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)

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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)

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 

Philosophy and essence of Muharram commemorations

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Syed Zafar Mehdi 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(First published in Greater Kashmir)

Setting the ground for Imam’s reappearance

Syed Zafar Mehdi

Imam Asr

The idea of a messiah or savior or redeemer is common to all religious schools of thought, including Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity. In the Islamic context, the concept of messianism, which is the belief in a messiah, revolves around an eschatological figure who is expected to rise and fill the earth will peace, justice and social order.

Holy Quran and Prophetic traditions have in unequivocal terms predicted the glorious triumph of the forces of right and the establishment of an Islamic society built on the foundations of justice and righteousness. The wait and anticipation for that bright tomorrow continues. As Imam Sajjad (as) says, “The greatest success is to wait for the reappearance (of Imam)”. (Al Ihtejaj vol.2 Pg.154. Kamaaluddin vol.1 Pg.320)

Awaiting is primarily the result of two main conditions: not satisfied with the status quo and expecting things to change for good. But, merely being disgruntled with the status quo is not sufficient. A person has to step out of his comfort zone and prepare the ground for visible and productive change to happen. In more precise terms, he has to participate in the process of change.

In the words of British historian Eric Hosbawm, the concept of messianism, which we call Mahdism, can be broadly divided into two categories: passive and active. In the passive Mahdism, people immerse themselves in prayers and hope for the savior’s early reappearance. In the active or revolutionary Mahdism, people run the gauntlet and participate in the process of change.

In today’s era – with the moral bankruptcy, endemic corruption, grinding poverty, and scourge of illiteracy, ignorance, misrule and barbarism reaching the climax – what should a waiter wait for? What are the responsibilities of a person waiting for the change to happen?

The forces of imperialism have become menacingly stronger than ever. Human rights abuses have become frighteningly rampant. Weak and voiceless continue to be oppressed and subjugated by mighty and powerful

There is a clear instruction in Holy Quran for believers waiting for the change. “And say to those who do not believe that you act as much as you can. We are also trying. You all wait and surely we all are waiting.” (Quran 11:121-122).

But, what does this wait entail and what are the believers waiting for. The narration attributed to the Holy Prophet (pbuh) makes it amply clear. “The world will not perish until a man among the Arabs appears whose name matches my name.”  (Sahih al-Tirmidhi, V9, P74)

We are witnessing social, political and cultural upheaval across the world today. Morals and ethics have degraded alarmingly. Grinding poverty has resulted in the poor quality of life. Illiteracy and educational backwardness has sent us back to dark ages. The forces of imperialism have become menacingly stronger than ever. Human rights abuses have become frighteningly rampant. Weak and voiceless continue to be oppressed and subjugated by mighty and powerful.

In such a scenario, when the darkness of despair prevails everywhere, there is an elixir of hope. The hope lies in the divine intervention. The hope is the divinely guided leader, the Mehdi (ajtf), who is expected to come out of the occultation and establish a system based on the divinely ordained laws. It will be an ultimate victory of truth, justice and righteousness. “Mehdi (ajtf) is no longer an idea waiting to be materialized nor a prophecy that needs to be substantiated,” Shaheed Baqir as Sadr writes in An Inquiry Concerning Al Mahdi, “he is a living reality, a particular person, living among us in flesh and blood, who shares our hopes, suffering and sorrows is waiting for the appropriate moment to stretch his hand to every oppressed and needy person and eliminate the tyrants.”

Allah (swt) says in Holy Quran, “O’ Muhammad (pbuh), you are but a warner, and for every community, there exists a guide.” (Quran 13:7). There will always be a divinely gifted guide for people in every age and every time. For us, the people of this age, it is the Mehdi (ajtf).

Looking at the state of affairs today, the discourse around the reappearance of Imam Mehdi (as) and the responsibility of setting the ground for his reappearance has assumed huge significance. With the world sinking into the abyss of darkness and people across the world grappling with myriad self-inflicted woes, the responsibility on our shoulders has increased. Imam’s occultation, however, does not mean he has abandoned us or that we must despair about the present state of affairs. Imam Ali (as) said: “Await for the reappearance (of Imam) and do not despair of the divine mercy. Because the best deed in the eyes of Allah, the great and the mighty, is to wait for the reappearance (of Imam). It is the duty of those who are believers.” (Al Khisaal, vol2, Pg616).

