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)


ISIS declares war on Hazara Shias of Afghanistan


ED hazara killings in Afg ii.jpg

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)