’t have the temerity to bombard Muslim countries and exploit their rich resources

Today, Muslims are being mercilessly killed in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan because our Arab-Muslim leadership is apparently sleeping with the enemy, aiding and abetting the genocide of Muslims. When innocent civilians are killed in Brussels or Berlin, whole world erupts in anger and fury; but when there is a massacre in Kabul, Quetta or Baghdad, only few odd voices speak out.

That is because they are united and we are divided. This divide-and-conquer strategy works well for our enemies.  The need of the hour is unity and rapprochement, and what better time to shun antagonism and embrace the spirit of camaraderie than the birth anniversary of our beloved Prophet (pbuh).

In mid-1980s, Ayatollah Rohullah Khomeini, the architect of the Islamic revolution in Iran, proposed an idea of ‘hafta e wahdat’ (week of unity and solidarity) in the month of Rabiul Awwal so that Muslims, cutting across sects, can come together to honor the memory of their Prophet (pbuh), who championed the cause of Islamic unity and tolerance all his life. “The origin of this question concerning Shia and Sunni, the one on one side and the other on the other side, is caused by ignorance and by the propaganda spread by enemies,” said Ayatollah Khomeini.

In 1990, a year after Ayatollah Khomeini’s death, The World Forum for Proximity of Islamic Schools of Thought was set up by his successor Ayatollah Syed Ali Khamenei, which organizes the International Islamic Unity Conference in Tehran every year to mark the birth anniversary of the Holy Prophet (pbuh). Last year, the theme of the conference was ‘The Muslim World’s Current Crises’ and more than 600 Muslim scholars from 70 countries were in attendance. In the final statement, the participants agreed that the crisis facing Muslim world today is due to disintegration of Islamic world and lack of trust amongst Islamic states. “This has led to division which has paved the way for penetration of enemies into Islamic communities in a bid to fuel clashes between Muslims,” it said.

In contemporary times, Ayatollah Khamenei and Ayatollah Sistani have played an instrumental role in forging Muslim unity and countering the vicious campaign to divide Muslims

Looking back, many Islamic luminaries made indefatigable efforts to bridge the chasm between Shias and Sunnis. Sheikh Mahmoud Shaltut, a legendary Islamic scholar who served as the grand Imam of Al-Azhar between 1958 and 1963, issued a famous fatwa (religious edict) in 1959 pertaining to the faith and beliefs of Shias, which continues to be a symbol of hope for those who advocate unity and proximity between the two schools of thought.

Ayatollah Syed Hussain Borojerdi, who was a leading Shia religious authority in 1950s, also worked untiringly to foster unity among Muslims and established close contact with Dar ul-Taqrib Center in Egypt. Other Islamic scholars who deserve a mention include Muslim Brotherhood founder Sheikh Hassan al-Banna, Egyptian scholar Sheikh Muhammad al-Ghazali, Iranian scholar Allameh Seyed Mohammad Hossein Tabatabaei, Iraqi cleric Ayatollah Syed Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr and Pakistani scholar Dr. Allama Mohammad Iqbal, Afghan ideologue Syed Jamaluddin Asadabadi to name to few.

In contemporary times, Ayatollah Khamenei and Ayatollah Sistani have played an instrumental role in forging Muslim unity and countering the vicious campaign to divide Muslims.

The efforts of Hassan al-Banna deserve a special mention. Abd al-Mutaal al-Jabri, a student of Hassan al-Banna, in his book Limatha Yuqitla Hasan (Why Hasan al-Banna was Assassinated), writes about the historic meeting between Hassan al-Banna and Ayatollah Kashani in Mecca in 1948, shortly before the former was assassinated. “If the life of this man (al-Banna) had been longer, it would have been possible to gain many benefits for this land, especially in the agreement between him and Ayatullah Kashani to uproot the discord between Sunnis and Shi’ites. They met each other in Hijaz in 1948. It appears that they conferred with each other and reached a basic understanding but Hasan al-Banna was quickly assassinated,” he writes.

That is what has happened throughout history. Those who have championed the cause of Islamic unity and brotherhood have paid the ultimate price, but the idea has lived on.

There is clearly more that unites us than what divides us. In his book Al-Muslimun Man Hum (The Muslims – Who are they?), author Samih Atif Zayn says the most important basis of differences lies in understanding the Holy Book, and both Sunnis and Shias have never disagreed on Holy Quran. “We must eradicate the sectarian spirit, full of hatred, and bar the road of those who spread rumors and quarrels in religion, until Muslims return to how they were before: one society, cooperative and friendly, rather than divided, separated and hating each other,” he writes, stressing the importance of brotherhood as mentioned in the Holy Quran: “Verily, this brotherhood of yours is a single brotherhood, and I am your Lord and Cherisher” (Surah Al-Anbiya).