The hope is the divinely guided leader, the Mehdi (ajtf), who is expected to come out of the occultation and establish a system based on the divinely ordained laws. It will be an ultimate victory of truth, justice and righteousness

What are our responsibilities as believers to prepare the ground for Imam’s reappearance? A tradition attributed to Imam Hasan Askari (as) exhorts people to remain vigilant and participate in the process of educational change. “Be aware, if somebody teaches ignorant, guides a misguided, instills the teachings of Ahlulbayt (as), then on the day of Qiyamat (judgment day), he will be with us. We will give him a seat next to us wherever we may be.” Hence, it is amply clear that during this period of Imam’s occultation, among the biggest responsibilities on our shoulders is to bring about educational reformation in our society.

Such educational reformers enjoy supreme position in the eyes of Allah (swt). Imam Ali Naqi (as) extols the virtues of these reformers. “Had there not been such scholars in the period of occultation who call people towards the Ahlulbayt (as), guide towards them, defend their religion with the proofs of Allah, protect weak Muslims from the devilish designs, deception of the tyrants and tentacles of the enemies of Islam, then surely all would have deviated from the religion of Allah.” (Mahajjatul-Baizaa, Vol. 1, Pg. 32)

It’s important to enjoin others to pursue good deeds (amr bil maaruf) and advocate against sinful practices (nahi anil munkar). Spreading awareness about the sinister plots and conspiracies being hatched by the enemies of Islam is another big responsibility. We must promote and propagate the divine message of Islam and develop scientific temper in our youth through education and reformation.

The practice of writing ariza must be encouraged so that the youngsters become more aware of their duties and responsibilities. We must strive to expose the corrupt rulers and extend helping hand towards poor and needy in our society. We must constantly try to polish our morals and ethics to be able to join Imam’s army.  Above all, we must raise our voice – individually and collectively – against corruption, injustice, terrorism, crime, immorality and other such menaces.

What is important is the right strategy and approach to pave the ground for educational awakening and social reformation. Grooming children from the elementary level, making them understand the purpose of existence and their responsibilities, explaining how Islam is not just a religion but a complete way of life, stressing on the need to analyze with a free mind, the need to inquire and argue fearlessly, the need to debate and discuss passionately, and the need to exchange ideas generously. The approach has to be thoughtful, progressive and result-oriented. It must ensure the gains of education are properly utilized to bring up children who are educated, informed, aware and enlightened.

Considering that we are impatiently waiting for someone who is a righteous and virtuous messiah, it’s important that we familiarize ourselves with the ideals of deliverance and act on them in letter and spirit. To prepare the ground for his reappearance, we have to develop a reformist spirit in ourselves and others so that the society undergoes change. To protect society from social infirmities, ethical degeneration, cultural disorder, misrule and anarchy, it’s important to educate ourselves and others around us. If we remain trapped in the vortex of ignorance; social anomalies, cultural dilemmas, and orthodox beliefs will continue to hinder our personal growth and that of the society.

As Allah (swt) says in Holy Quran, You are the best nation brought forth for mankind. You enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and believe in Allah” (Quran 3:110). The seeds of the promised rule of Mehdi (as) shall soon sprout and our agonizing wait shall end.

Days of Zionists numbered

 

By Syed Zafar Mehdi

Quds Day means standing in solidarity with our brethren in Palestine, and at the same time standing up for our own rights and raising a banner of revolt against the oppressors and occupiers of our land.”

Observed every year on the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan, International Quds Day has become a permanent fixture on the annual calendar.

For all the campaigners of truth and justice, the day has an extraordinary historical significance, lessons for the present and prophecies for the future. Al-Quds is Arabic for Jerusalem. The day was first observed in Iran in 1979, soon after the Islamic Revolution, as an affirmation of the Ummah’s solidarity with people of Palestine in their struggle for the liberation of Jerusalem.

Since then, Quds Day is observed across the world every year in this holy month to express solidarity and support for Palestine and to condemn and protest Israel’s forceful control over Jerusalem. Ramadan is the month of struggle (jehad e akbar). It is the month that granted Muslims a historic victory in the battle of Badr. It is the month in which Mecca was rid of idol worshipers (mushrikeen). So it seems appropriate that a day of this blessed month is dedicated to the struggle for liberation of Palestine and Al-Quds.

The idea of solidarity rallies on Quds Day was implemented and given shape by Ayatollah Khomeini, who made passionate appeals to Muslims across the world to stand up and speak out for their brethren in Palestine. It is also a day to remember and extend solidarity to people in other occupied territories, subjugated and crushed by strong military powers. “The Quds Day is a universal day. It is not an exclusive day for Quds (Jerusalem). It is a day for the oppressed and the supporters of oppressed to rise and stand up against the arrogant oppressors,” Ayatollah Khomeini said.

In Iran, millions of people march on the streets on this day to protest against Israeli occupation and aggression in East Jerusalem. In August 1979, in solidarity with the people of Palestine, Ayatollah Khomeini declared the liberation of Jerusalem ‘a religious duty of all Muslims’. “I invite Muslims all over the globe to observe the last Friday of Ramadan as Al-Quds Day, and to pledge support and solidarity to the people of Palestine and their legitimate rights. I ask all the Muslims of the world and the Muslim governments to join hands and sever the hand of this usurper and its supporters,” said Ayatollah Khomeini.

During the first Palestinian Intifada in January 1988, the Jerusalem Committee of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) declared that Quds Day be commemorated publicly throughout the Arab world. Their official endorsement of Quds Day was significant as some Arab countries that have strategic ties with Israel found themselves in catch 22 situation. They had to pledge their support to Palestine and at the same time not antagonize the Israelis.

Over the years, Quds Day has become an international public event. Massive rallies are taken out in Britain, Canada, Sweden, Russia, India, Pakistan, United States etc. Events are also held in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza Strip. Organisations like Hamas and the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine have publicly endorsed Quds Day ceremonies in Palestine.

Last year, on Quds Day, millions of Iranians participated in the rallies, waving Palestinian flags and chanting slogans like ‘Death to Israel and America’, ‘Israel Your Days Are Numbered’, ‘Zionism must go’ and ‘From River to the Sea Palestine Will be Free’. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called Israel an ‘insult to humanity’ and said the ‘Zionist black stain’ will soon be washed off. “The Zionist regime and Zionists are a cancerous tumour. Even if one cell is left in one inch of (Palestinian) land, in the future this story (of Israel’s existence) will repeat,” warned the Iranian president, who is soon to be replaced by new President Hassan Rohani.

In Lebanon, where Quds Day is observed on a grand scale every year, Hezbollah Seyyed Hassan Nasrallah in a televised speech on this day last year warned that only a few rockets by Hezbollah could result in massive casualties in Israel. “Rockets are ready and directed at these targets. We will not hesitate to use them, if we have to, at any point in time… Hezbollah cannot destroy Israel but we can transform the lives of millions of Zionists in occupied Palestine into a real hell. We can change the face of Israel,” said Nasrallah.

In Britain, on Quds Day, people march through the streets of London and assemble outside the American embassy. Anti-Zionist Jews and Christians also take active part and speak in these rallies. “We hope and pray for the end of Zionism. It is a curse, it is a cancer,” said Yakov Wsisz, a Jew, at one such rally last year. He was seconded by Stephen Sizer, a senior pastor of the Anglican Christ Church in Surrey. “No country and no people on earth recognize Israeli’s sovereignty over Jerusalem.” In Canada, Quds rally takes place every year at Queen’s Park, participated by people from all spheres of life. In Australia, hundreds of people gather in Hyde Park to observe Quds Day every year.

To start with, there has to be a complete and unconditional withdrawal from all Israeli occupied territories including Jerusalem, acknowledging and facilitating the return of the Palestinians who were forced to leave their land after 1948 Nakba, compensation for the damage of land and property, and ban on the building of new settlements and immediate evacuation of all existing settlements. These excavations, which are also in direct violation of The Hague and Geneva Conventions, threaten Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock and violate the sanctity of the holy Islamic sites.

Hence, it is the duty of all Muslims, and people of conscience, to raise their voice against this naked aggression. Quds Day means standing in solidarity with our brethren in Palestine, and at the same time standing up for our own rights and raising a banner of revolt against the oppressors and occupiers of our land.