So, it is binding on all the believers of Islam to collectively strive towards a common goal, lest they go astray. “Indeed, those who have divided their religion and become sects – you, (O Muhammad), are not (associated) with them in anything. Their affair is only (left) to Allah; He will inform them about what they used to do” (Surah Al-Anam).

The warning is clear for those who stoke the flames of sectarianism or aid the efforts in dividing Muslims into sects. And the warning is also for those who don’t advocate unity, amity, tolerance and brotherhood.

(First published in The Witness magazine)

Deconstructing Iran’s traditional position on Kashmir

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Syed Zafar Mehdi

In his Eid ul Fitr message earlier this year, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Syed Ali Khamenei, who is known to weigh his words carefully, spoke of the “many wounds inflicted on the body of Muslim world” and urged the Ummah to “express its disdain for the oppressors”. Interestingly, he singled out Bahrain, Yemen and Kashmir, and said the Muslim world should “openly support” people in these countries.

The statement was, much to the chagrin of mandarins in New Delhi, welcomed in Kashmir. The octogenarian resistance leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani hailed the statement as “timely and pragmatic’, while his Hurriyat counterpart Mirwaiz Umar Farooq expressed his gratitude to Iran for supporting the “just freedom struggle” of the people of Kashmir.

The succinctly-worded statement generated a palpable buzz on social networking sites, where young and thoughtful netizens weighed its pros and cons.

What truly defines the new internet-savvy Kashmiri generation is its political awareness and activism, able to distinguish between a faithful friend and a flattering foe, between a trusted ally and a scheming adversary.

Was Tehran trying to send a stern message to New Delhi which has lately been sucking up to Donald Trump and Bibi Netanyahu or was Ayatollah Khamenei merely reiterating and reaffirming what his predecessor Ayatollah Khomeini said quite unequivocally decades ago? Why did he club Kashmir with Bahrain and Yemen and why didn’t he also mention Palestine, Afghanistan, Syria, Myanmar and Pakistan? Who are the “oppressors” he was referring to and what did he mean by “open support”? Should the statement be seen as an open endorsement of Kashmiris’ right to self-determination or does it primarily address the issue of humanitarian crisis in Kashmir?

Barely a week after Eid ul Fitr, Ayatollah Khamenei mentioned Kashmir again, this time while addressing an important meeting of top judiciary officials in Tehran. Reaffirming his country’s support to Kashmir, he asked his country’s judiciary to support the “oppressed figures and people of the world, like Sheikh Zakzaky (of Nigeria), and the Muslims in Myanmar and Kashmir”.

Was Tehran trying to send a stern message to New Delhi which has lately been sucking up to Donald Trump and Bibi Netanyahu or was Ayatollah Khamenei merely reiterating and reaffirming what his predecessor Ayatollah Khomeini said quite unequivocally decades ago?

Iran’s supreme leader generally speaks with clarity and precision. He does not beat around the bush neither does he make polemical arguments to reap paltry political dividends. So it is essential to deconstruct his statements and put them into context.

A former Indian diplomat, writing in Quint, said Ayatollah Khamenei mentioned Kashmir to warn India against cozying up to the U.S. or hostile neighbors in the Middle East. A very simplistic way of reading the statement. There is no denying that the growing proximity between India and Israel would not be viewed favorably in Tehran but to suggest that it provoked Iran’s supreme leader to issue a statement on Kashmir would be too naïve.

Ayatollah Khamenei has often issued statements of support and solidarity with the people of Kashmir and he mentions the “just struggle” of Palestinians and Kashmiris in every Friday sermon. His plain-speaking has many a times put a spanner in Indo-Iran relations.

For instance, in November 2010, on the occasion of Eid ul Zuha, he made a passionate appeal to the Muslim community to support the “struggle” in Kashmir and put it in the same category as Afghanistan and Palestine. New Delhi took strong exception to his statement, which had come barely three months after Iran’s foreign ministry denounced the military crackdown on peaceful protests in Kashmir, and summoned the Iranian envoy to lodge a formal protest.

India subsequently voted against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), almost five years after it had reported Iran to the UN Security Council for alleged violations of its NPT obligations. Ironically, Iran is a signatory of NPT while India has refused to sign the treaty.