Mazloom father’s mazloom daughter

 

Syed Zafar Mehdi

Whenever talk veers to Karbala, we are reminded of the tales of unflinching loyalty, unrivaled steadfastness and the exalted sacrifices. We are reminded of the sweltering heat, blazing desert and the intense thirst. We are reminded of the shifting sand dunes smeared with blood. We are reminded of the helpless father carrying his infant son to the battlefield. We are reminded of the brave young warrior crashing on the ground. We are reminded of the 13 year old orphan, whose small frame was reduced to pieces. We are reminded of the prostrate figure lying lifeless on the banks of Euphrates. We are reminded of two tender souls fighting like veteran combatants. We are reminded of the grief-stricken lady who saw her kith and kin being mowed down in cold blood. We are reminded of the ailing man wedged in heavy iron chains. We are reminded of a little girl clutching onto her dry water bag, crying and wailing inconsolably.

Bibi Sakeena(sa) was barely four year old when the caravan set out for Karbala from Madinah. She was the heartthrob of family. Imam Hussain(as) was often heard saying, “A house without Sakeena (sa) would not be worth living in”. The beloved daughter of Imam e Mazloom(as) witnessed the gory events at Karbala unfold before her eyes. She is one of the eyewitness reporters of Karbala and its aftermath. Let us listen to one piece of the story from her:

“I was in my tent when the enemies attacked it. They were so cruelly looking for whatever they could plunder, until one of them noticed the necklace that I was wearing. He attacked me, trying to grab it from my neck. I was escaping from him until he pulled off my scarf. I fell down unconscious and all I remember was that I awoke in the bosom of my aunt (Zainab).”

The tender soul watched in absolute horror as every male member of her family left for battlefield, never to come back. She watched in utter helplessness and dismay as Yazid’s large battalion of hoodlums pillaged the tents and ripped the earrings out of her ears. Her ears bled profusely and tears yelled from her eyes. She was not used to sleeping alone, but now there was no one left to tell her fairy tales and put her to sleep. She wandered around in the darkness of night to look for her father. Husain was lying lifeless in the pools of blood. Sakeena managed to find him, she hugged him tightly and slept. Zainab was worried for her brother’s beloved daughter. She came out to look for Sakeena, and found her asleep over the corpse of her father.

Bibi Sakeena (sa) shared a close bond with her uncle (Ammu) – Alamdar e Karbala Jenab Abbas (as). Abbas could not see the tears in Sakeena’s eyes. He could not see her in pain. But, Abbas was no more, and now, Sakeena’s feeble shoulders had to bear the brunt of heavy metal chains. She had sent her uncle to Euphrates to fetch some water for the inconsolable and thirsty children in tents. Abbas could not keep his promise, for the first and last time. Sakeena cried loudly. Her shrieks were deafening. She did not crave for water. She just wanted her uncle back.

Bibi Sakeena(sa) suffered from terrible fatigue and thirst on the forced march to Damascus, and later from cold and starvation in Yazid’s dark dungeon. She cried silently and inconsolably. But, the suffering and thirst of other children in caravan made her forget her own misery. She consoled her mother when the corpse of Ali Asghar(as) – her 6-month old brother – was brought back to tent, even as she struggled to hold back her own tears. On seeing any lady or child weeping, she would innocently put her little arms around them and pacify them.

Bibi Sakeena(sa) forgot to smile after Karbala. Kufa saw her as a little girl lost in thoughts. Quite often she would sit up at night and stare curiously at dark sky. “I just heard a baby cry? Is that Asghar? He must be calling out for me!,” she would often say and break into tears. But, she knew her weeping and wailing would upset her mother, so she would cry silently and quickly wipe away her tears. In the Damascus prison, she would stare at the flock of birds flying to their nests at sunset and innocently ask Bibi Zainab(s.a.), “Will Sakeena ever be going home like those free birds flying to their nests?”

Bibi, your tale of helplessness, patience and chivalry will continue to inspire us forever. May Allah bless everyone with a daughter like you. Aameen!

Ala La’anatul Laahi Alal Qoum e Zaalimeen!!!