Mentioning something twice in two weeks, in two important speeches, with great emphasis, is significant. So, does it denote a shift in Iran’s traditional position on Kashmir, as some analysts wondered? Iran’s official position on Kashmir, clearly spelt out by Ayatollah Khomeini, has been consistent since the Iranian revolution of 1979.

Ayatollah Khomeini, the architect of the Iranian revolution, who traces his roots to Kashmir, once made it categorically clear to a visiting Indian delegation that the ties between the two countries would not improve until the bloodletting in Kashmir continued. His successor has followed the same line on Kashmir, which is reflected by his statements and Friday sermons.

Mentioning something twice in two weeks, in two important speeches, with great emphasis, is significant. So, does it denote a shift in Iran’s traditional position on Kashmir, as some analysts wondered?

Before these statements, Iran’s supreme leader had on several occasions raised the issue of Kashmir. In May 1990, Ayatollah Khamenei said Kashmir cause is about “truth and justice” and those who silence them “have an unjust cause”. In September 1994, he said the “issue of Kashmir is the issue of humanity” since people of the region are “subjected to oppression and tyranny”. In April 2001, he called for the political settlement of Kashmir as per the wishes of the people.

More recently, he brought up Kashmir in a conversation with Slovenian president Borut Pahor in November 2016, basically referring to West’s interest in “keeping wounds open”.  “The Americans do not have a plan for uprooting Daesh (ISIS). Like the English who have kept the wound of Kashmir open since the era of colonialism in the Indian subcontinent,” he said. I don’t think any leader in the Arab world has championed the cause of Kashmir as vigorously as he has.

Like his mentor Ayatollah Khomeini, Ayatollah Khamenei has deep love and affection for the people of Kashmir. He had visited Kashmir valley in 1980, soon after the Islamic revolution in Iran, and delivered a historic lecture at Srinagar’s Jamia Masjid, in which he emphasized the importance of Muslim unity and brotherhood. He also joined congregational prayers led by late Mirwaiz Mohammad Farooq. His official website has a detailed account by late Qalbi Hussain Rizvi of his visit to Srinagar.

Yes, there have been moments when Kashmiris felt betrayed by Iran. A story that is often recounted goes back to March 1994 when Iran under Hashemi Rafsanjani backed out of the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) resolution on Kashmir at UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, which could have led to economic sanctions on India.

Recently, when Rafsanjani passed away and we looked at his political legacy, I had this deep urge to know why he killed that important resolution on Kashmir in 1994. I spoke to some senior journalists and political observers in Iran and they made interesting revelations, which essentially suggested that then Indian PM Narasimha Rao had assured Rafsanjani that human rights abuses in Kashmir would be stopped immediately and a referendum would be held in accordance with the wishes of Kashmiris, if Iran withdrew from the resolution. Rafsanjani had been conned without him knowing it.

Ayatollah Khamenei’s latest statements on Kashmir are a reminder that Iran will never abandon Kashmir, a journalist friend in Tehran told me recently. It should not be seen as a knee-jerk reaction but reassertion of Iran’s stated position on Kashmir.

The timing of the statements, soon after Modi’s honeymoon with Trump and before his rendezvous with Netanyahu, is likely to get people thinking. Modi is the first Indian head of state to visit Israel since the partition of British India. Netanyahu termed his visit as “historic” and said India-Israel ties are on a “constant upswing”.

But, the Iran’s supreme leader’s Eid statement on Kashmir should not be linked to growing India-Israel relations. Iran’s stated position on Kashmir is clear and time-tested.

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 

Karbala 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. 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 her brother.

“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”.

She protected the ailing son of her brother when the tents were set ablaze by the soldiers of Yazid. She consoled little children like Roqayya and Sukaina when everything that belonged to them was forcibly snatched away. Zainab was crestfallen with grief but she stood firm because the mandate given to her was heavy and she knew her responsibilities well.

Zainab wrote and recited marsiyas (poetic elegies) that jolted people out of their slumber and eventually led to the decline and fall of Yazidi empire. Today, nobody remembers Yazid, Ibn Ziyad, Umar Saad or Shimr. And everyone remembers Hussain  Abulfazl Abbas, Ali Akbar, Qasim, Asghar. Zainab is the savior of Karbala, who redefined patience and resilience.

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, like the women in Kashmir, women in Yemen, women in Palestine, women in Syria, women in Afghanistan. They are the flagbearers of Zainab (sa) who have kept alive her legacy of resistance and resilience.

اسلام على قلب زینب الصبور و لسانها الشکور

Philosophy and essence of Muharram commemorations


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)